James Kirchick is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.”
Every year at Passover, Jews gather to celebrate God’s freeing our forefathers from bondage. Seated around the seder table, we exult in the song “Dayenu,” which, in Hebrew, translates as “It would have been enough.” Over the course of 15 stanzas, we cite the litany of miracles God performed — “If He had brought us out of Egypt,” “If He had split the sea for us,” “If He had fed us manna” — each followed by grateful repetition of “dayenu.” For a people who love to complain, it’s a deeply meaningful expression of faith.
Donald Trump’s presidency has produced several moments, such as his acknowledgment that Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital, that might similarly inspire Jews’ gratitude. But is it enough?
I have been thinking about the “Dayenu” tradition in the weeks since an anti-Semitic terrorist murdered 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. A furious debate erupted within the Jewish community about the degree of blame, if any, that the president bears for that heinous crime. Among the motives expressed by the alleged shooter, Robert Bowers, for targeting the synagogue was its congregation’s help resettling refugees in the United States. Refugees are the sort of immigrants for whom Jews feel a special affinity, and about whom Trump has stoked no small amount of fear and revulsion.
The killer, of course, is the only person legally responsible for the murders, and Bowers had denounced Trump as a “globalist” controlled by Jews. As happens whenever the subject of Trump and anti-Semitism arises, after the attack we also heard the familiar catalogue of facts recited: Trump’s daughter Ivanka converted to Orthodox Judaism; she has borne him Jewish grandchildren. I will add that I do not believe that the president is himself an anti-Semite.
But crimes such as the one committed in Pittsburgh do not occur in a vacuum. And the rise of Trump in U.S. political life has coincided with a rise in anti-Semitism, among other forms of bigotry. Yes, correlation is not causation, but Trump nonetheless appeals to sentiments and animosities that don’t bode well for the future of Jewish life in this country.
Since first setting foot in Colonial America, Jews have understood that our fate is inextricably bound to that of other minorities. Thus, we have always felt a deep appreciation for the fundamental American values of pluralism, tolerance and religious freedom. Jews and Jewish organizations were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and, later, the movement for LGBTQ equality.
Since taking office, Trump has stoked the sort of nativism, xenophobia and demagoguery that have typically repelled American Jews, no matter their political creed. Yet Trump’s Jewish and philo-Semitic defenders have implicitly framed his presidency as a matter of bargaining, weighing these repellent aspects of his tenure against his unprecedentedly pro-Israel policies. Relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? Dayenu. Withdrawing from President Barack Obama’s Iranian nuclear deal? Dayenu. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wielded his kosher stamp of approval last year when he said, “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than Donald Trump.”
Trump has indeed been “good for Israel,” as the American Jewish political shorthand would have it. But in the wake of the deadliest anti-Semitic massacre in our nation’s history, we should ask whether these pro-Israel policies compensate for the rhetoric and behavior of a U.S. president who daily traduces the norms, values and traditions that have allowed Jews to flourish here as nowhere else.
Foremost among these desecrations is the president’s penchant for lies and conspiracy theory. Judaism is a lifelong commitment to truth; since Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, Jews have pursued wisdom as the key to a meaningful life. And throughout history, Jews have been subjected, like no other people, to vicious lies. The ceaseless repetition of these lies for centuries, from powerful political leaders all the way down to family dinner table conversations, culminated in the worst mass murder in human history, the Holocaust.
Jews, then, ought to have a special sensitivity to politicians who lie and demagogue and scapegoat, even when the lying and demagoguery and scapegoating don’t explicitly concern us.
I am not calling for the shunning of Jews who back this president. Declaring Trump-supportive Jews political treyf (non-kosher) is precisely what liberal Jews decry when their conservative co-religionists brand them “self-hating” simply for holding dovish views on the Middle East. It is in the nature of being Jewish to argue, foremost among ourselves. Jews don’t issue fatwas.
But regarding Trump’s support for Israel, however sincere, I can only reply: lo dayenu — it’s not enough. And as long as he comports himself in the way he has — attacking minorities, demonizing immigrants, lying with abandon — it never will be.