Did Jewish Institutions Do Enough to Stop Trump?

Allen: Let’s leave God aside for a moment (I’m sure She won’t mind) and talk about that other taboo subject of liberal Jewish institutions: the presidential election. I’m reminded of the  High Holidays Untaneh tokef prayer: “Even the angels are seized with trembling as they declare – ‘The day of judgment is here!'” The day of judgment is here, and I’m trembling. You pointed out to me the other night that several mainstream alphabet-soup Jewish organizations– the AJC, the ADL, the Federation– have failed to endorse a candidate in this year’s election. The 501(c)(3) status of these groups certainly has something to do with their silence; but is there something deeper going on here? Could our age-old Jewish institutions have done more to promote an outcome in line with the Jewish value (and human value) of basic moral decency? And if so, what stayed their hand?

Aron: Hopefully, America doesn’t fuck this one up. Three brief thoughts (not an extensive list) come to mind:

First, let’s give at least a little credit to our community. Despite being 501(c)3’s, the RAC, the ADL, and other organizations have strongly denounced Trump’s statements (more on that here), and Bend the Arc’s PAC has run an entire campaign against him. Tablet and The Forward have been bashing Trump for months, and the Jewish Week’s endorsement of Hillary was its first presidential endorsement. On top of all that, Jews have long been one of the most intensely Democratic groups; the only group that voted in a larger percentage for Obama in 2008 was African Americans. And let’s not forget that a number of core anti-Trump Conservatives are prominent Jewish intellectuals.

Second, Israel. There are a number of Jews who, despite politically liberal leanings, find the Democratic Party insufficiently supportive of Israel and are therefore one-issue voters. There’s some endogeneity here, since the Republican party intentionally uses this as a wedge issue. Institutions that rely on their membership are probably afraid of alienating them, so instead they indulge them by setting up implicit equivalencies between the two candidates. Finally and on a related note, (and this is by no means an extensive list), there’s a compelling theory (strongly recommend reading this or this) about how anti-Semitism has affected Jewish institutions throughout history (this is going to be a very reductive summary of that theory). Jewish communities in Europe were often caught between two warring forces: Christian elites and Christian masses. The elites allowed a small number of Jews highly visible and highly limited access to power and influence. This offered those Jews’ communities a modicum of protection,  but at the cost of serving as a buffer for the elites against the wrath of the masses. Jewish institutions in America are often caught in a less extreme version of that bind. On the the far left and the far right, there is real anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic anti-Zionism; there’s also non-anti-Semitic anti-Zionism that nonetheless threatens what many Jews see as their existential interests. Refraining from “rocking the boat” offers our communities mainstream political protection from these forces, but at the cost of often serving as a more visible target for them. I don’t endorse that strategy, but I think it’s crucial to understand the systemic factors underlying it.

Allen: Fair enough– I shouldn’t tar Jewish institutions with the same brush. Yes, American Jews support Clinton over Trump by a three-to-one ratio, although it’s worth noting that a full 29 percent of Conservative Jews fell into the Trump camp as of a month ago.

Even so, I can’t help but wonder whether our community could have thrown its weight a bit more. In the hypothetical case that we (God forbid) wake up to bad news on Wednesday, will we regret that there wasn’t more we could have done?

Your “rocking the boat” theory is an interesting one, and probably at least partly true. On my end, I’m more interested in local community dynamics rather than collective Jewish trauma, if only because it’s easier to change communities than erase trauma. Donald Trump is a slap in the face to everything our Judaism stands for. Ensuring his defeat should have been one of, if not the, top priority on liberal Jews’ agendas. It’s not simply a political issue; it’s a religious issue. My sense from anecdotal evidence is that we sometimes refrain from talking politics too loudly in a desperate attempt at even-handedness. But by insisting that our religious spaces remain separate from the larger democratic process, we muzzle our message at the time it needs to be heard most. Pat Robertson & Co. have no problem loudly advocating for their policy stances; so when we tangle ourselves in the legal and moral morass of the church-state debate, we cede the political arena to the demagogues by default. Yeats’ famous lines come to mind: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” As much as I applaud the Jewish Week’s decision to endorse Hillary, it really shouldn’t have been an open question. The organized Jewish communal resistance to Trump has come  too little, too late.

Here’s hoping our pre-election jitters don’t turn into a post-election nightmare. If only this were all an elaborate variation on the Wave experiment. Last word to you.

Aron: I think you’re right about the evenhandedness. Rabbis and communal leaders don’t want to presume to tell people how to vote because we assume that our fellow congregants have carefully weighed their options and that, if they disagree with us, they must have good reason for doing so. If we really respect them as people, the argument goes, we should respect their voting choices.

This is morally and intellectually flawed. Our communal leaders should not have indulged, in even the most minimal way, the fantasy that voting for Trump can be anything but immoral. A vote for Trump has real, negative repercussions for people of color, LGBTQ individuals, women, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and pretty much everyone else who isn’t a wealthy, white Christian male. No, Trump isn’t Hitler. Still, there’s clearly a line beyond which we’d all agree that rabbis can and should preach politics. Given the unconstitutionality Trump has promised, the devastation he could wreak, and the way he has physically and verbally degraded so many people, why were so many congregations unwilling to admit that the line was crossed long ago?

Why would we ask our rabbis to preach about minor, everyday moral issues but insist that they remain silent in the face of an issue with such moral consequence? Does God care more about what you said about Shlomo behind his back than about the fact that you helped to elect an egomaniacal demagogue who sexually assaults women? Equivocation in the face of moral disrepair is not moderation, it does not evince respect, and it serves no higher purpose. Ultimately, our community is certainly not the only one at fault, and it is far from the most blameworthy. But, just as it was not on us to finish the work, neither were we free to abdicate. Let us pray that we did enough.

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