Two things happened this week that are not ostensibly connected but led me to draw a connection between them nonetheless. The first was a quote from U.S. Ambassador David Friedman responding to the controversy over the inclusion of pastors Robert Jeffress and John Hagee in the dedication ceremony for the Jerusalem embassy, saying that evangelical Christians “support Israel with much greater fervor and devotion than many in the Jewish community.” The second was the death of famed American Jewish author Philip Roth. Friedman’s quote bothered me when I read it, but it wasn’t until reflecting on Roth’s work when hearing of his passing that I fully realized what makes Friedman’s quote so upsetting.
I understand Friedman’s embrace of evangelicals due to their support for Israel. The evangelical community rivals any segment of the Jewish community in its embrace of a purely supportive pro-Israel position. The largest pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. is not AIPAC, but Hagee’s Christians United For Israel, and its impact on Republican politics is far greater than AIPAC’s or any other Jewish group’s. I do not agree with the open arms welcome given to evangelicals who tout a theology that looks forward to Israel’s future destruction as a prerequisite for the Second Coming, and I find it naïve to just laugh it away as many Israelis and American Jews do, but I understand it. Had Friedman defended evangelicals by saying, “They support Israel with great fervor and devotion,” I would have no quibble.
But it is the formulation that Friedman used – that they support Israel with greater fervor and devotion than many American Jews – that is disturbing. Friedman is right from a factual standpoint; I don’t think it is a matter of debate that support for Israel and the policies of the Israeli government is questioned less among American evangelicals than they are among American Jews. But this cannot be the end all and be all of the matter. Israel is the Jewish state, and it thus has a connection to Jews that it will never have with Christians, no matter how supportive. This is not to deny a Christian connection to the Holy Land or to discount Christian support for Israel. It is a simple acknowledgement that Israel has a bond and obligation to Jews resulting from its self-definition of a Jewish state that it does not have with other groups. The practical implication of this is that evangelicals showering Israel with greater support than Jews should not be a reason to brush aside Jewish concerns about evangelicals, or give evangelicals a more prominent role than American Jews in things like the embassy ceremony, since the calculation must transcend the arithmetic of support for Israel. If Israel is a Jewish state, then a metaphysical obligation exists to Jews who identify with the state, even if they are critical of the government and its policies.
This brings me around to Roth. While many of his books are more enjoyable reads, there is no Roth work more relevant and poignant to the current moment than The Plot Against America, an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election and Jews immediately become the target of mass anti-Semitism, pogroms, and government efforts to force their assimilation. The Plot Against America seemed to be all the rage during the 2016 presidential campaign as Donald Trump adopted the campaign slogan America First in a callback to the Lindbergh-led America First Committee and anti-Semitism crawled from its holes in the dark corners of the Internet and asserted itself in a shockingly more public way. The rush by Jewish characters in the novel to vouch for Lindbergh and his administration as a quid pro quo for political power also has plenty of parallels to today.
The novel’s enduring theme for me though is not a warning about anti-Semitism or a commentary on the fragility of Jews’ comfortable and secure perch in the U.S. It is the way in which politics can rip Jewish solidarity apart, dividing families and communities to their own unambiguous detriment. The fictional Roth family in Plot is riven by disagreements centered on Lindbergh and his administration’s efforts to “Americanize” Jews, with the narrator’s older brother voluntarily moving to the Midwest to live with a more traditional American family and absorb their lifestyle and his aunt marrying the Lindbergh administration’s chief Jewish defender and eventual court Jew. In the end, the true face of the Lindbergh presidency and the forces he has unleashed violently throw the family back together, but the book is in many ways a warning against unnecessary communal divisions for the sake of fleeting political gains or expediency.
Friedman’s formulation is something that the Jewish community should be guarding against. The idea that some Jewish concerns should be discarded or dismissed because the Jews voicing them are not signing on to a specific political agenda is a dangerous one. Friedman was not referring to groups who reject the concept of a Jewish state entirely, such as Jewish Voices for Peace, or Jewish groups that embrace BDS. He was not speaking about Jews who actively seek to harm Israel when he spoke about the many in the Jewish community who support Israel with less fervor than evangelicals. He was talking about Jews who are pro-Israel by any objective definition but express opposition to the current government, and who do not support the Trump administration’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Friedman is a Trump official and a Republican, and there is nothing untoward about political disagreements between him and American Jews who vote for Democrats and evince a particular distaste for Trump. What is untoward is the notion that American Jewish concerns that revolve around Jewish issues specifically – and there is no more Jewish issue than Israel – should be overridden by the priorities of other groups whose politics are more in line with the administration’s priorities. Roth’s warning about what happens when Jews decide which of their co-religionists’ concerns are valid and which are not based on political views is ringing uncomfortably close to home.
Trump is not Lindbergh, and we are not living in the 1940s. But Jewish communal solidarity is important nonetheless. It does not mean that everyone must or should agree on everything, or that one political camp is good for the Jews and one is not. It does, however, require an understanding that dismissing the inherited warning bells of Jewish historical memory should not hinge upon whom someone voted for or whether someone believes that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a mistake.