During 2024’s first Republican presidential debate last week, New Jersey’s former governor Chris Christie identified his party’s central moral and political challenge. “Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” he proclaimed. Christie insisted that “whether or not you believe that the criminal charges” against Donald Trump “are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.” America’s Orthodox Jews – and their religious compatriots in Israel – should learn from “Rabbi” Christie. While valuing personal morality, Judaism champions ethical politics too.
It’s complicated. Politics and ethics are like Simon and Garfunkel: both can produce beautiful music together but cannot stay together forever. To win office and protect their people, powerful leaders must make tough, real-world decisions that are often messy, even ugly. But America’s democratic politics is also rooted in the biblical search for what’s right existentially, not only what’s right for me or my people without any regard for others.
America’s founders created a New World Order – as an idyllic vision, not an imperialist imposition. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, appealed to our better angels. His heir, Ronald Reagan, saw America as a shining city upon a hill. Nevertheless, to win the Civil War, Lincoln refused to treat the Constitution as a suicide pact, and, to become president in 1980, Reagan fired old friends who failed to advance his campaign.
Reflecting that pragmatic spirit, Orthodox Jews and many passionate Zionists supported Donald Trump. Had Hillary Clinton been elected, America would not have finally, belatedly, moved its embassy to Jerusalem; the Abraham Accords would still be a fantasy; and Iran would have endured less American pressure (see Biden, Joe, too). “Hakarat Hatov,” acknowledging good deeds, is a lovely Jewish value, and we should be forever grateful to Trump for those important steps.
STILL, I share Christie’s disgust for Trump’s behavior, especially since Biden’s definitive November 2020 victory. By now, only fools or fanatics refuse to acknowledge how destructive Trump’s assault on American norms and the American Constitution has been. Christie’s judgment could have been harsher. Trump’s conduct is beneath the dignity of any decent patriot.
True, these crimes are the latest in a long line of Trumpian offenses. True, throughout his 2016 campaign and his presidency, Trump lied, manipulated, demagogued, and polarized, damaging the trust and mutual respect among Americans every functional democracy needs. But Trump’s extended temper tantrum on losing has undermined many Americans’ faith in the voting system, creating unhealthy precedents that will encourage sore losers for decades to come.
Today, with Trump facing multiple indictments, and disparaging America’s justice system, supporting Trump is absolutely inexcusable. This is especially true because the Republican primaries don’t offer the binary choice of November 2016 or 2020. The Republican field is filled with other, sincerely pro-Israel candidates, including former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Her presence alone means that no serious Jew or Israel supporter should boost Trump and his cancerous campaign to make America grotesque.
Religious Jews need to repent for political sins
ALAS, VOTING for Haley, Christie, Mike Pence, or some other pro-Israel Republican or Democrat isn’t enough. It won’t undo the moral stench developed over years of Orthodox fealty to this monstrous man. The Hebrew months of Elul and Tishrei prove that Judaism is not just about developing a pious relationship with God; it’s about elevating and consecrating the relationships between yourself and others – personally and collectively.
God is eternal. The Bible is an ancient book filled with wisdom. Using God or the Torah to guide our behavior often exalts us; misreading God’s words as a political platform demeans us – as well as Judaism and Zionism.
This penitential season, many religious Jews should repent, taking responsibility for their profane behavior these last few years, in America and Israel. It’s horrifying enough that too many American Orthodox Jews justify Trump’s bad, un-American, behavior because “he’s good for Israel”; in Israel, too many religious Jews go far beyond justifying bad political behavior in a cynical deal with a pro-Israel devil. They behave badly themselves in God’s name – sullying themselves and God day-by-day.
So many religious politicians have behaved so irreligiously for so long that it often seems easier to believe that the more religiously Jewish you are – the less politically ethical you are.
It’s not true.
Alas, the rot starts with ultra-Orthodox politicians who treat the Israeli Treasury as their personal piggy bank – while imposing their extreme interpretations of Judaism on Israelis through the corrupt, anti-Zionist chief rabbinate. And today, the bullying, bigoted, and bungling “Religious Zionist” Party and its allies give religion and Zionism bad names. Beating or slurring Arabs willy-nilly – not just terrorists – violates Jewish ethics and the Zionist ethos.
Zionism isn’t Americanism. While many Americans like separating religion and state, even some secular Zionists hoped that a Jewish democratic state would show how religion and liberal-democratic nationalism in balance can enrich our lives and our politics.
As we enter this holiday season, it’s clear that Israel’s Jewishness has helped many so-called “secular” Jews live more meaningful, rooted, connected lives. But today’s zealots undermine that profound synthesis the Torah conceived and Zionism sought.
Amoral, Trump-starred Orthodox Jews, greedy state-exploiting ultra-Orthodox Jews, and belligerent, dogmatic, chauvinistic, pro-government goonatics, prove that Roger Williams, the Puritan fanatic, was right: he didn’t want to separate church and state to protect the state from religion. He understood that a healthy distance can protect the eternal purity of religion from politics’ daily, often-necessary, sometimes-gratuitous profanities too.
The writer is the editor of the new three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).