Opinion |

Trump Era Heralds Final Collapse of American Jewish Center

Crushed between rising extremes, the establishment's wish to stay liberal but support Netanyahu is no longer sustainable.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Demonstrators protest against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in front of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., November 12, 2016.
Demonstrators protest against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in front of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., November 12, 2016.Credit: Kena Betancur, AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

To understand what American Jewish politics will look like in the age of Donald Trump, look closely at what happened at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel on the evening of Sunday, November 20. Inside the hotel, the Zionist Organization of America held its annual gala. Never heard of the ZOA? You’re not alone. For decades, it has been overshadowed by its larger and more moderate “Pro-Israel” rival, AIPAC. But in the Trump era, ZOA’s influence is set to grow for three reasons.

First, it draws heavily from the Orthodox community, a community that because of its demographic growth and lack of assimilation will likely supply the bulk of “Pro-Israel” activists in the years to come. Second, it does not pretend to support the two state solution, which puts it in line with Israel’s prime minister and America’s president-elect. Third, it’s comfortable with Trump’s takeover of the GOP. Other mainstream American Jewish organizations – The Anti-Defamation League, and the leaders of the Conservative and Reform Movements, for instance – have expressed alarm about the GOP’s increasingly naked embrace of anti-Muslim bigotry. They’ve denounced Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration. They’ve condemned his appointment of Steve Bannon, whose former website, Breitbart, published headlines like “Man Bites Dog: Muslim is Nice to Non-Muslim” The ZOA, by contrast, has no problem with anti-Muslim bigotry; it peddles such bigotry itself. Among the speakers invited to address the ZOA’s November gala was Bannon himself.

Read more: Trump's pick for education secretary is pitting American Jews against each other | As Modern Orthodoxy declines, a Jewish Trump-voting religious right is ascendant | I love America, which is why I’m so worried about Trump

Bannon didn’t come. But the expectation that he would brought a very different set of Jewish organizations onto the streets outside the Grand Hyatt in protest. These organizations – which included If Not Now, T’ruah, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and Jewish Voice for Peace – have also resided on the margins of organized American Jewish life. If the ZOA has been too far to the right, they’ve been too far left.

But in the age of Trump, these progressive groups are set to grow too. First, because they can militantly oppose Trump. Some establishment Jewish groups have criticized his policies and appointments, but their need to appear bipartisan and work with whomever is in power limits their public opposition. Leftist groups like If Not Now and T’ruah, by contrast, need not muffle their outrage. Organizing under the hashtag #JewishResistance, they’re well positioned to attract some of the Jews frightened and repulsed by Trump’s victory.

The second reason they’ll likely grow is that their Israel agenda matches their American agenda. Centrist American Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee have a split personality. Domestically, they champion human rights and anti-discrimination. But when it comes to Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they ditch these values in the name of security. Some older American Jewish liberals are comfortable with this moral schizophrenia. But American Jewish millennials overwhelmingly reject it. The right leaning, disproportionately Orthodox millennials who support Israel’s occupation generally support illiberal policies at home too. The progressive Jewish millennials who want to resist Trump generally want to resist Netanyahu too.

Trump is accelerating a trend that’s been underway for decades: The collapse of the American Jewish center. Religiously, the Conservative movement embodied that center. Today it’s withering. The growth is on the religious extremes: among the Orthodox and among those secular Jews who don’t affiliate with any denomination. Politically, the American Jewish center was embodied by moderate Democrats like Charles Schumer and Ben Cardin: domestic liberals who theoretically supported the two state solution but opposed any pressure on the Israeli government. That center is dying too. What’s rising is ZOA-style Jewish Republicans who don’t support two states even in theory and Bernie Sanders-style Jewish progressives who oppose Trump and Netanyahu alike.

The losers in all this will be organizations like AIPAC that can neither support Trump nor actively oppose him and which can neither celebrate permanent Israeli control over the West Bank nor try to stop it. The losers will be those American Jews who feel comfortable on neither side of the barricades outside the Grand Hyatt. Trump, who has done so much to weaken the American political establishment, will weaken the American Jewish establishment too.

In both America and Israel, nationalism is eroding liberal democracy in horrifying ways. In the years to come, some American Jews will cheer that erosion; others will resist it. Those who do neither will gradually consign themselves to irrelevance.

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