Elana Sztokman
Award-winning feminist writer, researcher, educator and activist

Jews who attack liberals as ‘bad Jews’ are not keeping the Torah

Last week a Trump supporter suggested to me on air that Orthodox Jews are more likely to support Trump because liberal Jews tend to be less affiliated and less knowledgeable about Judaism.

This was not the first time I heard this particular talking point. As Vice Chair for Media and Policy of Democrats Abroad Israel, I’ve been opposite Trumpists enough to hear pretty much everything. But this was eye-popping nonetheless.

The arrogance was astounding. I mean, only Trump supporters — with their insatiable appetite for rhetorical twists, emotional manipulations, and gross attacks on entire populations — can so easily dismiss the 79% of American Jews who voted Democrat in 2018 as simply not committed enough. Like, if we were only truly dedicated to Jews and Israel, then we would do the “right” thing and support Trump.

In this case, it was also a wild personal attack on me, the “liberal” on the panel, who was effectively labeled as a bad Jew. It reproduced Trump’s tweet from last August that,  “If you want to vote Democrat, you are being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.”

My adversary adopted this same tack, despite its overt antisemitism and deep offense at so many American Jews.

To be sure, I’m neither ignorant nor uncommitted to Israel and Judaism. I grew up in Brooklyn, attended the Orthodox Yeshivah of Flatbush for 13 years, studied in yeshiva, made Aliyah at the age of 23, raised my family here in Israel, sent my kids to serve in the army, and dedicated my life to the Jewish people, both personally and professionally. I’ve helped build many Jewish institutions both as a professional and volunteer, hold a master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew University, and have been teaching and writing about Jewish life for over 25 years. These Republicans ought to really quit with the talking point calling people like me “ignorant” and “unaffiliated” because they sound like idiots.

In fact, I was Orthodox for my first forty years of life. The reasons I left orthodoxy – which happened before Trump was anywhere near the White House – have a lot to do with the same repugnant dynamics that we’re witnessing among Orthodox Trump supporters, like this guy. The same twisted logic, relentless self-interest, and incessant, violent putting down of the other – especially women – drove me away then, and repulses me even more today.

I’ve heard all the arguments about why Orthodox Jews support Trump. They use language such as “good for Israel”, “conservative judges”, “freedom of religion”, and “law and order”. But let’s be clear – all of these are just euphemisms for ideas, policies, and attitudes that are very far from an ideal vision of Judaism and Torah.

Let me break it down for you.

“Good for Israel” means that Trump is willing to adopt right-wing language when it suits him, to the unbridled glee of many right-wing Orthodox Jews. He is also willing to ignore intelligence reports, diplomatic anaylses, and human rights abuses, and engage in unilateral symbolic actions that more reasoned presidents did not because he is not one to consider long-term implications of his actions, or the humanity of the others involved in the conflict. So, for example, right-wing Trump supporters like to say he moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but conveniently leave out the fact that fifty Palestinians were killed the same day in protest. They also conveniently ignore Trump’s many flip flops, such as impulsively sharing Israel’s intelligence secrets with Russia in the Oval Office, deciding against military advice to pull out of Syria and letting the Kurds hang dry, or whimsically changing track on Iran without regard to whether that will put Israel in Iran’s bullseye, on Israel’s northern border. Trump, the master of emotional manipulation, knows how to sing the tune that right-wing Jews like to hear, so they ignore everything else, including things like facts, truth, consistency, and reliability.

“Conservative judges” means only one thing: misogyny. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies and sexuality. The dominant issues on the court dividing liberals and conservatives in America have to do with women’s reproductive rights and LGBT issues. As a Jewish woman, I can only say that while I’m not surprised that Orthodox (male) leadership is happily siding with Tea Party evangelicals about my basic rights as a woman, I’m nevertheless appalled and wish it weren’t so.

“Freedom of religion” means this: Don’t tell us what to do. It means that whether Orthodox communities want to maintain gender-segregated buses, a math-free educational curriculum, or the communal protection of sexual abusers, a Trump government will not interfere.

Finally, I’m pretty sure we all know what “law and order” is a euphemism for, because it’s not unique to the Orthodox community. It means, “keep blacks out of our neighborhood”. Or, in the community I grew up in, it was more likely “keep schvartzes out”. “Law and order” is a phrase of pure racism. Where I grew up, we were taught to cross to the other side of the street if we saw black men walking there. Yes, we really did that. We avoided subway cars with black men on them. All of that. We did that. “Law and order” suggests that blacks are a threat to Jews. It is a reflection of the idea that the scariest thing to Jews is blacks.

Orthodox Jews, stuck in the propaganda machine of their own making, are also willing to ignore or rewrite facts and history in order to support this choice. The fact that antisemitism is up on Trump’s watch – including two of the worst antisemitic attacks in all American history, the rampages at The Tree of Life Synagogue and Poway Synagogue – coupled with the reality in which 80% of American Jews feel less safe than they did before Trump, and that Trump retweets antisemitic tropes, makes antisemitic jokes, and calls Nazis in Charlottesville “very fine people”, are all swept under the rug. That is a very worrying sign.

Orthodox Jews can make all kinds of fanciful claims about why Trump is good for them, and how obviously people like me are just not committed enough to Judaism. But all that masks a very ugly truth. And that truth is, the reason why so many Orthodox Jews like Trump – to such an extent that they completely ignore his absolute lack of morality, his trampling of democracy, his use of public funds for his own wealth, his gross mistreatment of women including his wives, and his utter disregard for human life – the reason they like Trump is because he says the silent part out loud.  He gives them permission to be as racist, sexist, and abusive as they want to be. The emotional manipulation and toxicity that are rampant in Orthodoxy and drove me, and so many other women, away have been given the ultimate green light. Trump makes it very comfortable for people to be obnoxious and abusive – in the name of their religion.

Perhaps when Orthodox Trump supporters claim that people like me are bad Jews, maybe – like so much else that comes out of the Trump world – the exact opposite is actually true. Maybe people like me have a clearer and worthier appreciation of how to be a good Jew. Because as I learned endlessly in yeshiva, derech eretz kadma laTorah. We must aspire to be good, kind, caring people before all else. If you’re willing to support policies, ideas, and interpersonal behavior that are cruel, abusive, toxic, and dehumanizing of others, then you might as well be eating pork on Yom Kippur. Because your Torah is worthless. If you don’t choose to be kind, you have no claim to be keeping the Torah.

When Trump finally leaves office, we are going to have a lot of work to do in order to repair the fabric of our society – as Americans, as Jews, and as human beings. But the most vital and possibly the hardest thing is going to be to eliminating all the Trump-induced toxicity from our midst, and to remind Trump supporters that the first rule of being a good Jew is derech eretz. It means valuing integrity and honesty, and treating other human beings with decency, kindness, and respect. That, to me, is going to be the most difficult challenge ahead.

About the Author
Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman is one of the founders of Kol Hanashim, the new women's political party in Israel. An award winning writer, leading Jewish feminist thinker, educator, social activist, indie publisher, and overall spiritual seeker, she has been involved in the movement for gender equality in Israel for 25 years, and has worked with many organizations and communities. She has written four books on gender and society, two of which won the National Jewish Book Council award. She is involved in many causes, and currently serves as VP for Media and Strategy for Democrats Abroad-Israel.
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