In the decade before the unfortunately named Arab Spring uprisings, political science on the subject of the Middle East was largely consumed with explaining the region’s persistent and seemingly exceptional authoritarianism. One of the best treatments of the subject was Yale political scientist Ellen Lust-Okar’s 1995 book titled Structuring Conflict in the Arab World. Lust-Okar looked at why political opposition groups in some Middle Eastern states would mobilize popular protests during economic crises while in other states they wouldn’t, and she developed a handy theory to explain the variance in behavior despite similar circumstances. While at first glance this topic has nothing to do with American Jewry and the nascent Trump administration, Lust-Okar’s book was the first thing that came to my mind when thinking about the way different Jewish organizations are responding to the challenges that President-elect Trump is presenting.
Lust-Okar’s theory on what made opposition groups decide to mobilize or not was that it wasn’t a function of the groups themselves, but a function of how the regime manipulated them. Middle Eastern authoritarian governments establish different relationships between the state and the opposition, and between opposition groups themselves, by creating unified or divided structures of contestation. In plain English, the state (wittingly or unwittingly) determines how opposition groups behave based on whether it favors some groups over others or treats them all as equally illegitimate. If the regime grants some political parties or groups legal status while making others illegal, the legal ones become reluctant to protest or join with the “illegal” opposition since they will be putting their own status at risk. Having the regime’s favor carries with it benefits, including most basically not being arbitrarily thrown in jail, so by playing it safe and not challenging the regime, the legal groups ensure that they will not be repressed or excluded from the system no matter what abuses the state carries out against others. On the other side of the equation, the illegal parties or groups are constantly looking to have the legal parties or groups join their protests in order to give them the imprimatur of legality and the safety of numbers. When the legal parties inevitably choose not join in order to protect their own status, it allows the regime to portray the protests as illegitimate and carried out by outlaws and rabble-rousers with invalid grievances.
I’ve been thinking about this while observing the way American Jewish organizations are reacting to the goings on surrounding Trump, his appointments, and his policies that will most directly impact Israel and Jews themselves. To get one important thing out of the way up front, I am not arguing that Trump is planning on banning groups he doesn’t like or that we are dealing with an authoritarian regime that will imprison opponents. But looking at the dynamic of opposition in non-democracies helps to understand the dynamic emerging here.
To be sure, every White House has groups it favors and groups it doesn’t. Every White House uses the divisions within groups to its advantage. There is nothing illegal or untoward about this, but it influences group dynamics in a way that can be extremely damaging to group cohesiveness. To take a recent prominent example, the Iran deal was divisive enough within the American Jewish community without needing an extra boost from the Obama administration, but the White House unquestionably made things worse in its appeals to Jewish groups and making the “it will make Israel safer” argument a big part of the sell. This is not to absolve other actors or place the lion’s share of the blame on the White House, since there was nothing more ultimately damaging or divisive than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, but the choice made by the administration played a part in fracturing the Jewish community as well.
What is already going on before Trump has even taken office, however, is orders of magnitudes worse. For starters, no Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who runs a site that traffics in the worst sort of anti-Semitic and bigoted tropes as Trump’s most influential domestic policy advisor. As Bari Weiss correctly argues, whether Steve Bannon is personally anti-Semitic is irrelevant given how much anti-Semitic filth he is responsible for spreading and promoting. No Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who has retweeted anti-Semitic messages as Trump’s most influential foreign policy advisor. That Mike Flynn may want a closer relationship with Israel should not matter when he feels comfortably at home with people who view Jews as the source of the world’s ills. Yet whether to support, oppose, or remain neutral on these appointments has become a controversy within the American Jewish community despite the fact that it should be clear-cut that they are completely outside the boundary of what we should deem acceptable.
Say what you will about the Obama White House, but it listened to and talked with everyone without regard to politics. When the previous White House Jewish liaison Matt Nosanchuk stepped down, one of the most complimentary missives came from ZOA president Mort Klein, who heads a group that is hardly a supporter of the current administration. Is anyone confident that the next White House will behave the same way? Will it listen to or deal with groups that do not share its views? My fear is that the Trump administration will look at how it so easily divided Jewish groups over an issue that should not even be debatable, and make the divisions even worse by rewarding groups that it views as compliant and freezing out groups that it views as intransigent. Once this structure of contestation has been set up, opposing the administration on anything will become that much harder, including on issues that directly threaten American Jewish interests or Israel.
American Jewish groups are not going to see eye to eye or march in lockstep on every policy issue, nor should they. It was eminently reasonable that some groups dedicated almost all of their time and energies to opposing the Iran deal while other groups to supporting it. Policy differences are not themselves destructive. But blatant anti-Semitism is not a policy difference; it is the reddest of red lines. We are creating in-groups and out-groups over an issue where everyone needs to be on the same side. As someone whose natural inclination is to more often than not side with pragmatism over absolutist principles, I innately understand the argument of not doing something that will foreclose any ability to have the president’s ear. Influence is often a result of being inside the room rather than shouting from a bullhorn outside it. But just as the television executives who went to Trump Tower on Monday thought that they were there to have a conversation with the president-elect and were instead berated for over an hour, I fear that we are falling into the same trap over an issue that is mission-critical to any Jewish organization irrespective of the precise mission. Do not allow Steve Bannon to become a litmus test that the Trump White House uses to determine which groups are “good” and which are “bad.” There is going to be lots to fight over and argue about during the next four years, providing us all with many opportunities to engage in Jews’ favorite pastime. If we cannot stand together at the outset when given such a wide and obvious target, then it is not going to be long before the wide and obvious target is us.