Do you get the feeling in these days of transition and uncertainty that your very identity is being tested?
I always found the question of whether I was a “Jewish American” or “American Jew” an empty exercise. After all, I felt comfortable relating to the values of democracy, human dignity, equality, etc., consistent with both American society and Jewish peoplehood. But no longer. Lately I feel like I have to perform a kind of inner triage of the soul, making a series of calculated choices about my personal beliefs that I never had to think about.
Granted, American Jews who are left of center have been going through a similar mental exercise for some time now. They’ve seen Israel’s government move to the right politically while President Obama was accused of being anti-Israel. Most dramatically, when Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned the Iran nuclear deal in Congress, Jewish Democrats on the Hill felt torn between allegiance to Israel and their president.
The questions for me are, Do I support the democratically elected leader of my country even if he espouses undemocratic values? If I believe the search for truth is of paramount importance, how do I respond when the president flaunts falsehoods and espouses “alternative facts” in ways that endanger and divide us as a nation?
Further, is Jewish ethics and support for the government of Israel an either-or proposition? Must we ignore or dismiss the anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions of those close to the White House to assure backing for Jerusalem?
“For American Jews, all the guidelines that once helped define their community have eroded,” observed Yossi Klein Halevi, the Israeli writer and educator, in an essay last week in The Times of Israel. Those guidelines were support for Israel and combatting anti-Semitism, he said. Sadly, for some time now Israel has become a source of division rather than unity. And now, with the presidential election, we no longer agree on what is anti-Semitism, and whether and how to oppose it.
Barack Obama was the embodiment of a liberal Zionist. Many months before the 2008 election, he stated: “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”
Nine years later, after his ugly personal battles with Prime Minister Netanyahu and a long string of policy differences, Obama’s tikkun olam-style conviction still holds for him (and the majority of American Jews), though it is seen as alarmingly naïve to those on his right.
In direct contrast, Donald Trump has emerged as a full-throated supporter of Israeli nationalism, going further than the more cautious Israeli prime minister in promoting settlements and possible annexation of disputed territory.
So are we only “pro-Israel” today if we accept the nationalist vision, prepared to abandon the concept of a two-state solution?
Klein Halevi asserts that neither Obama nor Trump are “worthy of Jewish adulation.” He cites Obama’s failures in the Mideast and an Iran deal that postpones rather than ends the nuclear threat, and Trump’s “vulgarized politics” that “declared war against precisely those pluralistic values that have allowed American Jewry to become the most successful diaspora in history.”
Eva Illouz, a sociologist and president of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, writes of the unprecedented scenario of religious Jews, deeply committed Zionists, pretending that “the anti-Semitic stench emanating from Trump associates and supporters” is “a rose fragrance.” She cites Arye Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, heralding Trump’s election as signaling “the era of the birth pangs of the Messiah.”
“Unbeknownst to us, an earthquake has occurred in the Jewish world, opening a wide and gaping sociological fault,” Illouz wrote for the ejewishphilanthropy website. She described the jolt as nationalism replacing “historical memory as the nexus of Jewish institutions and Jewish identity.”
Those on the right no doubt would insist that the earthquake is in seeing committed Zionists resisting — even being repulsed by — an American president who defies much of the international community in fully supporting the government of Israel. Trump appears prepared to encourage expanded settlements and confront Iran more forcefully, as well as move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem (though White House press secretary Sean Spicer sounded non-committal in a briefing on Monday).
There are no simple ways to parse the thicket of both overlapping and conflicting viewpoints, no simple path to combining one’s commitment to ethical values and Jewish security. But since when have American Jews not been challenged in holding firm to their traditions and heritage while embracing the opportunities offered by the most accepting diaspora in history?
In the end, I guess I will continue to try to be a loyal American Jew and Jewish American, navigating these uncharted waters with an evolving moral compass, one decision at a time.