That Donald Trump has gotten this far was almost unthinkable, until it happened. When Trump’s candidacy ends – probably, blessedly, with his defeat – Americans will begin a period of national self-reflection unlike anything we have ever seen. How did we come so close to electing the kind of man Americans thought only rose to power in other lands? Decent Republicans will put their party in the dock. Many already have. Decent journalists will do the same with their craft. American Jews should too.
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American Jews will vote against Trump overwhelmingly. Individual Jewish organizations – Bend the Arc and the Anti-Defamation League are two particularly praiseworthy examples – have denounced him. Individual Jewish conservatives – William Kristol, Dan Senor, David Brooks, David Frum, Jonah Goldberg, Max Boot, Bret Stephens, Jennifer Rubin and others – have repudiated him. But as an organized community – represented by a network of organized groups –American Jews have failed. Our community has not mobilized against Trump in the way it mobilizes when it truly cares about something. It has not treated his candidacy like it really matters.
When individuals decide something really matters, they break with convention in order to respond. People leave their homes in the middle of the night to board airplanes to far off cities – cost be damned – when they hear their parents are near death. Observant Jews violate Shabbat to save a life. It’s the same with communities. In the run-up to the Six-Day War, synagogue boards voted to mortgage their buildings so they could send Israel the money. In 2002, during the depths of the second intifada, American Jewish groups organized a 100,000 person pro-Israel rally in less than a week. To fight the Iran deal, AIPAC head Howard Kohr told his employees to cancel their summer vacations.
What would an urgent, bold, unconventional Jewish response to Trump look like? Like the actions of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. Mormons are the most staunchly Republican religious group in the United States.
The Deseret News, which the Mormon Church owns, has not endorsed a presidential candidate since 1936. Yet last weekend, the paper called on Trump to drop out. It called his conduct “evil.” Virtually every national Mormon office holder – almost all Republicans – has now said they will oppose Trump.
Contrast that with the behavior of AIPAC, the most powerful organization in American Jewish life. Publicly, AIPAC has treated Trump like he’s Mitt Romney or Michael Dukakis – just another presidential nominee. AIPAC invited Trump to speak at its annual policy conference. And when he delivered the same canned “pro-Israel” lines as other nominees, its activists cheered the same way they always do. Other than that, AIPAC has said nothing. It said nothing when Trump proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States. It said nothing when Trump demanded that a judge recuse himself because he was of Mexican descent. It said nothing when Trump threatened to sic the IRS on Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in retaliation for the Post’s critical coverage. It said nothing when Trump urged his supporters to assault protesters. Go to AIPAC’s website, or the website of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations or of the Jewish Federations of North America, and you’ll barely even find Trump’s name.
For all this, AIPAC has an answer: Traditionally, it doesn’t take positions on American domestic affairs. It deals only with American policy toward Israel. But the Deseret News had a tradition of not meddling in presidential elections. It broke it to oppose an ignorant, bigoted demagogue whose election would threaten American liberal democracy. If AIPAC’s leaders really cared about the danger Trump poses, they would alter their tradition too.
Think about it this way. Would AIPAC hand its podium to a nominee who wouldn’t admit Jews into the United States? Would it remain silent about his candidacy, even if he mouthed the right talking points about Israel? Of course not. AIPAC’s board would meet in emergency session and declare that the organization was breaking from tradition in response to this unique threat to American Jews. The reason AIPAC won’t do that with Trump is that he doesn’t represent a unique threat to American Jews in particular. He represents a unique threat to America. And for AIPAC, it’s not worth breaking tradition over that.
Israel matters. It matters enormously. But when this election ends, American Jews must ask how we built an organized community whose most powerful institutions mobilize when Israel faces a crisis but not when America does. Then we must begin changing those institutions. So they fulfill their obligation to the country in which we live.