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Trump, AIPAC And The Quest For Moral Clarity

Julie Wittes Schlack: After promising not to “pander” to the crowd at this at this year’s AIPAC meeting, Donald Trump did just that. But for many Jews in the U.S., it’s impossible to support Trump without violating what is most central to the American Jewish identity. (Evan Vucci/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Julie Wittes Schlack: After promising not to “pander” to the crowd at this at this year’s AIPAC meeting, Donald Trump did just that. But for many Jews in the U.S., it’s impossible to support Trump without violating what is most central to the American Jewish identity. (Evan Vucci/AP)

“America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security and survival,” Hillary Clinton told attendees at this year’s annual policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the lobbying group routinely courted by politicians and presidential contenders. She then went on to warn about the vacillating nature of Donald Trump’s commitment to Israel, saying “We need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who-knows-what on Wednesday.”

Many in her audience were already convinced that Trump was not their man. But their antipathy to him had less to do with his stance on Israel than with what Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, described as “the kind of stereotyping and scapegoating he has injected into this political season.” In fact, more than 1,700 people joined the “AIPAC Come Together Against Hate” Facebook page, where organizers called for a protest “showing moral clarity and opposing the hateful rhetoric and violence of Donald Trump.”

We are going to argue that what Mr. Trump calls PC, is not a bad thing, it is what we Jews call … being a good person.

Rabbi David Paskin

The planned protest seems to have fizzled, and ended up taking the form of a boycott and Torah study session rather than a walkout from Trump’s speech. Nonetheless, for the many American Jews who are uneasy with — or downright oppose — the increasingly rightward and racist drift of the Israeli government, this attempted action was especially welcome. So was the rationale that protest organizer, Rabbi David Paskin offered in an interview. “We are going to argue that what Mr. Trump calls PC, is not a bad thing, it is what we Jews call … being a good person.”

A recent Pew Research survey  about the nature of Jewish identity helps to explain why Paskin’s message was so resonant. The survey, conducted with Jews in both Israel and the United States, asked about a list of eight possible behaviors and attributes that could potentially be “essential” or “important” to respondents’ personal Jewish identity. In both countries, majorities expressed a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and said that remembering the Holocaust was an essential element of their identity (though interestingly, more so for American than Israeli Jews).

But some notable differences also emerged. Sixty-nine percent of American Jews say that “leading an ethical and moral life” is essential to their identity, vs. 47 percent of Israeli respondents. Similarly, over twice as many American Jews selected “working for justice and equality” as vital to being Jewish as did Israeli participants (56 percent vs. 27 percent).

Does this mean that Israeli Jews are immoral or unconcerned with justice? Of course not. But had this survey been administered 68 years ago, when the vast majority of Israel’s Jewish residents were refugees from Eastern Europe, I suspect that the results would have been quite different. When the country achieved recognition and independence in 1948, just 35 percent of its population was native born. Its founders — some socialists, some not; some religiously observant, some not — had fled anti-Semitism in Europe and known first-hand the brutality of discrimination, pogroms and the Holocaust.

Contrast that with 2014, when 75 percent of Israel’s population was Jewish, and of that group, 75 percent were born in Israel. The past few generations of Sabras have been born into a country in which they are the ruling majority, and while there is great diversity in the ancestry and culture of the Jewish population (Russian, Ukranian, American, North African) 00 as well as the religiosity — there is little meaningful distinction between national and cultural identity.

The history of Jews here started similarly, but the path rapidly diverged. Like the early Israeli settlers, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the majority of American Jewish immigrants were fleeing oppression and discrimination. They came to this country with the same religious and intellectual traditions as those who immigrated to Israel, and many of them expressed their values through their participation in the labor movement, the civil rights movement and other progressive causes. While anti-Semitism persists here, it typically takes the form of graffiti and racist stereotypes, and American Jews are no more or less safe than other Americans. Though Jews today make up only 2.2 percent of the U.S. population, few of us feel that our survival as a people is threatened by missiles or bombing. We feel secure enough to embrace our minority status, and the perspective that it inevitably brings.

a commitment to social justice is central to who we are. That conviction is what leads some of us ... to deplore a politician who fans violence and thrives on division.

Rather, for many of us, it is our souls more than our lives that are at risk. With acceptance comes complacence. Perhaps that’s why American Jews are more likely than those in Israel to see intellectual curiosity and a good sense of humor as key parts of their Jewish identity; outsiders and underdogs need to know how to learn and how to laugh. But maybe that’s also why we continue to believe that a commitment to social justice is central to who we are. That conviction is what leads some of us to oppose Israeli policy, and many more of us — even passionate supporters of Israel — to deplore a politician who fans violence and thrives on division.

In the face of horrifying terrorist attacks like Tuesday's bombings in Brussels, Trump will likely get a bit of lift in his poll numbers, born aloft on the heat of understandable rage and his own bellicose fumes. But as Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in a recent Time magazine editorial in which he called on other groups to redirect past donations from Trump into anti-discrimination education and campaigns, “…even as the campaign has surfaced ugly rhetoric, we can reach higher. Even as his campaign has mainstreamed intolerance, we can push back on the hate and evoke our better angels not just with words, but with deeds.”

Related:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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