If there is award for most cowardly Jewish organization of 2016, the Republican Jewish Coalition has to be the front-runner.
To be clear: There were many, many Jewish conservatives who took a strong stand against Donald Trump and the wave of anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and all-around authoritarianism he ushered in. These included many members of the RJC. But as an institution, the RJC took the most craven route possible. In an election that began with Trump telling conservative Jews, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” and ended with the now-president-elect functionally rebooting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the RJC could barely muster a peep. It didn’t disown Trump, but it didn’t have the guts to openly endorse him either. Instead, it maintained a studious silence on their party’s nominee while working furiously to pump up Hillary Clinton’s negatives and ease Trump into the White House.
And now that Trump has emerged the shocking victor, they’ve suddenly found their voice — having the chutzpah to slam the Anti-Defamation League for actually showing the guts they lacked by calling Trump and his movement out on their anti-Semitic and bigoted rhetoric. They even hinted that Trump should launch an investigation into the ADL and threaten its non-profit status. Instead of protecting their fellow Jews from authoritarian predation, the RJC is endorsing it. This is unforgivable.
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In short, the RJC is spineless. At least the Zionist Organization of America has had the courage to openly endorse Trump's favored anti-Semite, Steve Bannon, even demanding that his Jewish critics apologize to the notorious white nationalist bomb-thrower (the RJC returned to pusillanimous form with a limp claim to have "never met or spoken to" Bannon). But by suckling anti-Semites, both groups have forfeited their place in Jewish communal conversations. When you represent a faction of the community smaller in proportional size than Hillary Clinton’s support in Idaho, you have to earn your place at the table; the RJC, like ZOA, has made a decision about who it wishes to align with and now should have to live with its herem.
The ADL, by contrast, showed bravery — and it will need more of it as a Trump presidency looms. It’s not just because Trump threatens to allow unprecedented governmental access to alt-righters, racists, and white supremacists. It’s because Trump’s victory will force the institutional Jewish community to deal with a very uncomfortable thought we’ve avoided for too long:
We’ve gone soft on right-wing anti-Semitism.
This may seem outlandish: Surely, the Jewish community has never stopped condemning neo-Nazis. And that’s true — we’ve been as vigilant as ever against off-the-grid militias, lone wolf terrorists and fringe hatemongers. But when one takes just a few steps closer to the mainstream — to people holding elected office, publishing widely-read news outlets or occupying prominent spaces in our political culture — there, many Jewish organizations have too long maintained their own studious silence.
There is a marked contrast how rhetoric about anti-Semitism has manifested in conversations about American liberals versus American conservatives.
Take the chatter about anti-Semitism in the context of the Iran Deal. There were some important comments to be had, there were also contributions that could charitably described as hysterical (amidst a crowded field, Lee Smith arguing that the scheduled release of Jonathan Pollard was an attempt by Obama to highlight the dual-loyalty of Jews managed to stand out for outrageous conspiratorial lunacy). It was an awkward conversation where many important Jewish institutions found themselves at odds with important and prominent Democratic elected officials. But — no matter what your views were on the Iran Deal — it was a conversation that had to be had, and both sides did it with remarkably little flinching. And once it was over, there were no serious threats of recrimination (again, paranoid histrionics notwithstanding). It is precisely because the Democratic Party has shown a willingness to listen to Jews that we’ve felt comfortable challenging them when we perceive our interests or equal standing to be under threat.
By contrast, Jewish groups have a tendency to blink whenever they’re faced with instances of right-wing anti-Semitism. The ADL tried, for example, to call out Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for outrageously comparing rising national debt to the Holocaust. Rather than apologize, Huckabee doubled down, demanding that the ADL apologize for insulting him and warning darkly that “Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have.” The ADL caved completely.
This is of a kind. Last year (writing on “pro-Israel” disputes, not anti-Semitism specifically), I noted the sharp disjuncture in how the Jewish community reacts to problematic left versus right behavior. The left is met “with the full sound and fury for every toe out of line,” while the right “must engage in the most flamboyant provocation to elicit even a murmur of discontent.” The left is “policed to the letter,” while the right is “treated with kid gloves.” The reason — I implied then and will state explicitly now — is fear of right-wing anti-Semitism. “[I]t stems from a belief that conservatives, but not liberals, will turn on [us] entirely if they are not constantly treated with obsequious fawning.”
Unlike the mainstream Democratic Party, where Jews are deeply enmeshed and so can have difficult conversations without blowing up the entire relationship, the connection between Jews and the American right has been — at best — tenuous, contingent and precarious. And so we’ve become accustomed to letting mainstream right-wing anti-Semitism slide, satisfied with the rote recitation “I am a great supporter of Israel” (surely, the right-wing variant on the leftist’s “I have always opposed all forms of bigotry”). We’ve allowed ourselves to pretend that our fear of antagonizing these “allies” is a sign of the strength of our relationship, rather than its weakness. Put simply, in a just world ZOA would get the same treatment on the ADL's website as does Jewish Voice for Peace: two fringe organizations — each with an alarming history of pandering to bigots — both seeking to place a Jewish patina on the politics of Jewish marginalization.
There have absolutely been important conversations about rising anti-Semitism on the left. I'm proud to have played a role in them and have no intention of dropping the issue—not the least because the politics of Jewish erasure risks freezing us out of emerging coalitions of solidarity against Trump’s tide. I am confident that a broad range of Jewish organizations — including Ameinu’s Third Narrative program, of which I’m a member — will continue that important work.
But we’re seeing anti-Semitism mainstreamed in a way it’s never been before, and it is emerging out of the American and global right. Groups like the ADL — which depend on institutional connections and political access as their lifeblood — showed immense bravery in standing up to the soon-to-be president when others wouldn’t. They’ll need more courage still as bigotry and hatred penetrate the mainstream, forcing them to confront brokers of power who — unlike the Obama administration or the Democratic establishment — have not demonstrated themselves willing to listen to Jewish challenges without recrimination or reprisal. And it will take yet more bravery to finally cut loose those Jewish organizations who prioritize extreme political ideologies over basic principles of Jewish — and human — equality.
This will be a fight the likes of which Jews in America have not experienced in my lifetime. The ADL cannot back down now. It is our obligation, as Jews, to have their backs and to be brave right alongside them.
David Schraub is a Lecturer in Law and Senior Research Fellow at the California Constitution Center, University of California-Berkeley Law School. He blogs regularly at The Debate Link. Follow him on Twitter: @schraubd