I sometimes wonder whether the American Jewish community will survive the Trump presidency. I do not mean that American Jews are under some form of existential threat from President Trump, which is obviously not the case, but whether any unified sense of community that still remains will be dealt a fatal blow. American Jews are a fractured bunch, but the manner in which the Trump presidency is used by some parts of the community to cast others outside of it while the Trump administration itself exploits and purposely furthers the divisions is going to be hard to wind back. While neither part of this equation is unprecedented, it is the role that the White House is playing now that is increasingly on display and beyond the bounds of anything that has come before it.
Last week, Israel Policy Forum and nine other groups (all of whom save Israel Policy Forum are members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) sent a letter to Trump reiterating support for two states and opposition to unilateral annexation of any kind, and asking that he clearly and unequivocally state that U.S. policy is in line with these views. The letter did not demand that Trump take any action. It did not ask him to sanction Israel. It did not ask him to threaten or pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu. And it was a letter from Americans addressed to our elected president, not a letter from Americans to the Israeli government or Israeli officials. As you might imagine, however, some found this relatively mild step one that was nevertheless too far. The most common reaction was to mischaracterize it as American Jews dictating to Israel what to do, but those whose reading comprehension skills are a bit stronger still took exception to American Jews voicing any opinion on Israeli policy whatsoever. Jonathan Tobin, for example, cites the letter as “trashing the verdict of Israeli democracy” and describes the signatories as groups that “express such contempt for the people of Israel and attempt to sabotage the U.S.-Israel relationship.” For those keeping score at home, this is in reference to a letter from Americans to an American president about American foreign policy positions that does not call for any concrete action to be taken against Israel or the Israeli government.
It should not escape notice that when an Israeli prime minister came to Washington to publicly and directly lobby against U.S. foreign policy set by a president who had been elected twice by a majority of Americans, that was not viewed by the people who howled the loudest this week as trashing the verdict of American democracy. And rather than being tarred as expressing contempt for the American people or an effort to sabotage the U.S.-Israel relationship, it was lauded as an act of bravery in standing up for his interests. It should also not escape notice that on Tuesday, a group of conservative organizations – most Jewish, but not all – sent their own letter to Trump in response asking him to support Netanyahu should he decide to annex the West Bank. So the apparent lesson to be learned is that in hindsight it is perfectly fine for Americans to weigh in with their elected leader on a matter of American foreign policy so long as it only supports whatever Israeli action is on the table and includes non-Jewish groups as well.
It is patently absurd on its face to pretend that there is anything out of bounds about Jewish groups having opinions about what takes place in Israel and to insist that American Jews are duty bound to support anything that the Israeli government does. All that needs to be done to refute this insulting and infantilizing argument is to pull up the statements made by groups and people who opposed the Oslo process or the Gaza disengagement, or to watch the reaction in the future when the Israeli political pendulum swings back to the other side. The real issue here is whether these bitterly fought arguments over policy and politics are going to remain in that realm, or whether they are going to morph into something larger. American Jews are still arguing about the Obama presidency and the Iran deal, so this cannot be laid solely at the feet of Trump and the coalitions that have sprung up to defend or oppose him. The Jewish community is hardly politically monolithic and debates will always abound. But when one side seeks to use those political divisions as communal boundary markers, it threatens to create a different sort of division.
The Obama White House was very effective at marshaling its Jewish allies in support of its favored policies. But it did not view American Jews as little more than an extension of Israel, and it did not use its platform to pick and choose which Jews were favored and which ones were excommunicated. The White House annual Hanukkah party included everyone, so much so that it had to be split into separate back-to-back events. Matt Nosanchuk, Obama’s Jewish liaison, famously received heaps of praise from none other than Zionist Organization of America head Mort Klein in recognition of the fact that the administration reached out to political friends and foes alike. The Eisenhower White House initiated the creation of the Conference of Presidents because it was tired of meeting with the range of Jewish alphabet soup organizations separately, but it did not dictate which organizations would be included in that tent; it was the American Jewish community’s job to decide the parameters of its own boundaries.
Yet we now have a president who refers to Netanyahu as “your prime minister” when speaking to American Jews, who hosts a meeting at the White House for Jewish groups on “issues impacting the American Jewish community” but with few exceptions only invites Orthodox and politically conservative organizations (and naturally excludes all ten organizations who signed the letter to him last week), and who lines up the Israeli ambassador to be the featured speaker at that gathering allegedly devoted to Jewish communal issues. I’m old enough to remember when dividing Jews into lists of good ones and bad ones based on their policy positions was considered to be bad form of the highest order, but I guess that was before the great sorting involved eating gefilte fish in the Indian Treaty Room. Were the White House to simply advertise something like this as a meeting for its political allies, it would be entirely unobjectionable. But on top of Trump’s incessant attempts to paint Democrats and the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic, it is crystal clear that this is instead an effort from outside the Jewish community to redraw political lines as Jewish communal lines, and that Jewish groups who are inside Trump’s increasingly miniscule tent are shamefully all too happy to play along for their own short term gain.
There are many disturbing ramifications that will result from this, but two in particular should be top of mind. First, if we allow the Jewish community to be defined by anyone other than the Jewish community, we are setting ourselves up for a tragic and irreversible schism whose trajectory will be controlled by others. Second, the Jewish community’s strength is reflected in the fact that it is not just another interest group defined by politics alone, but that it represents something larger and loftier. The groups who are riding high now sacrifice that status at their own future peril. American Jews will always be politically fractious, but it will be far harder to defend and maintain communal priorities if we are not seen as one community.