A moment of reckoning for American Jewish leaders

A spat over a comparison between present-day America and 1930s Germany showed the American-Jewish establishment is unequipped to protect its community.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate of the 2020 election campaign, Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Screenshot)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate of the 2020 election campaign, Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Screenshot)

On Tuesday, ahead of the first presidential debate, which saw U.S President Donald Trump refuse to condemn white supremacist groups, the Jewish Democratic Council of America released a brief ad targeted at Jewish voters in swing states. Juxtaposing scenes from 1930s Germany and present-day America, including footage of Trump and neo-Nazis staging a torch-lit march through Charlottesville, the ad urged viewers to vote, telling them “our future depends on it.”

Soon after its release, the video earned the condemnation of some of the biggest U.S. Jewish establishment groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for purportedly demeaning the memory of Holocaust victims. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called the ad “deeply offensive,” while the AJC called on the JDCA to “immediately” pull the clip. The Republican Jewish Committee, which long ago devolved into partisan laundering of Trump’s antisemitism, also joined in the chorus.

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This reaction from the American-Jewish establishment was rapidly undermined on two fronts. Firstly, ex-ADL CEO Abraham Foxman and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt endorsed the JDCA’s message, as did numerous scholars. Secondly, mere hours after condemning the comparisons to pre-Holocaust Germany, the very same organizations were scrambling to censure Trump for not only refusing to condemn white supremacy during the debate, but also appearing to give the thumbs-up to the Proud Boys, a violent, black-shirted pro-Trump street gang.

Greenblatt’s condemnation of the comparison is curious considering he told members of the Knesset in December 2016 that levels of antisemitism in the United States resembled those in the 1930s, such that “many Jews who lived through Nazi Germany find [it] terrifying.” It is difficult to know what, in the intervening four years, disabused the ADL chief of the conviction that such comparisons are not only legitimate, but apt.

This affair may seem like simply the latest in a long line of blow-ups about how the American-Jewish establishment reacts — or sometimes fails to — to Trump and the GOP’s antisemitism, as well as to efforts to call that antisemitism out. But these kinds of intracommunal disagreements are indicative of much broader trends that have long shaped and continue to shape the American-Jewish community.

The first trend, which is well-trodden territory by now, is the distortion field created by the Trump administration’s string of radical pro-Israel policy gestures and pronouncements. Such moves, which have chiefly served to rubber-stamp occupation and annexation while accelerating efforts to censor critics of Israel, have confounded mainstream American-Jewish institutions that have long put Israel advocacy at the center of their mission.

A sign reading "Trump Heights" at the community to be named after US President Donald Trump, in Kela Alon in the northwestern Golan, November 7, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
A sign reading “Trump Heights” at the community to be named after U.S. President Donald Trump, in Kela Alon in the northwestern Golan, November 7, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

This Zionist consensus, which is so dominant that its adherents seem to forget that its history is relatively short, is responsible for much of the confusion over how to respond to an administration that enacts violent, racist, and authoritarian policies and incites lethal antisemitic violence, while at the same time showering Israel with one diplomatic victory after another. Thus have groups such as the AJC found themselves, for example, congratulating Trump for purportedly protecting American-Jewish college students a few days after (mildly) rebuking him for invoking “age-old and ugly stereotypes” regarding Jews. And even that censure was couched in gratitude for Trump’s support for Israel — a wash that the Trump administration is only too happy to use. In response to the JDCA ad, a Trump campaign spokesperson called the president “the greatest ally the State of Israel has ever had in the White House.”

A second, related trend is the disproportionate influence of “mega-donors,” many of whom are politically conservative and staunchly pro-Israel, over communal priorities. The number of players on the multi-billion dollar American-Jewish philanthropic scene is contracting, with institutions increasingly beholden to their funds and ever-less representative of the communities they are supposed to serve.

Yet there’s a subtler and even more entrenched historical force at work here. Put simply, the mainstream American-Jewish community has, since the postwar period, largely attached its fortunes to the United States. It has understood its interests to be those of the state. And as white American Jews assimilated into mainstream American society, the established American myth about the country’s exceptionalism became accepted wisdom within the community. To this article of faith was added the subclause that America was also “different” for Jews, in having allowed them to live relatively free from persecution — and certainly explicit state oppression. This idea has reached the status of truism, not only in the day-to-day American-Jewish institutional discourse, but also — with notable pushback — in academia.

That faith in American institutions has hobbled the American-Jewish establishment’s ability to meet this moment on two fronts: firstly, it does not have a template for how to respond when antisemitism, and the violence it inspires, emanates from the White House; and secondly, it acts as a wedge between the Jewish community and those who should be its natural allies.

A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, following a mass shooting by a white nationalist, Oct. 30, 2018. (Andrea Hanks/White House)
A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, following a mass shooting by a white nationalist, Oct. 30, 2018. (Andrea Hanks/White House)

Even if acknowledging so is painful, the already shaky idea that Jews have fared exceptionally well under the American regime should mean little when that same regime has, by design, visited such incessant brutality on Black and Indigenous people, people of color, Muslims, the working poor, undocumented people, and other targeted groups. An incomplete grace is no grace at all.

It is difficult to see how an American-Jewish establishment operating according to this logic can adequately confront the danger that is pulsating out of the White House, and which will continue to proliferate throughout American society and politics no matter who wins the upcoming election. The condemnations of the Trump administration that have emerged have all too often been hedged, inconsistent, or attached to caveats regarding the government’s pro-Israel performance. And such criticisms are fatally undercut by embarrassing episodes such as Tuesday’s debacle, in which the president proved the JCDA’s point within hours of the ADL and the AJC’s denunciation of it.

And although some might dismiss this episode as a mere war of words, this issue is not just an intellectual exercise about how we perceive and respond to rhetoric; it is about how we understand this section of the emergencies that are overwhelming the American political landscape. Over the past few years, we have seen two lethal synagogue shootings in the span of six months; the return of 1930s-style Judeophobia to the streets of U.S. cities; the reading of Mein Kampf on the floor of Congress; the circulation of Republican Party campaign mailers featuring antisemitic caricatures; a president who habitually suggests that American Jews’ political interests are more rooted in Israel than they are in their home country; an administration that has offered high-ranking jobs to white nationalists; and a persistent use of Zionism by Republican elected officials and various unaffiliated right-wingers as a tool with which to both perpetrate, and cry wolf about, antisemitism.

The historical resonances are so blatant they scarcely need pointing out. Yet doing so apparently remains beyond the pale for mainstream American-Jewish institutions, because it overturns dearly-held myths about American Jews’ place in America and the community’s role in American history. One can understand the temptation to avoid looking directly into the abyss. But turning away now won’t prevent it from swallowing us up.