When Hillary Clinton lost the presidency, she promised Donald Trump she would “work with him on behalf of our country.” Most American Jews – like most liberals – apparently missed that memo. This resistance to Trump’s pending presidency risks injecting another wedge between American Jewish liberals and Israel – especially if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump whip themselves into a right-leaning love-in as leftists stew. Visionary leadership, however, can turn this potential problem into an opportunity.
Usually, transitions are healing moments helping Americans fall in love with the president- elect. The resentment toward Trump creates a democratic and Democratic dilemma. His offensive rhetoric encouraged extremists, who have been lashing out. However, the current hysterical reaction is exaggerated. Democratic grace requires losers in an election to back the winners – waiting until the new president starts governing before protesting particular actions, not relitigating the campaign again and again.
Meanwhile, Red Jews – mostly Orthodox Jews – are euphoric. Just as many Jewish liberals, so convinced of the Democratic Party’s goodness, meekly accept a Blame-Israel-Firster like Keith Ellison as the potential head of the Democratic National Committee, pro-Trump Jews, so convinced the Democrats under Obama became “anti-Israel,” tolerate Trump supporters’ flirtation with antisemitism – and Trump’s crudities. Both extremes seem allergic to complexity.
A telling Orthodox joke asks, “What’s the difference between Donald Trump and liberal Jews?” The answer: “Trump has Jewish grandchildren,” showcases the communal division. Liberals think Trump voters are bad people; Jewish conservatives think liberals are bad Jews.
This polarization risks distancing the liberal American Jewish majority from Israel. If Netanyahu’s government takes Trump’s election as a green light to build settlements wildly, it will justify a dangerous liberal illogic whereby because Trump is pro-Israel, anti-Trumpers must be anti-Israel. Israel suffered from this toxic embrace when George W. Bush and Stephen Harper each supported Israel enthusiastically – and their unpopularity proved contagious, making Israel appear to be conservative property rather than a bipartisan cause.
This fall, most campuses focused on the election, sidelining the bash-Israel-industry. This spring, campus anti-Zionists will try defining being anti-Israel as part of the “intersectional” package of being anti-Trump.
Americans and Israelis must unite against these simplistic, dangerous polarizations. This Monday the Knesset Caucus for Israel-US Relations, ably co-chaired by MKs Nahman Shai and Avraham Neguise, hosted a post-election assessment in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation. Kindly invited to testify, I criticized liberals for excusing leftist antisemitism and conservatives for excusing rightist antisemitism. A big, broad, credible, unifying Left-Right coalition must oppose all bigotry. Leftists are most effective fighting leftist antisemitism – and must take that on – just as Rightists are most effective fighting right-wing antisemitism – and must take that on. I also lamented that while many academics joked about moving to Canada when Trump won, I didn’t hear any Jewish liberals joke about moving to Israel. Clearly, too many American Jews consider “Bibi’s Israel” something else to escape.
Israel shouldn’t make policies simply to cater to liberals’ sensibilities. But the Israeli government must learn to explain its policies – and speak to American Jews – in ways that acknowledge those sensibilities, and the range of communal opinions. Israel should use Trump’s election to try renewing the peace process backed by a more supportive president. Perhaps the Palestinians will realize they again missed an opportunity by being so obstinate under Obama, as supportive a president as they can expect. Although the Palestinians currently lack the leadership to deliver much, by retaking the initiative, Israel would show its citizens, let alone the world, that it seeks a solution rather than drifting.
At the caucus, Jay Barnes of the Missouri House of Representatives spoke movingly about the area he represents, Jefferson City, a small town that went two-thirds for Trump.
While condemning the extremism the election stirred among some, Barnes insisted that his good, decent constituents are not racists or sexists or antisemites. And reassuring Israelis who fear American abandonment, he said that when his kids heard he would be traveling they complained – until hearing their dad was visiting Israel, which made them proud. While reminding us of the real America, the decent America, that has long befriended Jews and Israel, Representative Barnes modeled what the Zionist strategy should be. We have an inspiring story to tell about Israel, about Jewish values, fighting delegitimization and celebrating the Jewish national project, with Israel offering a positive framework for Jewish journeys and meaning-seeking that transcends Trump. Drilling down to deeper ideological sources – and discussing things on a higher, non-political plane – will free us from the despair of current politics, mobilize around common challenges, and encourage decency as well as unity – two essential commodities America needs and American Jewry needs. In fighting antisemitism, supporting Israel’s right to exist, and finding Zionist inspiration, today’s Red Jews and Blue Jews can unite as blue-and-white Jews – beyond today’s polarizing headlines.