Cast your mind back two or three decades. If, like me, you were born in the early 1970s, it’s not so hard to remember a not too distant time when people of color were routinely spoken of, and to, in terms that are today seen as unambiguously racist. When gay people were regarded as mentally disturbed and in no way fit for senior positions in government. Blatant sexism towards women was still totally the norm and casual anti-Semitism had not yet disappeared from public life. You don’t have to be old enough to remember pre-civil rights-era America or to have lived through the Second World War to realize we have been living the last 70 years in a period of unparalleled progress in liberalism and tolerance. It’s been such a prolonged period that we have long been taking it for granted and assumed it would never come to an end.
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All that may have changed on Tuesday night with Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.
It’s of course impossible to infer a total reversal from Trump’s election; after all, a slight majority of the popular vote actually went for Hillary Clinton, and not every man or woman who voted for Trump necessarily repudiates all these values. We can read too much into his election, just as too much was assumed eight years ago on the election of the first African-American president.
But it sure feels that way. If the pendulum is indeed swinging away from liberalism, this is what it looks like. And while it is always too easy to make lazy comparisons between countries, it is impossible not to connect this to a wider global trend, which includes the Brexit referendum five months ago, followed by an acute rise of xenophobia in Britain and fascistic tabloid headlines such as “Enemies of the People” above the pictures of Supreme Court judges who dared rule that Parliament is the body that must have the final say over Britain leaving the European Union.
Following the election of Donald Trump in the United States and with the growing assumption that even if the National Front’s Marine Le Pen fails to win the French presidential election next year, the next president of France will be someone forced to tack towards the far-right to beat her. Five out of the six largest Jewish communities in the world are now in countries which are rapidly becoming less liberal – the U.S., Israel, France, Britain and Russia. Only Canada with the nice Mr. Trudeau seems, for now, to be bucking the trend.
Most of the Jews are now living in less liberal times than they were only a short while ago. It is a reversal of what seemed an inexorable trend of progress over the last seven decades. This is a generational shift, a global backlash against an entire set of values and assumptions. And while it has mainly been other minority groups who are already suffering or will be first on the receiving end of a new wave of bigotry that has already been unleashed, it is unthinkable that it won’t impact in some way on the Jews as well.
Columnist Peter Beinart wrote in Haaretz on Wednesday that following Trump’s victory he feels less American and more Jewish, but the obvious response to that would be: Who defines what it is to feel Jewish?
Exit polls and surveys show that a quarter of American Jews voted for Trump. Assuming there are around 7 million Jews in the United States, around three-quarters of them of voting age, and that their turnout was higher than average, that means over a million Jews voted for the candidate supported by neo-Nazis.
Among those million Jews who voted for Trump are many religious, Orthodox and Haredi Americans for whom being Jewish is the most important part of their identity. For a large number of them, probably the majority, these liberal values are the antithesis of Jewishness.
A couple of years ago, a Chabad rabbi who lived most of his life in the U.S. and is now a shaliach in Russia lectured me on why Putin’s regime was better for Jews than liberal democracy. Growing up in Los Angeles, he argued, people could call him a “dirty Jew” and nothing would happen to them. In Russia, he said, when he complained about a local resident publishing an anti-Semitic pamphlet, the authorities intervened and the writer was prosecuted. How perfect – a society where homosexuals are persecuted, where feminism, secularism and liberalism are frowned upon, and the man sitting at the top of the pyramid, in this case President Vladimir Putin, is apparently philosemitic.
So what if Putin’s propaganda channel Russia Today is the natural breeding ground for Holocaust-deniers and conspiracy theorists blaming 9/11 on Mossad? It’s okay as long as he personally loves Jews and has a good relationship with the Israeli leadership. The very same argument is being employed on behalf of Trump.
How can you be worried about a man who has a Jewish daughter and grandchildren? So what if his last campaign ad channeled the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and is endorsed by the Klan? What’s important is that he’s surrounded by Jewish lawyers and is more right-wing on Israel than Naftali Bennett.
And besides, say Jewish supporters of Trump, you actually think Hillary Clinton, who served under a president who was hostile towards Israel and endorsed by Black Live Matters, a movement whose platform basically denies the Jewish state’s right to exist, is any better?
Many Jews simply cannot see what could be wrong with a Trump presidency. Not just right-wingers in Israel who believe that they now have license for a massive new settlement drive in the West Bank. The leader, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Interior Minister Arye Dery, said yesterday at a gathering in Ashdod that “there is no doubt we should give thanks to God that all the detractors of the covenant and imitators of Judaism who sought to take control of the Land of Israel and implement all the reforms to destroy have received their blow.” Or, in other words, those interfering Reform and Conservative Jews have been taught a divine lesson by Trump’s victory. And neither is it just the Orthodox establishment that feels vindicated.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, actually said on Wednesday that the Anti-Defamation League should hold an “examination” of how it criticized anti-Semitic undertones in the Trump campaign and reported overt anti-Semitism from many of Trump’s supporters. In other words, Trump-supporting Jews are blaming the main U.S. Jewish organization monitoring racism and bigotry for standing up to anti-Semitism.
Some British Jews are just as bad. In London, Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies, is insisting, despite widespread criticism, that he did the right thing in sending an unreserved and warm message of congratulation to Trump on his victory. This is the same Arkush who a few months ago was part of a delegation of Jewish “leaders” who visited Putin in Moscow to show their fealty to the new czar.
CRIF, the leadership body of French Jews, has so far valiantly withstood pressure to engage with Le Pen’s National Front, but how long can they hold out against the trend? Unlike so many of their American, British and Israeli brothers, the leaders of French Jewry are aware that we cannot take the safety and prosperity of the last few decades for granted and that racist politicians, even those who claim they have nothing against Jews and support Israel to the hilt, will always ultimately be dangerous for the Jews, as they are for every other minority.
I have no problem believing that Trump and Putin and other xenophobes are philosemites, but that is worth little in an environment of hatred and persecution. Not only do we have an obligation, going back to the biblical commandment to remember our slavery in Egypt, to stand up for other oppressed groups, but we also have a historical commitment to remember that Jews never prospered for long in illiberal times and societies. The Cossacks may not yet be on their way to set the shtetl alight; right now the anti-Semitism is still prevalent only online and on the margins of society where few Jews live anyway. But we have a much more pressing mission right now to explain to other Jews that when racist leaders come to power, the Cossacks are never far behind.
Jerusalem and Babylon and its author are going on book-writing leave. See you again some time in 2017.