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Are Jews Avoiding anti-Trump Activism Out of Fear, or Moral Failure?

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Why, even now, are only a minority of U.S. Jews actively resisting Trump? U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House Rose Garden, Washington, D.C., U.S. Nov. 21, 2017
Why, even now, are only a minority of U.S. Jews actively resisting Trump? U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House Rose Garden, Washington, D.C., U.S. Nov. 21, 2017.Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Stosh Cotler
Stosh Cotler

Last month, I attended a direct action training hosted by Auburn Theological Seminary and Puente Arizona. The organizers described a high-risk action they choreographed that successfully interrupted President Trump’s deportation machinery.

Activists approached deportation bus convoys carrying immigrants as they stopped at a light, several literally placing their heads under the front and back wheels of each bus as others approached the front of the bus holding a sign letting the drivers know that if they moved the bus, innocent people would die. These individuals risked their lives to get justice for America’s undocumented communities.

I wept. I wondered why most members of my own American Jewish community, by comparison, would not be willing to take anything like that risk to stand up to our nation’s most egregious injustices of our lifetimes, when others were risking everything.

People march across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the planned dissolution of DACA in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. September 5, 2017.Credit: STEPHEN YANG/REUTERS

I live in a daily state of cognitive dissonance, rage and shame that the community I love, with which I share Jewish tradition and common history, has not found the moral courage to act powerfully, and be a visible partner, in opposition to the real threat Donald Trump presents to our democracy and collective safety.

Since the start of the presidential campaign, for two years, Bend the Arc has been organizing under the banner of "We’ve Seen This Before." We saw how Trump scapegoats immigrants, demonizes religious minorities, discredits the free press and incites mob and state violence. We recognized early on, in Trump and Trumpism, the signs of a dangerous, authoritarian leader and his enablers, who by threatening some of us, threaten us all.

We as Jews have seen it before, we swore never to allow it to recur. But yet, right now, only a minority of us are actively resisting. 

To those who have been active and visible and vocal: I see you, honor you and I am with you. You sustain me.

But to those who have not showed up, whom I also love: What’s holding you back?

Maybe you’re not sure where to start? Or what to do? Perhaps it’s a denial of the threat to your American Dream? Have the centuries of our collective trauma broken our spirit, are we now convinced that by putting our heads down, this menace will pass us by?

Or are there other, more corrupting reasons? Is it possible that Jewish leaders are unwilling to risk their proximity to power and its accompanying privileges? Is it possible that we’re willing to trade the safety and comfort of some members of our community at the expense of so many others who live under daily threat?

Anti-Semitism’s specific patterns remind us Jews won’t ever be safe or free unless we link ourselves to the freedom and safety of all scapegoated and endangered communities. Pragmatically and ethically, prioritizing our ‘pseudo-security’ over doing the right thing is both shortsighted and morally bankrupt.

I know firsthand that some Jewish communal institutions are choosing not to act out of the concern about losing donors. But ethical imperative aside, that calculation is also wrong. By ‘winning’ this battle, you’ve lost the war. Young Jews see you and are repelled by your parochialism. You’ve just sold out the Jewish future you claim to care so much about.

Jewish leaders’ fear of donors is disabling their defense of Jewish values against Trump: Sheldon Adelson on Feb. 24, 2017 in Las VegasCredit: John Locher/AP

Legacy organizations, many of which originated as "defense organizations," have to ask themselves who they are defending by looking away. You’re certainly not making Jews any safer, nor are you protecting others who are in the administration’s crosshairs.

Those Jewish organizations dedicated to being "neutral" or "apolitical" need to heed the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a leading Jewish figure in the Civil Rights movement, who said, "bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."

I’m not suggesting you become partisan or engage in electoral work, but know: your very mission is political and your inaction is political - whether you choose to use that language or not.

If you are a JCC member, federation donor, recipient of Jewish social services, or a Hebrew day school parent: you too have an important role to play. By speaking up, you can influence the direction of these institutions. Many will be relieved to hear you; some may have been waiting for your agitation to provide them the cover they need to take action. There’s no shortage of ways for all Jews and all Jewish organizations to play a role in safeguarding our democracy.

Many Jews are scared; I am too. But that can’t prevent us from finding our collective courage to act. Working collectively and cooperatively, we can give each other the strength to engage in brave communal conversations, advocacy, protest and even civil disobedience to fight back against the ever-looming dangers the Trump agenda presents.

Protest against Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, and other white supremacists. Columbia University, New York. October 10, 2017Credit: \ EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS

I look back to two summers ago, when the Vision for Black Lives Platform came out, and how much of the Jewish community was very vocal and political in voicing their opposition. I saw how forceful our community can be when we choose to stand up. 

How could our collective outcry have been louder reacting to the most significant black-led vision of my generation (however perfect or imperfect you judge it to be), than our current opposition to a threat unlike any other we have known?

The actions we take over the next few years will have a disproportionate impact on how we come to know ourselves as American Jews and how we are known by non-Jewish communities. We have been looking backwards at a picture of Heschel marching with King for far too long.

If we are serious about being a people of justice who lay claim to a liberation story of escaping slavery as a symbolic liberation for all people, then we have no other option than to act now. History will remember us by the choice we make today.

Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action. Twitter: @JewishAction

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