What Will It Take for the U.S. Jewish Establishment to Break Its Silence on Trump?

The near-universal silence among major Jewish organizations concerning the Republican candidate is an abdication of their responsibility to actualize the lessons of our history and to protect American Jews.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, August 9, 2016.
Evan Vucci, AP

American Jews overwhelmingly oppose Donald Trump. From the 72% overall who view him unfavorably to the prominent Republicans Jews who have loudly criticized him, there’s a broad American Jewish consensus that he should not be president. So why won’t certain elements of the American Jewish establishment to break their disturbing silence on his candidacy?

It’s difficult for major, powerful Jewish organizations to take certain political stances, even if they have widespread support. As someone who spent time in college encouraging leaders in the American Jewish community to take a stronger stand for a two-state solution and against the occupation in my capacity as J Street U president, I can attest to that first hand.

Many American Jewish organizations stake their power on claiming to represent consensus positions in American Jewry. It’s no secret that on Israel, parts of the Jewish establishment are out of touch with the majority of American Jews. For years, umbrella Jewish organizations such as the Conference of Presidents have purported to represent American Jews while repeatedly refusing to take a stance on issues like settlements, which most American Jews oppose.

And yet, I've often met with communal leaders who understand how our community's politics on Israel are changing, but their aversion to controversy has left them unable to tackle thorny issues such as settlement construction and Palestinian human rights. They fear donor pressure, charges of partisanship and headaches from longtime supporters. That fear makes adapting to rapidly shifting politics a struggle.

That same fear and paralysis might explain their silence on Trump. But it does not excuse it.

Many groups have done incredible work. The Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism and Bend the Arc have consistently challenged Trump’s racist and reckless invective. 28 American Jewish organizations signed a letter condemning racism and anti-Semitism in the 2016 campaign. But other groups – AIPAC,  the JFNA and the Conference of Presidents in particular – have remained absolutely silent.

That Trump has gotten this far should constitute a national emergency for all American Jewish organizations. Trump’s racist rhetoric and policy prescriptions threaten Muslims and Hispanic Americans, he lashes out at his critics with threats of violence and his frightening foreign policy would create a far more dangerous world.

These reasons alone should be enough for the American Jewish establishment to make every effort to stop him getting into the White House. But there are issues that speak even more directly to American Jews.

Trump directs much of his hatred toward migrants and refugees. As descendants of refugees ourselves, Jewish organizations, such as the Joint Distribution Committee – a partner of JFNA – have a proud history of welcoming the stranger and refugee resettlement.

Trump’s advisers and the GOP under him are moving away from a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a position at odds with the overwhelming majority of American Jews and the entire Jewish establishment.

Many of Trump’s vocal supporters are notorious anti-Semites. He waffled when asked to disavow David Duke – the former KKK grand wizard.  His Twitter account has re-tweeted neo-Nazis and a flagrantly anti-Semitic meme, juxtaposing Clinton, piles of money and a Star of David. There is nothing ambiguous about the vicious Jew-hatred that surrounds his campaign.

Growing up, I constantly heard that when racism of any kind gains traction, anti-Semitism is never far behind. For many of Trump’s supporters, it’s already here. Trump is the type of candidate who I assumed would have sent the entire organized American Jewish community into a tailspin.

Some groups have hidden behind their non-profit 501(c)(3) status, claiming it makes it impossible for them to speak out against Trump. That’s false. While they may not be able to endorse candidates they have every right to criticize Trump’s dangerous and outrageous statements and policy proposals. In fact, as JTA pointed out, there are some Jewish (c)(3)s who have loudly done so.

Take the American Jewish Committee (AJC), for example. They put out a strong statement in November criticizing Trump’s proposed-Muslim ban. In the months since, they have been silent, other than an op-ed from AJC Executive Director David Harris extolling the fact that both Trump and Hillary Clinton would be “firsts” for American Jews because they would bring Jewish families into the oval office.

Moderation is a noble aspiration, but doesn’t make sense in the face of Trump’s extreme candidacy.

Our most well-resourced organizations have no excuse for sitting on the sidelines as Trump threatens America. Our community knows all-too-well what happens when racist demagogues take power. This is more than just a failure to represent American Jews; it’s an abdication of their responsibility to actualize the lessons of our history and to protect American Jews.

If Trump wins come November there will likely be frightening consequences for his critics and marginalized Americans, as well as for Israel and for American Jews. How can we look our children and our Muslim and Hispanic compatriots in the eye and tell them we stayed silent because we were too frightened to rock the boat?

It’s past time to recognize that this is no ordinary election and Trump is no ordinary candidate. Trump is singularly unfit to hold the office of president. I know that our Jewish communal leaders understand that. It’s time to rise above our fears and complacency and live up to the task of keeping him out.

Benjy Cannon is the Mikva fellow at J Street and a former president of J Street U. Find him on Twitter @benjycannon.