(Political Stress Test) American Liberal Jewish Double Down (After Pittsburgh & Trump)

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There’s been some comment about “deep splits” in the American Jewish community after Pittsburgh and in reaction to Trump. I don’t see it that way. Sure there are outliers, about which I will comment below, and the Jewish right has a severe problem assessing the currents of anti-Semitism in this country in their correct proportion. But when Trump came to Pittsburgh, we saw something of an American Jewish consensus at work. Trump came to Pittsburgh to console mourners and the community. More significant than the remarkable protest of some thousand and more demonstrators is the way no one in the community apart from the rabbi of Tree of Life came out to greet him. Presumably it was Jared and Ivanka who decided to drag in Israeli Ambassador Dermer from Washington to welcome the President. The first family and the ambassador were pretty much on their own. At least that’s how it appeared on the news. Trump was effectively shunned by the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

It’s too early too, and no doubt wheels are going to come of the American Jewish bus in the weeks and months ahead. But I would like to suggest that at this moment, the entire American Jewish community is going through something of a “stress test” that banks undergo from time to time.  I found this definition online: a “bank stress test is an analysis conducted under hypothetical unfavorable economic scenarios, such as a deep recession or financial crisis, designed to determine whether a bank has enough capital to withstand the impact of adverse economic developments.”

This is a non-lachrymose thought, which is that American Jewish community in all of its component parts or organs are actively doubling down, doubling down on anti-Semitism, doubling down on the liberal public sphere represented by the media, doubling down on the synagogue, on America, doubling down on Israel, doubling down on progressive values, doubling down neoconservative principles, and doubling down on politics and affective revulsion.

Anti-Semitism is now again at the center of American Jewish discourse. The idea that anti-Semitism is some swampy thing from the past has been challenged by the sudden and rude appearance of Trump and Trumpism, and the gross collapse of the GOP in the face of Trump and Trumpism. American Jews are now faced with the terrifying fact that half of the American political class is in complete thrall to racism and to white ethno-nationalism. American Jews know instinctively that these hatreds always come back to bite Jews. More than harassment, abuse, and social prejudice, as has been noted, this is the largest act of murder directed against Jews in this country, an act of mass murder under an adverse set of social and political conditions.

I do not want to play into an anti-Semitic caricature, but the liberal press has been magnificent, by which I mean the so-called mainstream media, the Jewish press, and social media platforms where matters about anti-Semitism and racism have been aired out and in full. I can’t speak for Fox News and rightwing talk radio, but the liberal press has not taken their eye of these problem. No, the mainstream media is not controlled by the Jews. But it has proven itself to be a pillar of the liberal democracy and the liberal democratic public sphere upon which Jewish life has depended in this country. Particularly stirring was the appearance of the Kaddish on the banner at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was stirring, as were the words of the prayer intoned on television newscasts throughout the course of the week. Of mention too is the genuine and blanket warmth expressed for the Jewish community by mainstream media outlets. Simply put, the mainstream media has been a safe-space for American Jews at this moment of extreme trouble and peril.

Let’s put a word in for what was once called “ethical monotheism.” Of course, I won’t speak for every single synagogue, but as an institution, the idea of the synagogue has now become an object of concern on the part of a larger Jewish community that has consistently ignored that institution and its institutional life to the point of neglect. Jews are famously “unchurched.” But at this moment of trouble, when the synagogue itself has become a target, thousands from across the Jewish community and their non-Jewish friends flock there for vigils and services, filling the pews and overflowing out onto the street. In the weeks ahead, regular attendance will wane, but the liberal synagogue will have retained its force as a fulcrum of American Jewish life and, at least in this country, a fulcrum for ethical and democratic values.

American Jews are doubling down on America as both an idea and a real place. Central to that story is immigration, pluralism, liberal democracy, all the liberal ideas and ideals, and the fight against anti-immigrant, anti-black, and anti-Muslim prejudice. Many academics will disagree, but the idea of American exceptionalism will survive this test, if not in the ways that the myth of American exceptionalism would conventionally hold. America is indeed exceptional. America is exceptionally rich, exceptionally open, exceptionally violent, exceptionally callous and self-centered, exceptionally dangerous, exceptionally capacious, exceptionally vast, exceptionally fascinating, exceptionally worth fighting for. A nation defined by immigration, Jews, even in their status as minority holders, feel like they own a part of this franchise, no less and no more than any other group.

I’ll go out on a limb and “predict” that, on the whole, American Jews will continue to look towards and commit to Israel as a unique and special place in modern Jewish history and Jewish life today. For all of its many faults and for all of the stress under which democracy in Israel is currently straining, Israel stands out as a Jewish majority place, not subject to the vicissitudes of social minority status. For all of its many and severe problems and shortcoming as it goes through its own long moment of ethno-nationalism, it constitutes a large social-political arena, what Hannah Arendt would have called a “space of appearance” for Jewish life, and, for the American Jewish gaze, an object of both positive and negative attention. One can hope that after Pittsburgh and the rise of the ethno-nationalist right here that American Jews will double down in their support for a democracy over there in Israel.

Progressive American Jews are doubling down on progressive activism, struggles for social, racial, and economic justice against white supremacy in this country, and for Palestinian rights in Israel and Palestine.

The neoconservative right, dominated by American Jews, has maintained persistent opposition to the violation by Trump, the people who support, and the people who do nothing to challenge Trump of what the neoconservatives consistently uphold to be conservative principles (even if Trump and the fascist right in this country and in Europe “support Israel”). It bears keeping in mind that, no matter how lonely, one can be on the right and still oppose Trump and  Trumpism and not play the “what about and both sides” game.

American Jews are doubling down on politics. Usually after gun massacres in America, rightwingers offer prayer and tears for the victims and then complain that liberals and progressives are “politicizing” the moment when they promote sensible gun control. Not all, but so much of the discussion in the American Jewish community was political at the get-go in response to Pittsburgh, and Trump and Trumpism were named immediately. Not or nary a voice insisted not to politicize this killing. Only now are beginning to see pap (mainly from the Jewish right?) about eternal ant-Semitism, the drumbeat of eternal Jewish vigilance, and things like that.

These are all parts of what is a wall-to-wall liberal-progressive consensus. But it is also important to remember that a consensus works by way of exclusion. The only group left out of this consensus are the minority of rightwing American Jews and ultra-right Israeli political class reduced to sputtering dubious claims and outright lies about anti-Semitism. In the mirror image of Trump’s claim that there were “good people on both sides” at Charlottesville, the claim is made on the Jewish right that there is the same anti-Semitism on both sides. They ask, what about Farrakhan (who is actually not a leftist and who seems to have come out in support of Trump’s attacks on the FBI, Department of Justice, and media)? What about anti-Zionism and BDS? Depending on one’s point of view, these might indeed be obnoxious and maybe not un-dangerous. About this one can argue, and the Jewish right might want to wait to make this argument. At the risk of offending many, I’ll make the obnoxious claim that no one in their right mind today is claiming that any of these phenomena associated with “the left” have anything or much to do with the Democratic Party or rise to the same comparative level of intensity, the same level of violent social threat as they do on the right side of the political spectrum.

A consensus is built on affect. I could well be wrong, but Trump and Trumpism have become special objects of fear and revulsion shared by the overwhelming mass of American Jews. Many may disagree, but “most of us” understand this cognitively and viscerally. The actual, as opposed to potential, danger facing American Jews at this particular moment is not eternal anti-Semitism and the anti-Zionist left, but rather Trump and Trumpism, the political force of white ethno-nationalism whipped up in this country against perceived outsiders of every stripe.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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