The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump – initially implausible, now increasingly inexorable – presents at least three challenges for Jews in America.
First, like it or not, Trump is part of the broader superstructure of the evolving and complicated Jewish polity in America. The phenomena of intermarriage and the facility of conversion are remaking the boundaries of American Jewish belonging, and requiring us to rethink who constitutes a member in the Jewish community.
By one metric, belonging is expressed through a commitment to Jewish continuity. Donald Trump, though an irascible Christian with inchoate religious beliefs, has Jewish grandchildren, an enviable commodity to many Jews of his generation. I am not in a rush to claim Donald Trump as a member of the Jewish people, but his family relations bring him into the conversation of Jewish peoplehood – somewhere between a stakeholder in Jewish collective belonging, an investor, or at least an interested bystander. Trump is not as “other” to the Jewish community as some might like – not just for the presence of Jewish supporters, but because of his own identity in this messy new American Jewish normal. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy has invited a conversation about Jewish identity in American politics, and Trump’s should do the same.
Second, Trump’s message of American exceptionalism as translated into nativist demagoguery raises questions about the unique values-based approach that American Jews have crafted through merging our ethical heritage with the unique conditions of the American experience.
The signature idea of liberal American Judaism is the hubristic notion of tikkun olam, the bold claim that a tiny people sees its role as transforming and repairing the entire world. The rise of this idea for American Jews must be related to the broader framework of American exceptionalism in which this Jewish community has come to thrive.
Tikkun Olam as a form of exceptionalism invests enormous moral authority in the hands of its adherents, and casts a wide net in terms of the scope of what it envisions as its responsibility. Trump’s version of exceptionalism may be a perversion of an important and lofty idea, but it is born of similar ideological instincts.
And third, the rise of Trump is a reminder of Jewish history and memory in ways that are eerily familiar. The rise of Manichean ideologies that scapegoat and marginalize minorities and which appeal to a worn-down and panicky public’s basest instincts have been endemic of past Jewish powerlessness and suffering. One common Jewish response now is to apply the Niemoller test, to assume that Trump’s hostility first comes for the Muslims and later for the Jews, and that we must “stand up” now lest we become caught in the web later. This would be the self-interested approach: to recognize the story and to respond to make sure it never happens again.
But Jewish moral responsibility to the past transcends merely the vigilance to make sure that the victimization repeated throughout our history does not recur just to us. The Shoah’s legacy demands that we must remember multiple lessons simultaneously: to not become victims, perpetrators, or bystanders. Moral laziness inclines us to choose only one of these lessons as a means of reinforcing our preexisting political positions; a serious commitment to the past must push us to moral responsibility that transcends self-interest, and expands our sphere of obligation.
There will be time – God-willing, when the Trump candidacy falls short – for us to collectively interpret what went wrong in American society to reach this moment. I have been encouraged to see some of this kind of heshbon ha-nefesh, soul-searching, in my rational and reasonable Republican friends, and by their horror and shame about the ways in which larger ideological and political trends abetted by their party have made them complicit in the rise of candidate Trump. This makes me slightly optimistic that we may be able to make progress in reforming our political culture, which is now so broken and toxic.
But these challenges – this web of culpability, complexity, and familiarity – invite the more urgent work right now of winning. This should take two forms. The most obvious form of winning is at the polls, and the fight against a ruthless, dishonest demagogue will be ugly and difficult. Trump has thrived on being underestimated throughout this campaign.
The second piece of that urgent work is equally important, and that is a concerted campaign of outreach from the Jewish community, to Muslims, Latinos, and other minority groups threatened with social alienation, punitive collective retaliation, and other ruthlessness by Trump, and more disconcertingly, by his unchecked followers.
This outreach must transcend mere empathy and include a commitment to shared organizing toward our shared goals. This is a moment for a collective patriotic responsibility — translated into strategy — for the society we value and need and which is being hijacked. We are in this together – both to win the election, and to have allies in the event that we lose.
In this moment then, American Jewry can both act with purpose toward what is obviously right, and at the same time engage in a process of self-examination: about what it means to belong, who are our kindred political spirits, who represents us, how we advance our values, and what it means to inherit the Jewish past, while advancing the American Jewish future.
American Jewish identity is publicly part of this election more than it has ever been before, and American Jews are implicated and challenged by the Trump phenomenon and forced to ask who we want to be in this story. Jewish history should not be merely prologue but a playbook; if the plan is executed properly, we could be reshaping how we see ourselves as American Jews for years to come.
Yehuda Kurtzer is President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.