It did not take long for the winds to shift. American Jews, prominent and otherwise, who had expressed disdain for Donald Trump and had, ostensibly, shared the widespread revulsion at his many campaign utterances, have decided that it’s time to get on the winning side of history.
In meeting after meeting, email after email, friends and colleagues are telling me that the horrified opposition is not where they plan to situate themselves for the foreseeable future. For American Jews, and for Israel, they say, “We’ve simply got to work with this guy.”
Over cocktails, I told a leading Orthodox congregational rabbi long associated with the Republican Party that I was stupefied that so many American Jews could just ignore what Trump had said about women, people with disabilities, African Americans, war heroes and Gold Star families. Or that they were no longer bothered that the future leader of the United States had refused to say he would accept the outcome if he lost (to name but a few of my issues with him).
He was not happy with my take. “He deserves an opportunity to do teshuva [repentance], no less than anyone else, doesn’t he?” he asked. Well, I asked, would he not first have to apologize for what he said and all the hatred he sowed? “The Rambam [Maimonides] isn’t the only standard in Judaism, is he?” asked my rabbi friend.
So in light of the current political upheaval, it seems that Maimonides’ standards for what constitutes genuine repentance, normally the default Jewish position, no longer matter very much.
Gone, as well, are Maimonides’ rulings on the use of foul language (Guide 3.8).
“Grab ’em by the ***** Trump” has gotten even Maimonides demoted.
Then there was the (infinitely more compelling) argument that the new American political reality could be a game-changer for Israel: there may never have been a president whose instincts about Israel were so positive. No longer would the default sentiment be that Israel is “a problem that needs addressing.”
Now, the logic goes, Israel will have an instinctive friend in the White House, someone who – along with Congress – could radically change America’s rhetoric and policy regarding the Jewish State.
That is actually true. While the notion that Jared Kushner is going to bring peace to the Middle East sounds laughable, the notion that a control-alt-delete might be good for Israel is not incorrect.
For years, the world has pressed Israel to exchange territory in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist. That has not worked, because the demand itself is a capitulation to Palestinian revisionism. The United Nations recognized Israel’s right to exist in 1947.
Thus, an administration that made it clear to the Palestinians that gone are the days of the United States ignoring Palestinian tactics – their continuing denial of Israel’s right to exist and of a Jewish link to Jerusalem, the fomenting hatred of Jews in their schools, their naming streets and squares after suicide bombers – just might get the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table.
That possibility cannot be completely discounted.
Let us thus grant, simply for the sake of argument, that some of Trump’s policies might be good for America’s economy.
Or that his administration will be friendlier to Israel than any administration in recent memory. Or that a much less activist Supreme Court will be better for America in the long run. Or that it’s high time that excessive political correctness in the United States came to a screeching halt. Perhaps some of that is even true.
The rub is that states and religions – just like people – are rightly judged largely by the company they keep.
Many of us are devoted to this embattled country of ours and want to believe that at its best, the Jewish state can reflect the best of the Jewish tradition.
And we believe that the Jewish tradition stands for values – like decency, respect, intelligent discourse – that make it worthy of our reverence.
The challenge, then, for those who see in Donald Trump’s policies (or in Hillary Clinton’s defeat, because of her many faults) a new opportunity, is going to be to learn to assume that position while distancing themselves loudly and vocally from everything that is deplorable about Trump’s personality and his verbiage.
We take pride in the fact that the Zionist movement had women running for office and voting as early as 1898, long before any European country. We are justly proud that Israel elected a woman head of state long before anyone had heard of Hillary Clinton – because we believe that decent societies show no less respect to women than they do to men. That means that even those Jews who want to jump on the Trump bandwagon have a Jewish responsibility to repudiate his misogyny loudly and clearly, not just now but until he apologizes profusely – and changes.
If we take pride in Israel’s reaching out to Syrian wounded even as Syria remains in a state of war with Israel, Jews need to remind Donald Trump that human pathos is the hallmark of a great society.
So, too, has been immigration – to the US no less than to Israel.
If we are duly proud of Israel’s commitment to getting our prisoners of war home, even American Jews who do not wish to languish outside the Beltway’s circles of power need to say unequivocally and continuously that what Trump said about John McCain was reprehensible. And that Trump needs to apologize.
The examples are endless, but the point is clear. As numerous American Jews now climb down from the “never Trump” tree because of how things played out, they face a test. Even as they embrace this new power, will they also have the courage and temerity to speak truth to power – as the giants of our tradition have always done? At stake is nothing less than the question of whether our Jewish commitments are also moral ones. The writer is Koret Distinguished Fellow and Chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was just published by Ecco/HarperCollins.
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