Jewish Institutions: It’s Time to Take a Stand

Aron: In the face of Trump’s election, our older and larger organizational heavyweights have demonstrated moral cowardice by offering praise and whitewashing his campaign’s hatefulness. The Conference of President of Major Jewish Organizations (CPMJO), for instance, stated, “We congratulate President-elect Trump on his election victory and welcome his clear commitment… to ‘bind the wounds of division’ after a long and bruising campaign.” In separate statements, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) congratulated Trump and then urged him “to take into account the concerns of… minority communities… who are understandably alarmed about the …incendiary rhetoric used by some in the recent campaign” (emphasis added).

Used by “some”? Did these people turn on their TVs for the first time this year during Trump’s acceptance speech? Is the CPMJO still “looking forward to working with President-elect Trump…[on] the rise of anti-Semitism” now that Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, an anti-Semite enabler, as his chief adviser?  Can these people take the crumpled StandWithUs pamphlets out of their ears to listen to what Trump and his inner circle are actually saying?

(Let’s also take a moment to note that 76 percent of Jews voted against Trump and appreciate the many liberal rabbis and organizations , like JFREJ, Jews United for Justice, Bend the Arc, JStreetU, IfNotNow, and even the ADL, that are representing our community more accurately and authentically by responding to Trump’s victory with explicit condemnations of his hate-fueled campaign and pledges to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other minority groups. Shoutout to IfNotNow for marching in D.C. this past week.)

Allen: Honestly, I never expected much from AJC, but I was surprised by the response from JTS — a community that I’m proud to be a part of, and a community that typically speaks on behalf of the highest ethical ideals. Consider how JTS Chancellor Eisen responded to the election:

“Tens of millions awoke with immense pain and anger at the outcome of he election, and about the same number with the sense their voices had finally been heard […] Words played a major role in turning us into this nation divided– name-calling, disparagement, smears of all kinds.”

As you asked above — whose words? Only one candidate was caught on tape endorsing sexual assault. There’s a dangerous moral equivalency at work here. It seems that our leaders are arguing that if both sides are flawed, they’re equally flawed and deserve equal scrutiny. I deeply respect Chancellor Eisen and the JTS community, so I’m all the more pained by their lack of leadership at this moment. In the Chancellor’s defense, he did issue a stirring rebuke of Trump’s proposed Muslim ban in Fortune Magazine last December, which should be all the more reason to speak out now. On the other side of Broadway, Union Theological Seminary faculty have already published a forceful denunciation: “President-elect Trump has blasphemed the most fundamental values of our community and our nation.” What will it take for our leaders to cry foul? What are they waiting for? Does Trump need to invite David Duke to the Oval Office? (At this rate, you never know– it could happen.) I encourage readers to contact JTS to push for a more explicit response.

There’s more to say here– but let’s get back to your other question. Are local Jewish leaders justified in refraining from political criticism out of respect for their Trump-leaning followers?

Aron: Respecting a congregant’s (or congregants’) opinion does not mean refusing to take a moral stand because of those opinions. The Pew survey notes that 14 percent of Conservative Jews don’t believe homosexuality should be promoted in society (compared to 43 percent of America). Should liberal rabbis therefore refrain from advocating for accepting LGBTQ members? 76% of Jews voted against Trump, and the number is doubtless higher among non-Orthodox Jews. Majority opinions aren’t always moral, but in this case it’s a majority unified in opposition to Trump’s enabling of misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other bigotries. There is a minority of our community that did not feel that Trump’s “isms” were disqualifying. This is, frankly, embarrassing, but they’re entitled to their opinion. What they’re not entitled to do is drag our community down with them by preventing us from standing up for the oppressed and ourselves.

Let’s also take a second to reserve a special place in Sheol for the organizations and people that are actually defending Steve Bannon: the Zionist Organization of America, Alan Dershowitz and the Republican Jewish Coalition. There’s a lot here that we don’t have the space to unpack – how support for right-wing Israeli policies prevents our institutions from taking a harder stand, how the organizations that are quick to call anti-Zionism anti-Semitic are now downplaying the anti-Semitism Bannon has fostered by highlighting his Zionism, and how Dershowitz’s next book might just be “The Case for Trump.” In any event, it’s on us to stand up if our institutions won’t; a good first step would be IfNotNow’s Sunday’s protest of the ZOA dinner, to which Steve Bannon has actually been invited.

Allen: Can’t wait — I’ll see you there.

I’ve been thinking about King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King wrote that famous piece in response to an op-ed by so-called moderate white clergy who opposed the “tensions” created by his civil disobedience efforts. The clergy, one of whom was Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanuel in Birmingham, had condescendingly written: “We do not believe these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified […] We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” Let’s leave a better legacy for the history textbooks than Grafman.

When I studied abroad in South Africa, I once asked a kind, elderly Jewish man whether he’d participated in anti-apartheid demonstrations. “No,” he sighed. “We were relieved not to be the ones persecuted for a change.” I only pray that’s not what we have to tell our grandkids.



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