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Why Jews have a special obligation to resist Trump

American Jewish organizations can't pretend this is business as usual.

President-elect Donald Trump appears after a meeting at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. on Nov. 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Those of us who awoke after the presidential election in a state of disbelief have by now begun to recognize our frightening new political reality — and to act.

Donald Trump’s winning platform includes pledges to ban Muslims from entering our country, to forcibly deport millions of people, to remove legal protections from vulnerable minorities and to reinstate the use of torture. The president-elect has threatened massive attacks on human rights and constitutional freedoms. Just last week, he appointed to the highest advisory position in the White House Stephen K. Bannon, a former publisher of Breitbart News, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the “media arm” of the white supremacist alt-right movement. Noted anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney is reportedly serving as an adviser to the transition team. Jeff Sessions, considered too racist to be a federal judge in the 1980s, has been tapped as attorney general.

This platform is terrifying for many Americans, and not only for those Trump and his supporters have explicitly targeted. Protests and marches have sprung up nationwide. Already, Americans are turning dashed hopes and disbelief into principled action.

Half a century ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness.” As leaders of Jewish organizations committed to human rights, we believe that if ever there were a moment to commit to making no compromises with callousness, that moment must be now.

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A platform so explicitly bigoted may be unprecedented in modern American politics, but it isn’t new to Jews. Many of us are alive today because, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents fled government persecution in Europe and other parts of the world. The United States allowed our families to find refuge here, and we built institutions to strengthen our ability to counter anti-Semitism and to work together toward social justice for all.

Jewish communal organizations have always worked with both Democratic and Republican administrations to make progress on the issues we care about, such as funding social services, supporting Israel and protecting civil liberties.

And we’ve already seen signs that some members of our community will treat this administration no differently. Several congratulated Trump on his victory; some expressed their faith that he would make good on his victory speech promise to “bind the wounds of division.”

For many Jewish organizations, it will be tempting to “move past” the disturbing policy goals and divisive rhetoric we heard during the campaign from Trump and his team and to engage in business as usual with the new administration. But if we take the president-elect at his word — and we must — we can’t afford business as usual. Now is the time for principled opposition, not accommodation.

At many points in our history, the Jewish community has fallen into the trap of believing that we can protect ourselves by proximity to power: by being the “Court Jew” or the shtadlan charged with lobbying the governments of medieval Europe on behalf of Jewish subjects. We thought that these relationships and “special” positions would protect us.

But they don’t protect us. Over the past year, we have watched as Trump’s campaign trafficked in blatant anti-Semitism alongside racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, ableism and Islamophobia. He has empowered white supremacists and provoked a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Trying to conduct business as usual with the Trump administration could prevent us from joining with other threatened groups to protect our neighbors. Jews know that when one minority is vulnerable, we all are vulnerable. If American Muslims will be targeted and those entering the country from elsewhere forced to “register,” if immigrants will be torn from their families and their homes, if women are assaulted as access to justice disintegrates, policies that attack Jews could be next. Jewish history and values demand that we step up and act in opposition.

Even if Jews were not personally threatened as Jews, it would still be imperative for us to call upon all of the communal strength we have and all of the institutions we have fought to create to oppose threats to other people. This is an obligation that comes from our tradition. In the Torah, one of God’s first commands to the Jewish people after our liberation from slavery is to protect those who are most vulnerable, as we, too, know the experience of being strangers.

Our history has taught us that autocracy does not arrive all at once, but through the slow erosion of individual liberties and the pitting of one group against another. We cannot look away or hope for the best when politicians promise to assault our civil liberties and threaten human rights.

Nor can we excuse winks and dog-whistling at white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups that understand this election as a mandate to carry out attacks on members of minorities or on our institutions. If we ignore these signs, we risk waking up to an America that is no longer recognizable.

As a first step, we must not take a “wait-and-see” approach. Benefit of the doubt must be earned, and this incoming administration hasn’t done so. We should meet each and every step toward authoritarianism with strong opposition, as many of us have done in calling on the president-elect to reverse his decision to appoint Bannon.

But condemnation alone isn’t enough. In the coming years, we must build a strong and effective opposition to protect people who are likely to be targeted under new racist, anti-woman, anti-immigrant policies. We should support brave political leaders, such as the mayors of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities for affirming that their communities will remain places of sanctuary. And as Jews, we must marshal the full resources of our community, including the institutions built over more than 100 years, to protect the rights of all minorities — ourselves, yes, but not only us.

In the words of Rabbi Heschel, this is a moment for “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” We cannot sell out our values in the name of one-off successes. It’s time for American Jewish leaders to say no to business as usual.

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