The New Jewish Wars (Israel + Trump)


The new Jewish wars are about to get worse. Rising to the surface already since the first Lebanon War in the early 1980s, American Jews were, for the most part, able to elide the differences between them regarding Israel and the Occupation. While there have been left and right partisans on either side of that issue, for most American Jews all that conflict was about something safely over there. With the rise of Trump, this won’t be possible. Far right Israeli politics and far right U.S. politics are now about to merge into a new political feedback loop. Modern Orthodox Jews are the conduit. As religious and political minorities in the Jewish community, they are the ones (starting with the President-elect’s son-in-law) now at the very center of American power. From that position they represent the public face of a community whose values, politics, and religion they reject and even despise.

The new structure about to destroy the civic fabric of American Jewish life like rot is polar. Representing one pole is the (yet to be confirmed) nomination of a once obscure bankruptcy lawyer and extreme rightwinger David Friedman, a modern orthodox Jew who is a radical mouthpiece for the settler movement and openly abusive in his relations to mainstream liberal Jews; but more to the point will be the resemblance between Trump and Netanyahu as autocrats, hostile to democratic norms and willing to scrape the bottom of domestic racism for political profit. At the other pole is the open predilection for neo-Nazis in the Trump apparatus (Bannon and Flynn). One without the other was bad enough, but in combination the two are deadly to the Jewish civil sphere. According to what narrow criteria is Trump good for Israel? Or is it that what’s bad for Israel is bad for America, namely autocracy and fear and hatred for others? What happens when Israel turns away from the American Jewish community as the leadership in Jerusalem coddles up close to what many fear to be a dictator in the White House?

Peter Beinart famously complained that American Jews check their liberalism at the door when it comes to Israel. That might no longer be possible. We’re now in one big open space in which what’s over there is now suddenly over here, one re-enforcing the other and the other the one. This loop will make it nearly impossible for (primarily) orthodox and (primarily) liberal Jews to paper over the now irreconcilable differences regarding democracy at home and democracy in Israel, religion at home and religion in Israel. With the election of Trump, so many red lines were crossed by a sizable minority of the Jewish community, a minority that for years has styled itself as the vanguard of the people, both here and in Israel.

For many, the sense of moral collapse, betrayal, and outrage will be impossible to bridge. American Jews used to look at Israel as if in a mirror in order to admire themselves. But what happens when the resemblance turns grotesque, when American Jews look in the mirror that is Israel and walk away, finally, in disgust?  From my own poltical perspective, a more positive upshot would be if the Israeli liberal-left and American Jewish liberal-left commit to each other in opposition.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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6 Responses to The New Jewish Wars (Israel + Trump)

  1. efmooney says:

    Can you say a bit about that pic of mass crucifixion?
    As if to emphasize the death of liberalism, these headlines from Haaretz:

    Israeli university rabbi forbids Jews from entering student union due to Christmas tree
    Neo-Nazis and white supremacists launch online attack against Montana Jews

    • zjb says:

      i found the image on a google image search for “Jewish wars.” i think it refers to a Hasmonean (?) king executing some 800 people

  2. ej says:

    I agree with your analysis. But I see some good coming out of this. Liberal Jews who can fuse their anti-Trump resistance with their religious beliefs will find new meaning in Judaism. This happened in the 1870 -1940 period when new immigrants fused their Yiddishkeit to their socialism. An obvious enemy is worth a lot and could be a potent driver in revitalizing the American Jewish community.

  3. dmf says:

    would be quite a hermeneutic task to sort out all the layers/implications in:
    @EricLevitz Dec 16
    Trump picks his personal bankruptcy lawyer — who thinks liberal Jews are “worse than Kapos” — as Israel Ambassador

  4. dmf says:

    @matthewjdowd 18h18 hours ago
    Between Nixon, Reagan, Bush41, Bush43, they allowed 51 UN resolutions to pass condemning Israel. Just a bit of perspective.

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