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I’m a Zionist, but I can’t focus on Israel right now

Donald Trump threatens my values of justice, tolerance, and inclusion; Zionism has to wait
US President Donald Trump, delivering his first State of the Union address, on January 30, 2018, in Washington, DC, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan applaud. (Win McNamee/Pool via AP)
US President Donald Trump, delivering his first State of the Union address, on January 30, 2018, in Washington, DC, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan applaud. (Win McNamee/Pool via AP)

“In case of emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” These instructions, which any air traveler can recite by heart, are an apt motto for many American Jews in the era of Donald Trump.

For many of us — most of whom skew politically liberal – Donald Trump’s election was terrifying. Nearly three-quarters of Jewish voters supported Hilary Clinton. Shocked by her defeat, a year ago, I could scarcely imagine my civil rights surviving Trump’s presidency. Any man who could try to ban all Muslims from entering the United States could surely imagine and execute civil rights violations against us, too.

Soon after the election, gasping for metaphorical oxygen, many of us marched for women, and again for immigrants. I signed a lot of petitions in those early days, and paid subscriptions to support the free press. Some of my neighbors proudly displayed lawn signs declaring that All Are Welcome Here; I framed a Clinton-Kaine sign I had snagged at a rally and left it in a front window of my house. I went to the airport with my immigration lawyer friend who sued Trump over the travel ban, and welcomed Iranian immigrants who had been kept in limbo while en route (legally) to the US, for school, work, or to see family. Many of us joked about moving to Canada, and some of us quietly researched what it would take to actually move to Canada, in case we ever had to.

“But Ivanka is Jewish!” These hopeful cries were of no comfort, as Ivanka had failed to ameliorate a long history of Trump’s anti-Semitism. On her watch this past year, Trump failed to mention Jews in his first Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, and defended neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, who chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” Imagine how much worse he might behave if his daughter and son-in-law were not Jewish.

Not surprisingly, 77% American Jews disapprove of Trump. But Orthodox Jews — who represent only 9% of American Jews — are more generous, with 71% approving. “He’s good for Israel,” my most right-wing religious contacts claim in Trump’s defense. He signaled Israel’s importance by visiting the holy land on his first overseas trip in office. He trashes the Iran nuclear deal. And his pledge to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem got a standing ovation at his first State of the Union address, as did his promise to retaliate against any countries that oppose the move.

But he threatens the values many American Jews share — tolerance, inclusion, and justice. He is trying to close the very borders that saved many of our ancestors from the Holocaust, or, in my family’s case, the Russian pogroms before that. And he winks and nods to white supremacists who would like to see us gone.

So as much as we are conditioned to think about the imperative of Israel’s security, right now we have to focus on our own. Preoccupied with our own survival — many of us for the first time — we relegate Trump’s purported support for Israel as secondary to the threats he poses at home. That likely sounds melodramatic, but the news these days is often frightening to us. We understand that existential threat is second nature to Israelis, but it is new to us. Not that we do not, or should not, care about Israel’s fate, but in fighting for our values that affect our daily lives, Israel feels remote. And yes, Israel is supposed to be our escape valve, too. Israeli citizenship awaits those of us who need and commit to it. But American Jews may not all find comfort among more conservative-leaning Israeli Jews, which may explain why many of us thought first of Canada as a refuge. Female journalists being placed in the cheap seats during Mike Pence’s recent visit to the Kotel — in the midst of our collective #metoo moment — was a reminder that Israel is rife with aspects of the right-wing approach that has been causing us distress.

If we could remind our Israeli cousins of one thing, it is that anyone who believes Donald Trump’s promises is likely to be disappointed. In the past year, Americans have learned to pay attention to what Trump does and ignore what he says. Pick any of the more than 2,000 lies he has reportedly told in his first year to illustrate his untrustworthiness. Just the other night, 70% of Trump’s State of the Union statements were classified as anywhere from “Mostly False” to “Pants on Fire.” Even in his rhetoric, he was simply not credible, claiming America’s future will involve us being “together, as one team, one people, and one American family.” As the one who has been most intent on — and effective at — stirring conflict among segments of American society, the divider-in-chief may also have a bridge to sell.

For the moment, Trump finds it convenient or politically expedient to take a stand supporting Israel by moving the embassy and dropping any charade of neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — two issues about which American Jews are divided. But with history as our guide, it is easy to imagine him turning on a dime to throw Israel and its interests under a bus.

And despite Trump’s claims of support for Israeli security, it seems his actions may be making the Middle East less safe. Is this the kind of friend Israel needs? After 70 years, Israel is a world power and can stand for itself. No Israeli I spoke to after Trump’s embassy announcement seemed to care. “We all know Jerusalem is our capital,” one friend told me. “We don’t need Trump for validation.”

With all the turbulence in the world, we are edgy about when the oxygen masks might drop from the overhead compartment. For now, many American Jews are focused on how to put on their own.

About the Author
Deborah Gordon is a senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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