The two largest Jewish communities in the West found themselves responding to a far-right racist surge this week. The first, on Sunday night, were the Jews of France, faced with the resounding success of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the first round of regional elections, in which the party received the largest number of votes and came first in half the country's regions.
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A day later, it was the turn of American Jews, shocked - like the majority of their fellow Americans - by a speech by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in which he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
In cases like these, silence is not an option. Le Pen has tried, with some success, to “detoxify” the National Front’s image from the proto-fascist party her anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying father, Jean Marie Le Pen, founded. However, the suspicion continues to linger. The front's change of focus to France’s Muslim minority may have taken the heat off the Jews, but it has kept the party in its xenophobic corner. Trump himself has no history of anti-Semitism, he even has a daughter who converted to Judaism, but his racist proposal can’t be left without a response. Jews have too much historical memory of the price of not protesting such ideas.
And the responses were swift in coming. The morning after the election in France, French Jewry’s representative body, the CRIF, put out a press release calling on all French voters to “block the National Front” in the second round of voting next week, describing it as “a xenophobic and populist party” and exhorting France to “not let the Republic give way in the face of threats.” Le Pen hit back, calling CRIF a “tool of the establishment” in a radio interview. The French Jewish leadership did not back down. Chief Rabbi Chaim Korsia joined in, calling upon the French to keep “national cohesion” and vote against “obscurantists” and “proponents of exclusion.”
Twenty-four hours later, across the Atlantic, Jewish organizations were just as quick in denouncing Trump. The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying that his proposal “singles out Muslims” and is “deeply offensive and runs contrary to our nation’s deepest values.” Other groups, like the American Jewish Committee and Reform Judaism, joined in the condemnation.
But there was a contrast between the Jewish response in France and in the U.S.. While French Jewry’s denunciation was sweeping, coming from the organization and rabbi representing the community’s mainstream, the response in America was largely from groups identified with the more liberal and left-of-center sector of the community.
Even more significantly, while the French condemnation totally disqualified the NF and called for a vote for anyone-but-Le Pen, the American-Jewish criticism was over a single statement by Trump, not a censure of the vicious incitement of minorities that has characterized his entire campaign, let alone a call on Republicans not to vote for him in the upcoming primaries.
There are of course good reasons for this less-than-emphatic criticism by American Jews. Theirs is a much larger community, at least 10 times the size of France’s, with no recognized leadership like the CRIF and no official chief rabbi. A unified response is extremely difficult to achieve, if not impossible. Besides, outright disqualification of a candidate could perhaps put their tax-exemption for fundraising in jeopardy.
The Jewish condemnation doesn’t mean that American Jewish organizations should cease engaging with Trump, which, sadly, is unlikely to be the case. Only last week, Trump appeared, along with other candidates, at an event organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition. It is probably too much to expect that he will not be invited to other, similar functions in the future. Had any Western European politician made similar statements, an invitation from any mainstream (as opposed to far-right, fringe) Jewish organization would be out of the question.
The response of American Jews to Trump could also have an effect on his reception in Israel, if and when he embarks on the visit to Jerusalem which has become de rigueur for aspiring presidential candidates. As a matter of policy, Israeli officials do not meet with racist and radical politicians who are shunned by their local Jewish communities. In countries where far-right or far-left parties have tried to approach Israeli diplomats for meetings, the latter usually follow the lead of the Jews, at least where it’s clear, and refuse to engage.
The same applies, in most cases, when representatives of these parties visit Israel. They will meet ministers only if they are not regarded as being beyond the pale in their own countries. So far, the dilemma has concerned European politicians only; could Trump be the first prominent American to be considered out of bounds?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has developed a protocol for receiving candidates during the election season. It includes a uniform photo-op and is supposed to neutralize shows of favoritism, while building ties with potential presidents-in-the-making. Will Trump get the Bibi-treatment, should he arrive in Jerusalem? In the absence of a firmer response from American Jews, the answer is probably yes.
Over the last year, American Jews have voiced concern for the survival of French Jewry, in the wake of terror attacks in Paris and the fear of Islamist extremism. Judging from the different responses of the two communities to racism this week, perhaps the Americans should be more concerned about their own lack of self-confidence and learn something from the Jews of France?