How Divided American Jewry Can Begin To Unite

The conventional wisdom is hardening like concrete.

“Donald Trump’s America” is spiraling in its cycles of vileness, as Muslims are harassed, immigrants are deported, Jews are bullied, racism festers, sexism lingers, the Internet oozes with insults and partisans turn violent. In America-the-myopic, liberals will read these lines and confirm each outrage with recent events they pin on the President.

President Trump. Getty Images

But Trump inherited these pre-existing conditions: each barbarity occurred in “Barack Obama’s America,” too. Moreover, alt-leftists are as guilty of some of those sins as alt-righters: the Berkeley and post-Election Day riots were left-wing crimes, as is anti-Zionist-inspired campus Jew hatred. Meanwhile, the social media bile seeps out, left, right and far beyond politics.

America is cranky; anger is escalating, name-calling is intensifying, polarization is growing. Can we, as blue-and-white Jews, help unite American Jewry on at least some issues?

American Jews echo America’s partisan divide — in our typically lopsided way. The 70 percent of our community who voted for Hillary Clinton are resisting Donald Trump’s presidency tweet-by-tweet, mini-scandal-by-mini-scandal. The 25 percent who voted for Trump cheer him, with occasional winces about some rhetorical excesses. America is cranky; anger is escalating, name-calling is intensifying, polarization is growing. Can we, as blue-and-white Jews, help unite American Jewry on at least some issues? Can we then parlay our mysterious, oft-detested solidarity into a civil dialogue that helps America heal?

F. Scott Fitzgerald defined “the test of a first-rate intelligence” as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The test of a first-rate patriotism in this Age of Trump is the ability to oppose some of the opposite party’s stands all the time, while supporting some of their stands at least some of the time.

Consider:

  • Most American Jews detest terrorism, including Islamist terrorism — even while disagreeing about how best to defeat it;
  • Most American Jews welcome new immigrants, and appreciate the welcome Jews received — while disagreeing how best to regulate future immigration and cope with the illegal aliens today;
  • Most American Jews support Israel — and detest attempts to delegitimize it, including BDS — while disagreeing on how to solve the Palestinian problem.
  • Most Americans Jews take pride in our Jewish identity — and want American Jewry to thrive — even if we debate just what success looks like;
  • And most American Jews abhor anti-Semitism — and should fight it in its right and left versions — demonstrating that the fight against bigotry must be broad, unifying and nonpartisan.

Unfortunately, we forget that in elementary school we started with addition and worked toward division. Today, we always start with what divides us while forgetting first to unite.

For American Jews, starting with areas of Jewish consensus can yield constructive dialogues on other issues. I recently challenged a packed synagogue in Florida: “Find someone who voted the ‘wrong way’ last November, and speak to that person.” (A psychologist suggested I end by saying “and listen to that person.” Touché!)

Listening to one another and allying on some issues is not selling out, nor does it preclude fighting on other issues. The danger — to the community and to American democracy — is that Trump is so polarizing that rivals won’t unite on anything, even when they agree.

City by city, Jewish communal leaders should convene Jewish Civility Summits encouraging otherwise hostile forces in the Jewish community to start listening to each other. They should seek to generate statements articulating areas of consensus, starting with a call for civility; then they should proceed to Jewish communal concerns, then Israel-related issues, then American issues. Jewish communal leaders should then issue an American Jewish Consensus Manifesto for the Age of Trump — emphasizing points of unity, calling for constructive dialogue, defining red lines we don’t cross and emphasizing the blue and white zones where we agree. We need to prove, even amid harsh disagreements, that we can end this cycle of vileness, with cycles of friendliness.

Blue-and-White Jews, starting with common communal concerns, can then model constructive behavior, opening dialogues between Red and Blue Americans. In this way, we can heal the Red, White and Blue country we love — America — while protecting the Blue and White country — Israel — that needs a solid, stable, America, not a divided, dysfunctional mess.