American Jews historically fought for civil rights for all but veered away when Israel began seizing Palestinian land. Now, the Trump presidency presents a challenge and an opportunity to steer back to universal principles, says Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
Before the year 1967, the political and social relationships of the American Jewish community were very different than today. Those relationships were based on simple and accurate logic. Jews in the United States were a minority. The U.S. had other minorities as well, most notably African-Americans, who also had a long history of being discriminated against.
Given these conditions, it made sense for the American Jews to make alliances with other U.S. minorities – a united front, so to speak – with the clear-sighted understanding that if one group’s rights were attacked, all of their rights stood in danger. The alliance proved beneficial, and many American Jews were involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
This era of mutually beneficial cooperation lasted until the year 1967. In that year the State of Israel, which had put forth the hubristic claim of being a “Jewish state” whose government had the right to speak for the world’s Jews, conquered territory from several of its neighboring states and then (1) refused to withdraw from most of that land, (2) began to move their own population into the conquered lands in violation of international law, and finally (3) began ethnically cleansing the conquered area of its non-Jewish population.
This process was so blatantly illegal and racist in nature that almost all American minority groups protested against it (the only notable exception being right-wing Cuban-Americans). Particularly strong protests came from African-Americans.
At that point American Jews had an important decision to make. Should they maintain a principled anti-racist position, which required standing apart from Israeli action and preserve their united front with other U.S. minority groups? Or should they abandon the united front strategy and cast their fortunes with their increasingly racist Israeli cousins?
Though it was predictably a tragic misjudgment, the American Jewish elite and most of the Jews of the time who followed their lead abandoned the anti-racist front, angrily turned away from those critical of Israeli behavior, and began supporting and rationalizing Israel’s war on the indigenous population (the Palestinians) of the lands they had conquered.
This situation has continued to the present day. And, during all this time, it seems never to have occurred to the American Jewish community that its bond with Israel has cost them exactly those domestic allies that they would need if hate groups – those who lump together Jews with other American minorities and detest them all – eventually found influence in Washington.
And now that is what appears to be happening. Donald Trump is president-elect. An article in Haaretz describes Trump’s worldview as “reactionary, nativist, chauvinistic, anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant and mainly anti-Muslim.” This concoction is threatening to American Jews as well. One can see this by paying attention to some of the people Trump is now naming as advisers and cabinet appointees. People such as:
Steve Bannon – Trump’s “chief strategist.” Bannon is a leader in the so-called “white nationalist” movement and “the standard bearer” for racist, anti-immigrant positions. He is also an anti-Semite who, reportedly, does not want his children going to school with Jews.
Frank Gaffney – Trump is consulting with Gaffney on a range of national security appointments. The problem is that Gaffney’s view of the world is crazy. He is the founder of a think tank called the Center for Security Policy, which promotes such ideas as (1) President Obama is a “closet Muslim,” (2) the Muslim Brotherhood is “infiltrating the U.S. government at high levels,” and (3) Islamic religious law is “replacing American democracy.”
Jeff Sessions – Sessions is a senator from Alabama whom Trump wants to make Attorney General because, allegedly, he is “a world class legal mind.” He is also a known racist who, as a prosecuting attorney in Alabama, was denied a federal judgeship because of his racial insensitivity. What else can one expect from someone who thinks that “a white voting rights lawyer was a disgrace to his race.” The American Civil Liberties Union describes Sessions as “the senator with probably the most anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-child record in the Senate.”
Gaffney and Sessions might not be as obviously anti-Semitic as Bannon, but one has to understand that there is a threat of their acting so, or condoning such action, by virtue of their overall hostility to minorities.
Trump’s election and choice of advisers have had two important consequences for Jews:
— The evolving social situation in the United States is now creating pressure on its Jewish community to move back to that pre-1967 position of a united front – the position that says an attack on the civil rights of one U.S. minority group is an attack on all of them. The need for such a position is so obvious that even the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, has responded to it.
In a recent speech he declared, “We must stand with our fellow Americans who may be singled out for how they look, who they love, where they’re from or how they pray. … So I pledge to you … that if one day Muslim-Americans will be forced to register their identities, then that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.”
Unfortunately, Greenblatt’s position is not a unanimous one among American Jewish leaders. As the Jewish commentator Peter Beinart points out, “American Jewry’s two most influential groups [AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations] no longer take moral responsibility for the country in which their members live.” That is because they have chosen to become promoters of Israeli, and not American, interests. “The result is that America’s most powerful Jewish organizations … judge American politicians by one standard: Do they support the Israeli government no matter what?”
— The Israeli government and its settler supporters have come out in full support of President-elect Trump, thus revealing a willingness to, at the very least, turn a blind eye to the evolving anti-Semitic trends within the new administration. While this might seem crazy, there is in fact a method to this madness.
Israeli journalist Yaron London explained this in a recent op-ed piece on Ynet: “a world view which supports white supremacy matches our [Israel’s] government’s interests.” Why so? Because “all forms of Zionism hold the perception that a certain extent of anti-Semitism benefits the Zionist enterprise. To put it more sharply, anti-Semitism is the generator and ally of Zionism. Masses of Jews leave their place of residence only when their economic situation and physical safety are undermined.”
A Second Chance
American Jews now have a rare opportunity. They can realize where their real interests lie and act accordingly. And, as they always have, those interests lie in upholding the universal principles of civil and humanitarian rights. To not do so is to affirm their present alliance with a nation self-destructing on tribalism and racism.
The truth is that Zionism has turned out to be a tragic and potentially fatal mistake. Those who led the Jewish community to support Zionism tied the fate of the U.S. Jews to an apartheid political ideology that has isolated them from much that is decent and progressive in the world.
As problematic as it is, the ascendency of Donald Trump gives the American Jews a second chance to make the right choice, to join with their natural allies and fight for the equal rights of all groups. U.S. Jews should think long and hard about this, for it may well be that their second chance will also be their last chance.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.