Clarifying an American Jewish agenda

Alienating a million or more American Jewish advocates will be costly to Israel’s cause, long after Trump’s “alt-right” voters have moved on.

An American Jewish man praying  (photo credit: REUTERS)
An American Jewish man praying
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Now that US President Donald Trump has explicitly condemned antisemitism, and Vice President Mike Pence helped restore a vandalized Jewish cemetery with his own two hands, American Jews should welcome and leverage these first steps. We should find opportunities to highlight what the president and his administration are getting right. Praise him to show he can gain prestige and political capital by “doing the right thing.”
Obviously, one statement on one issue is a drop in the bucket, and organizations will challenge the administration when it falls short or openly threatens important principles. But there can be a way back from the protests, and today’s outrage can be turned into cooperation on specific issues.
This is not just about Jews or antisemitism. Antisemitism has been proven to push the door open on combating Islamophobia and xenophobia, which are also Jewish priorities for pragmatic and moral reasons. We can and must continue to speak out on refugees and immigration, and on American and Jewish values, while offering ways to neutralize bigotry and fear as factors in government policy.
There is much work to be done, and fast: follow up immediately with Trump’s principal appointees, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, as well as Obama holdovers like FBI Director James Comey. As the administration begins to fill such second-tier slots as under-secretaries of state, assistant attorneys- general and National Security Council senior directors, ensure they are engaged and well acquainted with key contacts from the Jewish community.
So far, the president’s pronouncements on Israel and Iran have sprung not from the Jewish mainstream but from his own circle of advisers, from Evangelical or farright Jewish organizations, and from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. Trump’s ambassador-designate to Israel is a leading supporter of expanded settlements who has openly rejected a twostate solution.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit last week to Washington compounded this complicated dynamic. As a gesture to his guest, Trump broke with precedent by dropping US insistence on negotiations leading to an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Netanyahu returned the favor, using Trump’s support for Israel to implicitly dismiss antisemitism concerns.
So long as Trump and Netanyahu can validate each other with their respective constituencies – promising “no daylight” between their positions – it will be difficult for most American Jews to address those issues with any credibility or impact.
Netanyahu’s unparalleled efforts to please Trump on every front risk tying Israel’s brand to him, and they undermine our positions on issues having nothing to do with Israel. Netanyahu may dubiously claim to own the antisemitism issue, but he clearly crossed a line as the only world leader who tweets support for Trump’s wall with Mexico.
The administration’s disarray makes it hard for the community to maintain consistent points of contact and cultivate relationships – in many cases, starting from scratch. Will Jewish groups stand up for each other, or will they allow officials in either country to pick and choose who gets to represent American Jewry, its concerns and its interests?
Whichever community voices gain the ear of the president and his confidants, will there be an effort to advance shared priorities rather than self-promote? Will the substance of those conversations be reported out to peers and even rivals, and will feedback then be conveyed back to the administration?
The widespread Jewish opposition to severe immigration restrictions and to demonizing of Muslims and Latinos enables a more unified voice on these and other issues, including Israel and especially on averting annexation of the West Bank.
Even on core Israeli issues such as Iran or settlements, American Jews don’t need to parrot Netanyahu, and we will definitely speak our minds on matters affecting us more directly. A sizable minority of American Jews supports Trump’s more Republican- based policies on reproductive rights, social safety nets, tax policy and climate change. Where our communal consensus crosses party lines, we cannot afford to remain disparate or silent – on Russian and European geopolitics, religious pluralism within the State of Israel, and confronting antisemitism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant trends within the United States.
American Jewish organizations have found themselves at odds with the Netanyahu government regarding Russia’s undermining of regional stability. At the United Nations, Israel was the only Western country not to oppose Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and – just as Trump’s murky ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin were hitting the fan – Netanyahu hastily canceled a visit by Ukraine’s prime minister, on the pretext of Ukraine’s vote on the UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli settlement expansion. (Ironically, Netanyahu’s right flank is now pushing to annex major settlement blocs.)
Notwithstanding President Trump’s own evolving views, the consensus among US policymakers and within the Jewish community is that a strong trans-Atlantic partnership is indispensable to our interests and values. These include the spread of liberal democracy and respect for national sovereignty. The forces of militant nationalism endanger the peace and pluralism of Europe, with hundreds of thousands of Jews living primarily in France, Ukraine and Russia. Right-wing leaders of any country don’t get a free pass on antisemitism and hate-mongering just because they have an affinity for Israel.
Putin, in particular, is now widely seen as an existential threat to the United States and to the American way of life. If enough Russian rabbis are arrested or deported, if yeshivas are shut down, if community centers become official state property – we must be ready to act, and we must have access to administration decision-makers who themselves have some credibility visà- vis the Putin regime.
Promoting pluralism in Israel requires no new wisdom, nor the intervention of the US government. But it does complicate the working relationship with Israeli leaders, and the continued barriers make it harder to sustain support with the American Jewish community. Israeli politicians and rabbis are obviously free to chart their own way, but alienating a million or more American Jewish advocates will be costly to Israel’s cause, long after Trump’s “alt-right” voters have moved on.
With American Jews leading “the good fight” against Trump’s emerging immigration regime, defending Israel’s record on refugees no longer seems so urgent. And as long as we don’t pretend use it to trivialize Palestinian grievances, we can highlight Israel’s challenges in absorbing African migrants and aiding Syrian displaced persons.
Building versatile coalitions beyond the Jewish community will take considerable effort and resources. Thanks to our community’s track record, we will often be the catalyst. We bring energy, institutional memory, expertise and national networks.
At a time when the executive branch isn’t operating in one voice or at peak efficiency, non-governmental groups are uniquely positioned to fill the void, including within multilateral organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and numerous parliamentary assemblies. This renewed activism also strengthens our capacity to keep advance Israel’s agenda along the way, especially with American progressives and European liberal elites.
With Jewish Federations trying to hold the line on social services amid the prospect of declining federal funds, and donors eager to allocate more dollars to youth and anti-boycott programming, this could be a hard sell. But with Community Relations Councils (CRCs), HIAS, NCSEJ, the Anti-Defamation League and many others raising awareness, and with public demonstrations mobilizing countless Jewish activists, Federations can challenge their base to “put your money where your mouth is” – if they demonstrate their leadership in this cause.
There hasn’t been such a moment of need or opportunity since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it is unlikely to linger for very long. If not now, when?
The author, a former Jewish community executive, is a consultant whose clients include business and government entities in Ukraine. Twitter: @shaifranklin