And I said: Wisdom is better than might, yet a petty man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heeded. The gentle words of the wise are heard over the cries of the ruler of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but a single sinner can destroy much good. — Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), 9: 16-18
In the coming days, over one-quarter of American Jews will be voting for Donald Trump and his agenda. Whatever their individual motivations, they will be voting for an openly racist and sexist demagogue who rejects science and the welcoming message of the Statue of Liberty, says Jews who oppose him are “disloyal”, roots for brutal dictators, and makes a mockery of clean government and the rule of law… among many other vices. That’s too many people to write off, or even to unfriend on Facebook.
In the event Joe Biden wins, the millions of Americans who voted for Trump won’t either disappear or automatically revert to some unifying democratic ethos. So how do we move forward after November 3?
Let’s bear in mind the myriad ways in which every Jew adds to the richness of our communal and spiritual life. In synagogues and Federation Boards, in carpool lanes and family celebrations…these are our neighbors, friends, and loved ones. While we must not compromise our values or tolerate hate speech in our midst, nor are we in a position to castigate fellow Jews for their political views. Forgiveness is itself a core Jewish value, as is the resiliency of membership in the Jewish people. We need their energy, we miss their souls.
If the shoe were on the other foot, would they stigmatize us? Well, yes. Many Jewish Trump supporters have been doing just that, calling us self-hating Jews and enemies of Israel, and even Nazi sympathizers, as we’re trying to safeguard our communities from pandemic, white supremacists, and a nuclear Iran. We can follow down that dark and toxic road, or else use this opportunity to “raise the ramah” — aim higher than we might have imagined for ourselves, model the behavior we would expect from others.
Of course, we lack moral or legal authority to exclude Jews from our midst, even if we wanted to. On the more human level, a Biden win will crush many Trump supporters. Yes, they will taste bitter defeat and resentment, but some may also begin to regret the tone and consequences of their past positions and statements. After a Biden win, the last thing any Trump supporter needs from us is gloating or preaching; it’s also the least useful response for our own goals and peace of mind.
Particularly within the Orthodox realm – where over half the population supports Trump – many institutions and leaders will continue to stoke the fires of division, fear, and dispossession. Responding to this will require more than merely reciprocating their moral outrage.
It is past time for Jews of good faith, including among the Orthodox, to develop a proactive and impact-driven approach that is at once conciliatory and resolute, and that also speaks to the complicated and highly charged Orthodox constituencies.
Between the pandemic crisis and our Trump phase, it is also past time for us to decide what “Jewish community” is and will be, on many levels — as I’ve recently discussed.
Maintaining perspective is also helpful. We should not expect the hate or the toleration of hate to suddenly vanish on November 3 or next January 20, when hopefully our new President is inaugurated. And we should never think our community or our republic doesn’t demand constant defense, justification, and growth… in every generation.
Racism in America did not disappear after the Civil War, despite its convincing defeat on the battlefield. It did not disappear after the civil rights victories of the 1960s. Much of the racism we assumed had evolved away was ever present, but society insisted it not be verbalized. And of course, African Americans and others have never stopped bearing the brunt of it throughout. But Donald Trump has granted permission to millions of Americans — including quite a few Jews — to declare aloud what has always been in their hearts. This will not be easily silenced, and its shadow will continue to pervade our discourse.
Europe’s Enlightenment and the American experiment have always been accompanied by forces of resistance to progress and to the principles of individual human dignity. And the rationalism of Maimonides has long been countered by elements within the rabbinic establishment, some openly and others implicitly. Even today, some prominent yeshiva leaders flout social distancing and decry vaccines, while others tolerate and honor them. These disputes are not new, nor will they destroy us — unless we give in to temptation.
Sure, let’s prosecute criminal behavior and call inciters to account, and not back down on our core principles as Americans and Jews. But let’s also maintain an open succah, cloaked in values and devoid of sanctimony. This humility, openness and commitment is what will define us. It is what will save us.