Washington, D.C. — During a post-election roundtable at the opening plenary of the annual General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America here on Sunday, Chuck Todd of NBC’s “Meet The Press” spoke of the “staggering” amount of anti-Semitism appearing on social media. He said it included death threats aimed at him and other Jewish members of the media, emanating from supporters of Donald Trump.
Maggie Haberman, who covered the Trump campaign for The New York Times, agreed that “it was hard to be a Jewish reporter during the past year.” A prominent target herself, she observed that Trump “didn’t traffic” in the bigotry, but he didn’t speak out against it, either.
Changing the subject, the other participant in the conversation, Kenneth Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, noted with pride that this past Shabbat, for the first time, a president-elect’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren made Kiddush and sat down to a Shabbat dinner.
“That’s true,” said Haberman, “but it can’t be a reason” to refrain from speaking out against the tidal wave of anti-Semitic attacks on the Internet.
At this point the large audience of Jewish professional and lay leaders erupted in sustained applause, giving voice to a strong sense of outrage, if not outright fear, over the election results.
Similarly, another burst of applause came in the next segment of the plenary when Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution, widely seen as a liberal think tank, pointed out that a flurry of swastika desecrations in schools last week could have been aimed at blacks and other minorities, not just Jews.
“We have to defend our core set of liberal values,” she declared, adding: “If we only think of ourselves, we are making a mistake.”
Those dramatic moments underscored the new dilemma the organized Jewish community will face in the Trump era: whether to take the pragmatic approach and do its best to work with the incoming administration or invoke Jewish and Western moral values and speak out against perceived violations of civility.
(To date, ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt is the only major Jewish leader to speak out against the appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist, calling his Breitbart website “hostile to core American values.” AJC, for example, said it would not comment on every key appointment, noting that “presidents get to choose their own teams.”)
Still stunned from the shocking upset of last Tuesday’s election, the GA delegates, who numbered about 3,000 according to JFNA officials, gathered, as they do each November, to celebrate the federation system’s achievements, learn from and be inspired by a wide variety of speakers and panels in plenaries and breakout sessions, with a continued emphasis on engaging youth. Jerry Silverman, CEO of JFNA, noted that 900 of the delegates, including about 200 college students, were under the age of 45.
But there was another, and overriding, sentiment at this year’s assembly — a combination of angst and sadness over the election results, with a dose of humility over the realization that so many of us are out of touch with much of American society.
“Many people here are very anxious” about a Trump administration, Silverman told me. Indeed, the timing of this year’s GA made the Washington Hilton’s conference halls and meeting areas spaces for solace and sharing as delegates confided their frustrations and fears.
Astute observation: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain, addressing the GA for the second consecutive year, noted: “Since we last met, the world has gone mad.” Ron Sachs/CNP
Since JFNA and its member federations are apolitical nonprofits, they strive to be balanced in dealing with political issues. They are also beholden to wealthy donors, a number of whom are Republican. But given their mandate of chesed (charitable deeds), chinuch (Jewish education) and Clal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood), federations are active in causes that promote and reflect the values of American Jewry, 70 percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton last week. The domestic agenda is based on such foundational principles as separation of church and state, equality and respect for all citizens, including women, minorities, gays, lesbians and people with disabilities.
One national Jewish organization leader told me constituents strongly criticized him for sending a congratulatory note to the president-elect wishing him success and encouraging him to unify the country.
A Washington insider told me that Steve Bannon, the newly named White House chief strategist who is widely viewed as a promoter of anti-Semitic, racist and white nationalist viewpoints, “doesn’t hate Jews, he hates liberals.”
Is that a source of comfort?
While committed to continuing their mission, leaders of federations and other communal Jewish organizations are considering if and how they will pivot to meet the new realities, not just of a thoroughly Republican Washington (White House, Senate, House of Representatives) but one sure to feature cabinet members and other key officials little known to the Jewish community.
Who can they lobby to promote their agendas?
“I’m on my way to a meeting with seven Jewish people here to help me identify who to connect with” to gain access to Jared Kushner, a senior official of a major national Jewish organization told me, referring to the president-elect’s Jewish son-in-law and key confidante.
Several Jewish former officials in the Bush White House spoke of the positive prospects for the community in a Trump administration, from a far warmer relationship with Israel (including the possibility of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem) to a shot at tuition tax breaks for day school students.
Speculation on the U.S.-Israel relationship was addressed in several sessions, with most experts acknowledging that Trump is particularly difficult to read because he emphasizes deal-making rather than ideology, is known to lie and has taken different stances at times on the same issue. (In fact, Trump advisers are now in dialing-back mode on moving the U.S. embassy and dismissing the two-state solution.) “Which Trump are we getting?” asked Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz.
Some Israelis see hope in the U.S. resuming its superpower status on the international scene under Trump after eight years of Obama’s efforts to avoid military conflicts. Others worry that his “America First” mentality, combined with an eagerness to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin, could put Russia in the driver’s seat in the Mideast. Especially worrisome would be closer Iran-Russia ties, they said.
If Trump takes the diplomatic pressure off Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, will Jerusalem be emboldened to increase settlement activity, and will that, in turn, make another intifada more likely? Will Trump tear up “the worst deal ever” with Iran, and if so, will Iran resume its nuclear activity?
Experts on foreign affairs at the conference noted that nationalist party leaders in Europe, highly critical of the mass influx of Syrian immigrants, have been emboldened by the Brexit vote and Trump election. France, Germany and several other European countries face elections in the next year that could change the face of the continent.
NBC’s Chuck Todd tried to explain the Trump victory in spite of the president-elect’s mean-spirited campaign. “Say that you’re dying,” he posited, “and you had a choice between taking Tylenol or a highly experimental drug that could give you three heads or kill you … but has a one percent chance of cure.” Maybe that’s how Trump voters sized up their choices, he speculated.
Offering spiritual succor, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain declared, “Never waste a crisis.” See it as an opportunity, he said, invoking the journeys of Abraham and, later, Moses, who left their native lands and tried to create a world of “justice, compassion and healing.” Insisting that “the politics of anger comes from fear,” he asserted that the Jewish people are “uniquely poised to show the world the gift of hope.”
“When the world is divided, let us be united as Jews,” he said. “Where there is despair, bring hope. Where there is hurt, bring healing. Where there is division, be united.”
It was a stirring and inspiring speech. But in the end, many in the crowd would gladly have settled for Tylenol.