This past week was a terrible week for America. And it was terrible too for American Jews.
The apparent decision of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade was one more blow, and a devastating one, to America’s system of democratic governance.
Do you remember, not so long ago, when American democracy was a beacon in a world clouded by tyranny? But that time has passed.
One of our two major parties is increasingly turning its back on the principle of a sovereign people governing itself democratically. The Republicans under Trump have moved in the direction of replacing American democracy with a homegrown version of authoritarianism or even toned-down fascism. And if this seems like an exaggeration, consider its efforts to restrict suffrage, lie about non-existent voter fraud, and offer after-the-fact support for an attempted coup.
Donald Trump, the narcissistic demagogue orchestrating this crusade, has used as his organizational principle the Big Lie: The 2020 election was stolen. A year and a half after the election, he has yet to concede defeat, unlike any defeated president in American history.
And now he is running around the country, offering support to Republicans in primary elections, in return for which endorsed candidates are expected to pledge loyalty to his next presidential campaign and affirm the Big Lie. As many have noted, the Big Lie is simply an updated version of the "stab-in-the-back" conspiracy theory that played a critical role in undermining the Weimar Republic. (Question for pro-Trump American Jewish leaders: How did that work out for the Jews?)
The hardcore MAGA cultists are celebrating Trump, of course, but mainstream Americans are not. They are angry and disoriented, suffering from extreme COVID fatigue, a careening economy, and a social media universe that excels at perpetuating prejudice and obscuring truth. Most view Trump with either suspicion or disgust. Still, they are hardly thrilled with the Democrats. The Democratic party is badly divided, lacking focus and answers, and led by a well-intentioned but unpopular president.
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Increasingly, Americans look upon our entire political culture as vulgar, violent, and perverse. They tend to see all political leaders as complacent and corrupt, cut off from any real connection with the people they represent.
The only exception to the palpable cynicism of Americans about their leaders and public life has been the Supreme Court. Until a few years ago, the Court was viewed favorably, and even with a measure of reverence, by a broad swath of American voters.
True, sentiments have shifted somewhat as the Court has veered to the right, but with a decision to overturn Roe v. Wade now likely, its public backing is sure to take a dramatic nosedive. The widespread belief of Americans is that no one in politics is to be trusted, our government institutions cannot get a single, damn thing right, and leaders are to be viewed with cynicism and contempt. And this belief has now spread to members of the Court, severely undermining its legitimacy.
This outrage at the Court stems from the fact that 80 percent of Americans think that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances. And it flows as well from the conviction that they have been lied to in a disdainful and insulting way.
American television showed video clips all week of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — the three Trump appointees — telling the Senate Judiciary committee during their confirmation hearings that Roe v. Wade is "settled law." They used the same terminology when speaking to Senators and the press.
The meaning of their words could not have been clearer; whether they agreed or not, the matter was settled, fixed, and behind us. And yet when the time came to vote on the leaked Alito draft, they made a mockery of their repeated promises and solemn pledges under oath and supported the opposite position.
Politicians lie all the time, of course. But Supreme Court nominees are expected to be genuine and to possess the integrity that politicians lack. By failing this test, the Trump Justices have delegitimized the Court and made the likely Roe decision a political proclamation rather than a judicial judgment.
The culture war brawl that is sure to follow will be that much more difficult because of the Court’s loss of standing in the eyes of the American people. And the simple fact is that advanced, industrial democracies require a supreme judicial authority that can be counted on to be a fair and neutral arbiter on matters of law. But the Roberts Court will no longer be capable of serving in that role.
The decline and fall of the Supreme Court will impact American Jews in a variety of ways, none of them good.
It should be noted in passing that roughly 20 percent of American Jews, almost all Orthodox, have fallen victim to what one Orthodox educator has called "the MAGA-ization of the Orthodox world." Jews too, it seems, can be taken in by a radical ideology colored by conspiracism, racism, misogyny, gay-baiting, and insurrection.
And these Jews mostly welcome a change in Roe, even though a careful read of prominent Orthodox scholars reveals a nuanced Jewish position that prohibits abortion on demand but permits abortion in many cases where American right-wingers do not. It is bizarre and ironic that at a critical moment in American political history, so much of American Orthodoxy seems to be more influenced by American evangelical and hard-right conservative thinking than by their own religious tradition.
In any case, for the great majority of Jewish Americans, any embrace of Trump is impossible, the potential overturning of Roe is abhorrent, and the situation of the Court is a tragedy.
American Jews have always revered the Court, perhaps even more than other Americans. One reason for this may be the content of Jewish sacred texts, which draw heavily on legal thinking. Another is that the law has provided American Jews with a path to public service when other avenues were closed to them.
In 1916, the idea of a Jewish president or vice-president was laughable; but that was the year that President Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. And not only was Brandeis confirmed after raucous hearings, but he went on to serve with enormous distinction. So too did the seven Jewish justices who followed.
As a Jewish boy growing up in Massachusetts in the 1950s, my friends and I knew the name of every Jew who had been on the Court, and we were taught to view the Court, and Jewish contributions to the Court and American law, with enormous pride. Precisely because our pride in the Court has been so great, our response to its moral collapse on Roe will be profound.
Overturning Roe will also impact Jews because of its implications for minority rights in America.
The Alito draft put forward the argument that a change in Roe would have no meaning for issues such as gay marriage. But that is absurd, of course, both as a matter of principle and of practicality.
Those Justices wanting to deny a constitutional right to abortion chose to reconsider their approach to liberty and privacy. But narrowing those rights as they apply to abortion will inevitably lead to narrowing them in other areas as well.
If American Jews, a minority deeply committed to women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, know anything at all, it is this: A spirit of toleration and diversity is absolutely indivisible. About 70 percent of Jews vote Democratic precisely for this reason. The minute the agenda becomes the shrinking of constitutional protections, they know that other limitations of minority rights will follow.
A third reason for Jewish concern about the possible Roe decision is the fallout from the brutal culture war that will result and that in fact has already begun. Innumerable commentaries have already appeared, laying out, with frightening precision, the bitterness and divisions that will be generated.
And how will the Jews fare in this culture war? It is hard to say. Donald Trump and his MAGA troops have stirred up the heartland mostly by replicating old patterns of immigrant bashing. The old cries still resound, this time with Trump-like language: People with darker skins will sneak in, steal your jobs, and sleep with your women.
But the problem, of course, is that hatred is contagious; the abortion wars will feed off of the hysteria and tribalism of the immigration wars that Trump, Steve Bannon, and Tucker Carlson have generated.
As the anti-abortion movement gathers steam, plotting its course and identifying its enemies, will it focus on the Jews? Perhaps. Most conservative demagogues have succumbed to antisemitic sentiments, in one form or another. (Think Tom Watson, Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Pat Buchanan, and Ron Paul.) Trump is not an antisemite. But there are antisemites in his camp, and again and again, he has chosen to remain silent or offer excuses rather than confront them.
In any case, it is not an accident that at a moment of MAGA madness and frenzied, abortion-motivated cultural warfare, the ADL is reporting the highest number of antisemitic incidents ever recorded in America, since the counts began in 1979. And yes, there are antisemites on the left as well. But the difference is that right-wing fanaticism has a leader today, while left-wing fanaticism does not. And the right-wing leader is the former President of the United States.
With the Supreme Court decision on abortion on the horizon, what should American Jews be doing now? My read of the American Jewish mood is this:
American Jews are wary and worried, both for their country and their community. They see a deeply troubling resurgence of nativism and xenophobia, and an astonishing cravenness among the Republican political class.
But for the great majority that is anti-Trump and anti-extremist, my guess is that they will choose to fight. They ultimately will not be intimidated by the fanaticism of the MAGA forces, the threats to America’s democracy, or the dangers of a renewed antisemitism. And they will certainly not abandon women’s rights or forsake those who are denied abortions.
On the contrary, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, they will join with their fellow Americans in making every election about abortion. They will appeal to, and depend on, the energy, idealism, anger, and guts of average Americans, most of whom, like themselves, favor abortion rights and will work to preserve them.
And to make this happen, American Jews will promote dialogue and collaboration across race, gender, professional and class lines, articulating those democratic ideals that still can draw the majority of Americans together, at least some of the time.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie