Why left-wing Jews rejected Trump's executive order - analysis

Many left-wing and liberal Jewish activists, commentators and organizations denounced the executive order for effectively defining Jews as a “race of nation.”

Have some American Jews replaced Judaism with liberalism? (photo credit: REUTERS)
Have some American Jews replaced Judaism with liberalism?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The executive order US President Donald Trump is scheduled to enact on Wednesday – adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism – has sparked a fierce debate about free speech and the right to oppose Zionism as a legitimate form of expression protected under the First Amendment.
But aside from that highly charged debate, another dispute quickly arose across the airwaves and through the electronic ether when the story broke, as many left-wing and liberal Jewish activists, commentators and organizations denounced the executive order for effectively defining Jews as a “race of nation.”
Trump’s new measure directs the Justice Department and the Education Department to address discrimination cases against Jews under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which stipulates that discrimination on the basis of “race, color, or national origin” is prohibited.
This aspect of the executive order promoted feverish denunciations by opponents of the measure, who vehemently objected to nationhood being attributed to Jewishness in any way, and implied that the measure was a fascist step which would lead to a new Holocaust.
Fred Gutenberg, a gun-control activist whose daughter was murdered in the Parkland school shooting in 2018, said on Twitter that the executive order “scares the daylights out of me!!!” and asked, “Does this mean I will need to have a yellow star on my license?”
Journalist Jonathan Katz condemned those supporting the executive order as “defending actual Nazism.” Meanwhile, the far-left organization IfNotNow said Trump’s measure “defines Judaism as a ‘nationality,’ promoting the classically bigoted idea that American Jews are not, well, American.”
What explains this visceral antipathy to the notion of Jewish peoplehood?
Shmuel Rosner, an editor at the Jewish Journal and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, insisted that Jewishness has always been bound up with being part of a nation, pointing to the biblical narrative where the Israelite nation arose and emerged from Egypt as a people before it received religious instruction.
“Jews were never merely the followers of a certain religion, they were always – both in their consciousness and the eyes of others – a people, which some would describe as a nation,” said Rosner.
“Jewishness was always a combination of many things – religion, culture, and a sense of peoplehood and nationhood that binds them together.”
The reflex to reject national aspects of Jewish identity, says Rosner, comes out of the deep desire of left-wing and liberal Jewish circles to emphasize their strong devotion to America, and to avoid any hint that Jews may have allegiances to an entity other than the United States.
“They don’t want it to interfere with their sense of belonging to America which they want to be part of, and they are also afraid that the idea of Jewish nationhood will expose them to allegations of dual loyalty,” he said.
Gil Troy, a historian and social commentator, recalled the Pittsburgh Platform of the American Reform movement in 1885, which stated that “we consider ourselves no longer a nation,” in explaining the roots of this current hostile reaction to the notion of Jewish nationhood among liberal and left-wing Jewish groups.
“These are the ‘woke-iest,’ most liberal, most anti-Trump Jews for whom any discussion of Jewish nationhood is uncomfortable because they’re trying to fit in,” says Troy.
He said that the phenomenon is part of the “long strain in US Jewish history” in which American Jews were so thankful for a country that accepted Jews and allowed them to fit in that there was great emphasis placed on the religious aspects of Judaism alone, and not its nationalist components.
It is this reflexive objection to Jewish nationhood, and the concomitant attachment to the values of universalism that also informs much of the worldview of hard-line left-wing American Jews, that has come into full view in the furor over Trump’s executive order on antisemitism.
Also at play is the fierce opposition of such groups and circles to Trump himself, because of the president’s illiberalism, his strident nationalist populism, and his infamous reluctance to condemn white nationalists.
That the president himself has also engaged in stereotyping Jews – especially his inherent assumption that Jews put their concern for Israel over their concerns for America when he said US Jews who vote for the Democratic Party are disloyal to Israel – has made liberal Jews even more antagonistic to Trump.
“Trump is the worst nightmare for US Jews; he triggers them in every possible way and fires guided missiles at the heart of the US Jewish psyche,” said Troy.
The close relationship forged between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the former’s benevolent stance toward Israel and the policies of its right-wing, nationalist government, have further engendered the antipathy of America’s left-wing Jews.
But their intense objection to the very notion of Jewish nationhood will likely remain on the fringes and margins of American Jewry, as mainstream Jewish organizations demonstrated by their warm welcome for Trump’s executive order, including the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and others.
For elements of the US Jewish community, Jewish national identity may be uncomfortable, and it may not comport with their deep-seated universal values, but denying Jewish nationhood will remain a minority approach within the broader Jewish people.