Following the horrific terrorist attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, Jewish Americans are mobilizing around spiritual, academic and political arenas. Political barriers have softened as U.S. Jews from varying ideological streams unite in partnership with Israel and against rising antisemitism in America. One of the principles fusing American Jewry is the Jewish value of giving gratitude to those performing good deeds, known in Hebrew as Hakarat Hatov. In the aftermath of last month’s massacre, U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed support for Israel’s right to destroy Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure, while demonstrating, on his visit to the Jewish homeland, a capacity to grieve alongside families impacted by the slaughter.
Unsurprisingly, Biden has recently tempered his rhetoric with calls for a humanitarian “pause” and an independent Palestinian state. Still, setting aside the political realities that led to the region’s destabilization, Jewish Americans from different political persuasions are rallying around the president in the spirit of Hakarat Hatov.
Across the nation, Jewish students have embarked on letter-writing campaigns to thank Biden for standing by Israel. From the pulpit, clergy are hailing the administration’s response to Israel in its time of need while institutions expressing gratitude release press statements praising the president’s actions in the wake of the tragic terror attacks. Indeed, all are necessary to fulfill the tenet of Hakarat Hatov. One must only briefly scan the globe to deduce that those extending hands of friendship towards Israel should not be taken for granted. With that said, when such demonstrative displays of affection are compared alongside communal reactions involving Israel-aligned policies inducted during former President Donald Trump’s tenure, a far more selective picture of Hakarat Hatov emerges.
Several prominent conservatives are appropriately shelving political differences to recognize Biden for his defense of Israel. The political overlap occurring today was largely absent years ago when Trump facilitated the Abraham Accords in 2020 and helped usher in normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. While Jewish schools paused to watch Biden’s address after Hamas’s bloody assault, few Jewish youth were afforded the privilege of viewing the 2020 signing ceremony when Trump, joined in a White House lawn ceremony marking Middle East peace. That the gravity of today’s moment demands Jewish classrooms acknowledge Biden for his efforts does not suggest that there existed any less of a need for the academic space to thank America’s past president, whose host of policy moves, which included withdrawal from the flawed Iran nuclear deal and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, helped cement, rather than erode, Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge in the region.
Representing the largest Jewish denomination in America, the Union for Reform Judaism eliminated any mention of Trump from its press release on the Abraham Accords. Yet years later, it now offers pointed praise of Biden over his handling of Hamas’s war with Israel. Similar reactions reverberated throughout the Jewish community following the 2017 announcement that the U.S. embassy in Israel would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Rather than directly commend Trump, several Jewish organizations curated statements that mentioned the administration merely completing what Congress set out to do almost 20 years prior when it passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act.
These examples are not tied to timing or oversight. Instead, the politicized manner under which Hakarat Hatov is dispensed reflects a deliberate institutional tipping to the political left. Pro-Israel policies instituted by Trump were snubbed to preserve an ideological conformity. Moreover, Jewish Americans highlighting contributions of pro-Israel Republicans were at times confronted with accusations of politicizing spiritual circles. In 2021, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) replaced its entire board after some member synagogues felt the political tenor of the organization was supplanting NCYI’s primary role of fostering integration among local synagogues. Speaking to e-Jewish Philanthropy at the time, incoming NCYI board president David Warshaw maintained: “We will continue to speak out on Israel, but the purpose of NCYI is not to be an advocacy organization.” His comments were made almost two years following NCYI’s annual gala where, in a spirited gesture of gratitude to then-President Trump, attendees were given red baseball caps with the slogan “Build Israel Great Again.” The incident involving the NCYI reflects an organizational struggle concerning the parameters of political and pro-Israel advocacy.
Nurturing the U.S.-Israel alliance requires displaying gratitude towards those with whom Jewish Americans share differences on other issues. For example, the outspoken advocacy of Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) on behalf of Israel, coupled with his impactful statements targeting his party’s far-left faction, accords him a justifiable place of affection among pro-Israel Americans. And while thanking politicians whose support for Israel aligns with a liberal ethos, hundreds of conservative lawmakers echo his sentiments.
Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), who recently introduced the Stop Anti-Semitism on College Campuses Act, will likely head into the 2024 campaign season facing “Squad”-backed Democrat Mondaire Jones, who was forced to delete a social-media post this year decrying Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Lawler’s meeting with Orthodox Jewish leaders as “a waste of everyone’s time.” Still, in Jewish enclaves like Westchester County, N.Y., ties to progressive agendas result in voters finding it more palatable to thank lawmakers, like Torres, whose pro-Israel positions comport with an “enlightened” orthodoxy and thus affords Jewish Democrats the latitude to promote their Israel advocacy, despite said engagement often coming at the expense of applauding conservative friends of the Jewish state. Honest adherence to Hakarat Hatov mandates depoliticizing its value and extending appreciation to lawmakers with whom we would otherwise disagree. The electoral attitudes of the mainstream Jewish community underscore why friendly reminders about this Jewishprinciple at times feel more sanctimonious than sincere. Sustaining this discriminant application weakens its foundational value and contributes to a political stasis, which if left unchecked, may compromise future political backing for Israel.