Presidential Politics Reveal a Relationship at Risk

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President Trump: American Jewish Adversary, Israeli Jewish Advocate.

According to a recent Gallup poll, President Trump’s job disapproval rating among American Jews stands at 69%. When Israeli Jews were asked by the Pew Research Center about their level of confidence in the US president to “do the right thing,” they responded with a 69% level of confidence. Although these are two differently worded questions from different research organizations, they convey one message: the majority of American Jews strongly disapprove of President Trump, while the majority of Israeli Jews have a highly favorable opinion of him. On Monday, I returned from Israel after a two-week visit. While I was there, I conducted some informal political research among family members and friends. I wanted to understand better why Israeli Jews view Trump as a great advocate and why American Jews see him as a dangerous adversary. More significantly, I wanted to consider what this chasm of difference between American and Israeli Jews suggests about their future relationship?

What Israeli Jews Don’t Get. Israeli Jews don’t understand that the vast majority of American Jews have assimilated fully into American culture. They don’t vote on what’s best for Israel because they are 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation Americans. Israelis don’t grasp the American political system. They’re clueless about the ramifications of the erosion of bipartisan Congressional support, the Democratic left’s outright hostility toward Israel, or the anti-Semitic implications of Trump’s recent allegations of Jewish disloyalty. Israeli Jews’ appreciation for the rich history of the American Jewish experience is superficial at best. Also, they’re either indifferent about or dismissive of the contemporary diversity of Jewish life in America. Some are dismissive of Jewish existence outside of Israel.

What American Jews Don’t Get. Many American Jews actually believe that they understand Israel and its Jewish community. They learn about Israel in Hebrew school, Jewish camps, college campuses, synagogues, Jewish day schools, on the web, and through mass media. Many have traveled to Israel, and some have family members who live there. But they can’t appreciate what it means to live under the Iranian threat of extinction or to send their children to wage a proxy war against Iran’s terrorist armies in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip. (Those terrorist armies possess hundreds of thousands of conventional rockets!) American Jews can’t fathom the extent of Israeli loss and suffering, for Israelis have direct or near-direct experience with death: family and friends who died in wars or acts of terrorism. They don’t understand the Israeli political system (admittedly, “system” makes Israeli politics sound much too neat), the lack of progress toward peace with Palestinians, or Israel’s religious right turn.

Trump This or Trump That! American Jews and Israeli Jews live fundamentally different lives. Their daily interests and concerns rarely coincide. These fundamental misunderstandings in each other’s realities explain why Israeli and American Jews have such starkly different opinions about President Trump. From an Israeli Jewish national security perspective, he’s an advocate for Israel, a bulwark against Iran’s lethal hostility, and a supporter of the Israeli right’s expansionist vision that negates Palestinian statehood. From an American Jewish pluralistic viewpoint, Trump is the lead adversary against democratic values, a supporter of white Supremacists, an enabler of anti-Semitism and bigotry, and a destroyer of civil rights and civil discourse. He is both this and that – it’s all a matter of perspective, and perspective is conditioned by the place you call home.

The urgent questions that those who care about this relationship are:

  • Do the divergent realities and interests of the majority of American and Israeli Jews suggest an irrevocable relationship breakup?
  • What would it take for American Jews to try and view Israel’s actions from an Israeli Jewish perspective, and would it take for Israeli Jews to try and see American Jewry’s actions from an American Jewish perspective?

A mature dialogue around these questions can only happen if both sides agree to temporarily move from a “detriment of the doubt” to a “benefit of the doubt” posture. With a willingness to be curious, we can simulate the experiences of the other, restore memories that connect us, and potentially stimulate new pathways to a respectful, shared future.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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