It is hard to know what to make of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
This is a time, of course, when all Americans wish President Trump a speedy recovery from his illness. We hope that he will return to good health, even if we do not hope that he will be returned to office. Nonetheless, this is not a time to ignore those in the Jewish community who continue to work so hard for his reelection.
Do the leaders of the RJC actually believe what they say? Are there actual convictions and values that underlie their lock-step support of an increasingly depraved, hysterical, and over-the-top Donald Trump? Or are they simply partisan grovelers, dismissing threats to American Jews and American democracy as they curry favor with a near-mad president and the Republican powers that be?
These are important questions because American Jews have benefited in the past and will benefit in the future from Jewish organizations that espouse a principled conservativism and that cultivate ties with responsible voices in the Republican party.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, unfortunately, shows no sign of being such an organization.
Following President Trump’s now infamous "stand back and stand by" comment, directed at the far right and anti-Semitic Proud Boys militia, even the Republican side of the aisle offered mild words of rebuke. Senators Tim Scott, Mitch McConnell, Mike Rounds, Tom Cole, and Mitt Romney expressed their concern, and Fox News — yes, that’s right, Fox News — suggested a clarification.
And Jewish groups, of course, were uniformly distraught at what was yet another threat by the president to send right-wing militias — almost all of which hold explicitly anti-Semitic views — into the streets after the election.
- If Biden Wins, Adelson and Evangelicals Are Out and J Street’s in With a Bang
- Why Trump Won't Disavow QAnon's Dangerous Antisemitic Lunacy
- Can Trump Still Win? Yes, if He Convinces Voters to Stay Home
But the RJC? It had only words of praise for Trump. It posted a statement on social media, noting that the president had frequently condemned white supremacists in the past, and quoted two such statements. There was surely no need, it implicitly asserted, for the president to offer yet another condemnation.
This was a simply incredible response for two reasons.
First, when the President of the United States in a nationally televised debate gets a softball question asking him to denounce white supremacy, the only acceptable answer is: "I condemn it, without reservation." Failure to do so is an affront to all Americans, who have no use and no patience for hate groups.
Second, the fact that the president has condemned white supremacy in the past is hardly relevant, not least when you look at how those condemnations have been made.
During his presidency, barely a week goes by that Trump does not stir up racial, ethnic, and religious hostility among various groups of Americans. And not surprisingly, he virtually never takes the initiative to speak out against racism, white supremacy, and extremism on the grounds that it is a moral imperative to do so.
But when an extremist act occurs and he has no choice but to respond, he will do so reluctantly, usually by reading a scripted statement after a day or two of delay and equivocation. When pressed about the support that he had received from the Proud Boys, Trump claimed, incredibly, total ignorance of the group, just as he had previously done with QAnon and David Duke.
For all of these reasons, following the debate, other mainstream Jewish organizations were not impressed by the president’s previous "condemnations," and spoke out accordingly. But not the RJC, which saw no need for even a gentle plea to the president to change his approach to white supremacists. It is a telling moment when Mitch McConnell feels obligated to ask the president for a correction and the Republican Jewish Coalition does not.
How do we explain this phenomenon? What is the calculation that prompts a Jewish organization to make excuses for a politician who has generated the most toxic political culture in memory? After all, the Jews are not a disinterested party in this argument. They are, as noted, a frequent target of those same extremists that Trump pushes away with one hand and draws close with the other.
Assuming positive motivations, the only possible answer is Israel. Reviewing RJC statements, it is immediately apparent that Trump’s backing of Israel is the centerpiece of the RJC’s embrace of the president. Perhaps the RJC has decided, consciously or unconsciously, that all other issues must be subordinated to Israel’s security needs.
But it is an answer that does not work, either for Israel or American Jews, as Abe Foxman notes in an insightful blog post. Foxman, the director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, has impeccable pro-Israel credentials, and he acknowledges that Trump has made a number of pro-Israel decisions. Nonetheless, Foxman writes, Trump has launched a "frontal assault" on bipartisan support for Israel, which is an essential element of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.
Absent the two-party consensus in support of Israel that American Jews have promoted for half a century, the Jewish state will not be secure.
Furthermore, Trump’s presidency "has given succor to bigots, supremacists, and those seeking to divide our society." In Foxman’s view, "(w)hen our democracy is weakened, and when nativism is stoked, the rights of Jews and other minorities will be diminished too."
In other words, Trump's accomplishments on Israel have been overstated; and even if we admit to some progress on the Israel front, the Trump presidency is bad for America and bad for the Jews.
Given Foxman’s standing as a pillar of the Jewish community, the RJC saw his post as a potent threat; it undermined its claim that Jewish voters see Trump as their champion and that many are about to switch their allegiance from the Democrats to the Republicans. Norm Coleman, its chairman and a former U.S. Senator from Minnesota, therefore answered Foxman with a blog post of his own.
But Coleman had little to say. He refused to admit, even indirectly or euphemistically, that Trump has simply gone too far, disrupting American democracy in a way that scares American Jews to death. And on Israel, he went too far himself, absurdly claiming that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, life-long advocates for Israel, have become passive dupes of Israel haters and anti-Semites.
Coleman, by the way, like many Republicans, almost surely does not believe most of what he says about Trump. In March of 2016, he wrote in the Minnesota StarTribune that "I will never vote for Donald Trump" because he isn’t a Republican, a conservative, or a truth-teller. But, he continued, he is bigot, a misogynist, and a fraud. "We have been deceived by a con artist," he wrote, and indeed we have.
Particularly tellingly, he declared: "[A]ny man who declines to renounce the affections of the KKK and David Duke should not be trusted to lead America. Ever."
What is interesting about the RJC is that it once was an organization of moderation and integrity. It was founded in 1985 by businessman Max Fisher of Detroit, a devoted friend of Israel and then the pre-eminent leader of American Jewry. Fisher was both Republican and conservative, but reasonable and principled, and committed to working with Democrats and minorities to advance American values and interests.
Would Fisher have supported Donald Trump? My bet is never, not in a million years. Modest and self-effacing, he was drawn to politicians like his good friend Gerald Ford, a president of dignity and decency. Fisher would have been appalled and disgusted by Trump’s knee-jerk nastiness, crass comments, and constant acts of cruelty. Ford was a true gentleman; Trump is a bully. Max Fisher knew the difference.
The principles espoused by Max Fisher are still to be found in the RJC’s "Statement of Basic Principles," which appears on its website. Unfortunately, while professing loyalty to these principles, it supports a president who scoffs at them and at principles and norms of any sort.
For example, the RJC principles state that "only America can…lead the world in standing for the cause of freedom and democracy." But under Donald Trump, faith in American leadership in the world has plummeted, American credibility has been gutted, and the international system of alliances upon which American security and leadership depend has unraveled.
My own view is that it is best not to take the RJC too seriously. It claims to be a Jewish organization, but it is difficult to understand what that means. It refuses to stand up to Trump or to make any effort, however minimal, to get an out-of-control president under control, even on Jewish issues.
And it undoubtedly does not believe its own propaganda about a massive shift in the Jewish vote; Biden is not the messiah, but he is decent and compassionate. The overwhelming majority of Jews are simply too frightened by the prospects of chaos and tyranny to risk supporting Trump, even if they have issues with the Democrats.
In the final analysis, the RJC is mostly a vanity vehicle for Sheldon Adelson, its primary funder; and if it has a purpose at all, it is to find other sources of Jewish money, which Trump now desperately needs. It has chosen to play the role of Trump’s loyal stooges, and if he loses, as most Jews fervently hope, the RJC will sink into oblivion, at least for a while.
But nothing is certain. Let’s not forget that Donald Trump, with a cult-like grip on his base, a tyrant’s love of conspiracy theories, and a relentless drive to vulgarize American democracy, is the most talented demagogue in American history. If he emerges as the winner, the lackeys of the RJC will have their seat at the table.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie