Further Into Uncharted Waters

Much has been written, quite accurately, about post-election America being in uncharted waters. We’ve never had a presidential candidate like Donald Trump, much less a President. The traditional core concerns of long-time members of both major parties seems to have undergone some kind of tectonic shift. Old alliances are now just that—old—and little that we took for granted before this presidential election can now be assumed to be a given. Actually, we’re not just in uncharted waters. We’re in uncharted waters without land anywhere in sight.

From where I sit, another very significant results of this election, a kind of collateral damage, if you will, is that it has also left large swaths of the Jewish community in uncharted waters, feeling without a clear political home.

There was a time, just a generation ago, when people like my parents, who were teachers, very middle class and union members, believed that FDR was closer to God than most other human beings, Jew or Gentile. Voting Democratic was about as much of a given for them as anything might possibly be. Night would follow day, and my parents, and many Jews like them, would vote for any Democrats they could find on the ballot. They felt, deeply, that in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the Democratic party represented their interests, as opposed to the Republican party, which represented the interests of big business and the wealthy.

In those days, the young State of Israel was the darling child of political liberals, meaning, of course, mostly Democrats. They saw in the socialist values of its founders a realized vision of their ideals. I suspect, as well, that Israel’s early successes and military prowess helped to assuage some of the guilt generated by American inaction on behalf of Europe’s Jews during the war.

Things started changing in a big way in the 60’s and 70’s, when American anti-Nam leftists began to identify Israel as a colonial power, and thus the enemy. I remember well how uncomfortable it was sometimes to participate in anti-war rallies next to signs that championed the Palestinian cause and vilified Israel. Slowly but surely, liberals ceded love and support of Israel to Conservatives, mostly Republicans, who saw in Israel an effective American outpost of democracy and military strength in the difficult neighborhood of the Middle East. Additionally, as many American Jews became more prosperous, they began to vote their pocketbook.

It was no longer axiomatic that to be Jewish was to automatically vote Democratic. Increasing numbers of American Jews were beginning to feel more comfortable in the Republican Party as they became more prosperous, and particularly as Republicans were regarded as being significantly more supportive of Israel. This has also increasingly been true of the Israeli government. At no time was this clearer than just a few years ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed a joint session of (a Republican-controlled) Congress, hoping to curtail the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal by bypassing the President and the official line of the Democratic party.

The presidential election of November 8 upended all of these conventional ways of looking at the political world. Donald Trump not only defeated Hillary Clinton, but also, in essence, all of the Republican royalty as well. He was elected owing nothing to anyone in Washington, because the long-established leaders of both parties had intentionally distanced themselves from him.

If it weren’t so sad and frightening, it might be funny to see how both political parties are trying desperately to regain their balance after what was for them an electoral debacle. Is Romney, who basically called Trump a total fraud and charlatan, really prepared to be in his cabinet? Are House Democrats really going to follow Nancy Pelosi’s lead when fully a third of them voted against her continuing as House Minority leader because they fear she represents “the old way of thinking” for Democrats?

But even further to the point… Steven Bannon’s appointment as Trump’s “Senior Strategist,” with an office in the West Wing horrifies me. Someone who has given a platform to the true “basket of deplorables” in the alt-right movement, and who is the patron saint of so much hatred and anti-Semitism that has found its way into the American mainstream, has no business having the ear of the President of the United States.

And lest you accuse me of “leaning too far left,” the prospect of Keith Ellison potentially becoming head of the Democratic National Committee likewise leaves me at the very least seriously troubled. I am not a flaming right-winger when it comes to Israel, not by a long shot. But having the person “driving the Democratic bus” be someone who had a long association with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam leaves me feeling that the Democratic party is no longer a particularly safe space for me as a Jew. If the Democrats are going to try and rebuild their base in a way that has little room for even slightly right-of-center Zionist Jews like me, what home is left for us in American politics? I am squarely, totally with the Democrats on social policy issues. That has not changed. But how can someone who voted against the extension of funding for the Iron Dome defense system, the only thing between Hamas missiles and mass loss of life for residents of southern Israel, be in charge of the party that my parents thought was their true home base in America?

If the Democratic party is no longer a secure, safe space for me because its increasingly progressive agenda is pushing me aside, and the Republican party under Donald Trump is too awful to contemplate, what are my options?

These are all interesting questions, and they’re not only for Jews. Muslims, African-Americans, and the LGBTQ community have their own sets of deep and troubling concerns about America and its direction post November 8, but their immediate, pressing issues are much more with the Republicans than the Democrats. As a Jew, I’m looking at what has come out of this election so far, and I am concerned… deeply concerned. I know not at all why some Jews seem to feel so strongly that President-elect Trump will be “good for Israel.” Really, where does that certainty come from? From the fact that he has a Jewish son-in-law, and his daughter converted? No one really knows what Trump thinks about anything, because it depends on when and on what day he addresses any given issue, and to whom he’s talking when he does…

We are indeed in uncharted waters, and it feels like we’re miles from nowhere.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.