A quick survey of headlines related to Rosh Hashanah in Jewish media outlets around the world brings with it a sense of déjà vu: Just like last year, COVID-19 is dominating the conversation, hovering as a threat over every family meal and community gathering. But it would be very wrong to conclude from this sad reality that the passing Jewish year wasn’t one of big changes – especially in Israel, in the American Jewish community, and in the relationship between the two.
When American Jews welcomed the year that is now about to end, America was in the midst of a dangerous election. Donald Trump was trying to secure himself another term in office, and was willing to burn down the White House if the voters decided to deny it to him. In the first presidential debate against his rival and the eventual winner, Joe Biden, the moderators offered Trump an easy opportunity to distance himself from violent, far-right and antisemitic supporters. He instead told them to “stand back and stand by.”
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Trump lost the election, but refused to acknowledge the outcome, and ran a scorched earth campaign for two months in an effort to overturn the results. It was ridiculous and no sane person thought it could succeed, but it paved the way for a deadly terror attack on the U.S. Congress, led by the same crowd that chanted, “Jews will not replace us” in the streets of Charlottesville during his first summer as president. On January 6, those same people were ready to stop an administration supported by more than 70 percent of American Jews from replacing “their” president.
While all of this was happening, Trump was also busy installing a group of opportunistic and extremely cynical loyalists at the Pentagon, and contemplating a war with Iran on his way out. Such a war could lead to massive damage and casualties in Israel. His own generals stopped him from executing this wicked plan, fearing that it would be a precursor to a coup by the losing candidate in a recently held election.
The man who replaced Trump, President Joe Biden, wanted to be president for decades, and failed twice to run for the highest office. But according to former Congressman Steve Israel, it was the antisemitic march in Charlottesville, the one led by Trump’s “very fine people,” that convinced Biden to come back from political retirement at the age of 78 and run for president one final time. Biden won the election not because of America’s small Jewish vote – in fact, he lost in the one swing state where Jews are known to make a difference: Florida. But it was his disgust and horror over events like the march in Charlottesville and the 2018 terror attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that led to his main framing of the choice in the last election – “A battle for the soul of America.”
That battle didn’t end after Trump left the White House. It’s ongoing, and will continue in the Jewish year 5782 and those that follow. But for American Jews, 5781, for all the terrible moments, images and memories it created, also brought with it a sense of relief. An election victory by Trump, or worse, a successful reversal of the legitimate election results, would have been disastrous for American democracy. It would have further emboldened the far-right, Jew-hating elements that prospered during his presidency. That horrific scenario was stopped at the gates with Biden’s narrow Electoral College victory.
Trump also had a negative impact on how American Jews relate to Israel. He was a president who hugged his political and ideological partner in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, with one hand and accused American Jews of “disloyalty” with the other. Netanyahu contributed to that. He enjoyed the political benefits of partnering with Trump and ignored the warnings of key allies of Israel in America about the long-term price the country would pay for associating itself with a failed, unpopular president.
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It’s not a coincidence that Netanyahu’s fall from power after 12 years as prime minister came just months after Trump was no longer able to provide him political assists from the White House. The political help that Trump offered Netanyahu was one of the factors that helped him survive multiple election failures, prolonging Israel’s miserable “four elections in two years” chapter. Thankfully, that nightmare also ended this year – and as Israel’s current government edges closer toward passing a budget, there are hopeful signs of political stability.
Trump and Netanyahu are no longer navigating the U.S.-Israel relationship, but as this year draws to a close, the damages created by their joint and separate efforts still linger. It will take more than one year of normality, in Washington and in Jerusalem, to fix them.