Samuel G. Freedman, a former religion columnist for the New York Times, is author of “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”
Since the end of World War II, American Jewish identity has rested on a three-legged stool. Those legs, the positions that were embraced by virtually the entire community, were Holocaust remembrance, support for Israel and vigilant opposition to domestic anti-Semitism.
Admittedly, this formula for personal and collective definition had its limits. It depended too much, perhaps, on the reinforcement of Jewish suffering. It scrupulously avoided differentiating between the practice of Judaism as a religion and the enactment of Jewishness as ethnicity or peoplehood. Still, that stool largely served its unifying purpose for a famously fractious people.
The new alliance of Donald Trump as America’s president and Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, however, has smashed the stool. American Jews are being forced to choose between their Zionism and their battle against anti-Semitism. Suddenly, by dint of Trump and Netanyahu, those stances cannot be readily reconciled.
Trump’s feeble and belated bemoaning last week that anti-Semitism is “horrible” and “painful” only accentuates the problem. The same president who touts his “no daylight” partnership with Netanyahu’s right-wing regime could manage his statement only after months of strenuously avoiding a condemnation of anti-Semitism, which in normal times is not exactly a politically risky position.
Along the way, Netanyahu served as the public guarantor of Trump’s putative tolerance. During their joint news conference on Feb. 15 at the White House, after the president offered an evasive response to an Israeli journalist’s question about the rising incidence of anti-Semitic vandalism and rhetoric, the prime minister hailed Trump as a great friend of the Jewish people. He also echoed one of Trump’s own defensive talking points: the fact he has an Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
None of these assurances come near repairing the damage the American and Israeli leaders have done to American Jewish comity. Rather, the men’s political actions have compounded problems that have been building for decades.
For the majority of American Jews who are liberal or moderate — that is, most of the three-quarters who did not vote for Trump — an ongoing commitment to Zionism relied on viewing Israel as a valiant, outnumbered innocent that is eager to equitably solve its conflict with the Palestinians.
Such attitudes were easy enough for such American Jews to harbor during the existential wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 and during the terms of leaders jointly seeking a two-state solution, namely the Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and the American presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
But American Jews of the center and the left saw as well as anybody else how Netanyahu sought to undermine then-President Obama by aligning with the Republican opposition and how he has carried on a visible bromance with Trump. A big part of their chumminess is Trump’s diminution of U.S. support for a two-state solution, which his supporters wrote into the Republican platform last summer, and the close ties of his ambassadorial nominee, David Friedman, to the settlement enterprise.
For American Jews who skew conservative in politics, the fight against anti-Semitism in the United States was once invariably and conveniently framed as one against left-wing campus activists and Palestinian advocates. The discomfort of Jewish college students when put on the ideological defensive by events such as Israel Apartheid Week was treated as a mortal threat to Jewish survival.
Well, now both subsets of Jews have had their respective illusions dashed. Since Trump was a long-shot candidate, he has dallied with the words and images of classic anti-Semitism — that Jews control the world economy, that Jewish money buys the allegiance of politicians. The alt-right movement that supplied so much of the energy to Trump’s campaign has been a safe zone for Jew-hating.
So the most recent examples of bigotry — the bomb threats against Jewish community centers, the toppling of gravestones in several Jewish cemeteries across the country — did not come from nowhere. And they sure did not come from campus professors and protesters who assail Israel in acceptable forums of public discourse. Vice President Pence’s spin-control visit to a vandalized cemetery in St. Louis and his later remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition were way too little, way too late.
The trade-off that Trump and Netanyahu have almost literally offered American Jews is a blunt one: If you want lockstep support of Israel, then shut your mouth about anti-Semitism here.
Don’t complain when the official White House statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day omits mention of the extermination of 6 million Jews. Don’t call attention to growing examples of anti-Semitism when they appear enabled, if not inspired, by Trump’s white nationalism. Don’t get upset when the president ridicules and humiliates a journalist from an Orthodox Jewish magazine who asks him an explicitly polite question about anti-Semitism. One can only imagine the wrath of the American Jewish right had Obama done any such thing.
For the vast majority of American Jews, though, an anguishing reality is now clear. To support Israel when it is cross-branded with Trump’s intolerance is to avert their eyes from a threat right here at home. To rest on the three-legged stool is to find yourself abruptly crashing to the floor.