One Year After Trump’s Election, Who Are We?
Who Are We?
Most American Jews awakened on Nov. 9, 2016, in a profound state of shock, fury, fear, bewilderment and disillusionment. That is not a partisan statement. It is a political fact.
Donald Trump was passionately opposed by most American Jews. Trump’s administration finds even fewer supporters among them.
What happened a year ago was unlike any other dramatic transfer of power in Washington in recent history. “The election of Trump has exacerbated every tension and fault line that existed in America — political, cultural, racial, economic, psychological — and has done similarly in American Jewish life,” says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Trump’s ascendancy accelerated trends that were already challenging the dominant narrative of the contemporary American Jewish experience. Jews can no longer think of themselves as a safe, secure model minority — not with the bursting forth of antiSemitism from the right, which, unlike the anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism on the left, has been sanctioned by Trump himself.
No longer can Jews rely on the automatic protection of civic institutions like Congress, the judiciary and the media to hold government and powerful economic interests accountable — not when the president and his acolytes are systematically trying to undermine democratic norms and values, and respect for the rule of law.
No longer can Jews count on a civil public discourse. Not with the president dragging the country into the gutter in 140 characters or less.
To compound the challenge, these assaults on the civic status quo are occurring when many legacy communal institutions are struggling to survive, when a growing number of American Jews are becoming unaffiliated with organized religion and when there’s an increasing disengagement from Israel.
But this is also a moment alive with opportunity. As Kula notes, “At the same time that there is this increased polarization and fracture, just like in the American body politic, there is in the Jewish body politic increased political activism, civic engagement, grassroots activity, community organizing, and religious and cultural creativity.”
In the seeds of all that’s gone wrong in the last year is the chance to make some bold, new choices. As Rabbi Sharon Brous told her IKAR community in Los Angeles on Rosh Hashanah, “It is precisely in our moments of greatest danger that we must affirm exactly who we are.”
So a year after Trump’s cataclysmic election, who are we and who should we be?
To begin with, who is this “we”? Do the majority of American Jews who profoundly disagree with Trump try to build bridges and understand the minority of American Jews on the other side — especially since some of them hold substantial political power and still retain a fair amount of control over communal spending?
Rabbi Shai Held, one of the founders and presidents of Mechon Hadar, isn’t sure. “I think the Trump fault line is more complex than right versus left,” he tells me. “It’s Jews on the left and in the center, and many Jews on the right as well, who understand that Trump is entirely unfit for office, that he lacks even a modicum of intellectual curiosity, moral probity or emotional maturity. More, he holds many of America’s most sacred institutions, like an independent judiciary and a free press, in utter disdain.”
“I think people of conscience need to be much more focused on protecting American values and institutions than on outreach to the Jewish Trump camp.”
Personally, I struggle with this. I believe in dialogue and mutual respect. When on Rosh Hashanah my rabbi told the congregation that we don’t necessarily have to like other Jews, but we must strive to love them, that resonated with me. It’s important for Blue State Jews to understand Red State Jews, and vice versa. It’s important that all of us question our assumptions and conclusions.
But I appreciate Held’s finer point: The fault lines in our community and in our country run dangerously deep. These distinctions go well beyond differences over the best policy on immi-