Orthodox Leadership Genuflects to Trump

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to write this column. I hoped that mainstream Jewish leadership, and particularly the rabbinic and lay leadership of my own Orthodox community, was just too shocked by Donald Trump’s election victory to speak up publicly against the terrifying prospect his impending administration presents to us all. And I hoped that other Orthodox Jews were feeling the same way I was.

But a much more disquieting picture is crystallizing from the chaos. While expressions of well-justified fear are escaping some of the non-Orthodox synagogues in the U.S., most of the traditional rabbinate is getting comfortable with Realpolitik.

Jewish organizations that once sermonized about “moral leadership” now embrace a flagrant womanizer repeatedly accused of abusing employees and breaking his contracts. Rabbis who love to talk about the betterment of humanity are cozying up to a president-elect whose denial of global warming, just for instance, literally threatens human civilization. And Jewish leadership that claims to care (at the very minimum) about the welfare of American’s Jewish minority is bowing and scraping to a demagogue who adores Christian supremacists and demonizes immigrants, Middle Easterners and non-WASP ethnic groups.

There’s no way to rationalize this kind of sycophancy as a species of caution. This is moral cowardice.

Nathan Diament, Executive Director of the Advocacy Center of the Orthodox Union, America’s single most influential Orthodox rabbinic organization, set an early example of obsequiousness in a November 21 column published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Diament’s praise for Trump’s commitments to scuttle the US-Iran nuclear agreement and to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel came as no surprise: the OU has been a propaganda mill for the Israeli Foreign Ministry for years.

But Diament didn’t stop there. He kowtowed to Christian fundamentalists, some of Trump’s most dangerous (and often anti-Semitic) supporters, by claiming that “traditionalists in many faiths” voted for Trump to strike a blow in the “fractious debate over the interplay between expanding gay rights and religious liberty.” These are ominous words: the implication that the country cannot have “gay rights” and “religious liberty” at the same time suggests that the rabbinate is prepared to sacrifice one vulnerable minority – the LGBT community – in the hope of preserving the political power of another minority, Orthodox Jews. Choosing power over justice is bad enough, but doing it to curry favor with an unstable reactionary, just because he’s going to be President, is as sickening as it is probably self-destructive.

And Diament wasn’t alone. Less than two weeks after Trump’s election, the Jewish Press published “An Open Letter to Orthodox Jews” from two well-placed observers who rejoiced that Orthodox Jewish enclaves in New York and New Jersey were so “massively for Trump” that “spontaneous dancing broke out Wednesday morning at relieved and overjoyed frum [Orthodox] congregations.”

And why would Hasidic Jews support a trash-talking spendthrift who boasts about molesting women? Simple. Trump’s Democratic opponents, according to the “open letter,” are “immoral, anti-religious, anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic.” The authors didn’t try to document those slanders – how could they? – but they still got their message across tolerably well: if Trump is looking for a cheering section to back up attacks on gays, liberals or supporters of Palestinian rights, Orthodox Jewish leaders will probably play along. Maybe they’ll even ask us to dance in the street.

Right-wing Orthodox flack Dennis Prager was more servile yet, not only simpering to Trump but publicly scolding all Jews who didn’t simper as “childish and narcissistic.” Prager probably deserves a chutzpah-of-the-year award for pinning that label on Trump’s opponents rather than on Trump himself, but for sheer hypocrisy Prager’s submissiveness was topped by that of Gil Troy, a visiting professor at the University of Haifa. The same Jewish academic who just months ago was demanding “zero tolerance” for university students who want Israel to obey international law (“make the fight personal, because it is”) is now appalled by Jewish liberals’ hard-heartedness toward supporters of Donald Trump: “When did we decide that competing partisans were racist, unpatriotic, evil? Why are we so quick to condemn those who disagree with us?” Has the lion turned lamb toward his critics? No, he’s still throwing around bogus “anti-Semitism” charges; it’s only when facing a real anti-Semite – Steve Bannon, say – that the Troys and Pragers of the Jewish world are for turning the other cheek.

And if you thought Orthodox Jewish publicists who blink at anti-Semitism might still be a tad worried about a president-elect who says climate change is a Chinese hoax, think again. Prager’s Trump-appeasing column obligingly listed “environmentalism” as one of the sins of “leftist” Jews who “embarrass [pro-Trump] Jews and Judaism” – along with “feminism” and “humanism.” If Prager is an accurate weathervane of Orthodox rabbinic opinion, and he probably is, better not expect any sympathy for women, human beings or the planet we live on from that quarter over the next four years.

It’s true there’s really nothing new about the rabbinate’s priorities. For instance, there weren’t any protests from religious Jewish leadership when a recent appointee for the position of Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces called gays “sick or deformed” and suggested that Jews in battle might be allowed to rape non-Jewish women “out of consideration for the difficulties faced by the soldiers and for overall success.” An official of the Israeli military’s Chief Rabbinate thought these comments were okay because they “match the IDF’s values,” while American Orthodox organizations were conspicuously silent.

But this time the issue isn’t a bigoted army chaplain or one more homophobic rabbi. This is about a man who will soon be the highest official of the most powerful government on earth. And it’s about religious organizations that can’t, or won’t, see the threat this man poses to every value they claim to believe in: justice, charity, peace, the safety of religious minorities, the preservation of humanity.

If we let them continue on such a disastrous course of appeasement, what will Judaism be worth – for any of us?

“There is a doctrine,” wrote Katherine Anne Porter, “that we should be patient in times of darkness and decline: but darkness and decline are the very things to fight, they are man-made, and can be unmade by man also.”

Orthodox rabbis didn’t elect Donald Trump, but his election has presented them with a clear choice: fight the darkness and decline, or fight against humanity. So far they seem to be choosing wrong. Will we?

About the Author
Michael Lesher is an author, lawyer and Orthodox Jew who lives in Passaic, NJ. His most recent book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014).