Most American Jews didn’t need the latest controversy involving President Donald Trump in order to be convinced to resist him. The overwhelming majority—already loyal partisan Democrats—opposed the conservative policies pursued by his administration and regarded his views on illegal immigration abhorrent. But the “Send her back!” taunt vehemently directed at the four far-left congresswomen who comprise “the Squad” was considered even more beyond the pale than many of his previous outrageous comments.
Taking their cues from The New York Times and networks like CNN, most Jews now think “racist” is not so much an epithet to be hurled at the president as an objective description. The current debate about Trump resembles the apocalyptic rhetoric that was routinely thrown about in the months before he took office, when many observers claimed that America was living through the moral equivalent of the last days of the Weimar Republic. The latest controversy has some otherwise sober liberals again asserting that Trump is an authoritarian threat to American liberties who is targeting minorities like the freshmen congresswomen for oppression.
If one accepts this characterization of the political situation, then the duty of the Jewish community is clear. A danger to any minority or oppressed group is inevitably a danger to the Jews, who always wind up being targeted by tyrants. And that’s why so many Jews view opposition to Trump as not so much a political opinion, but a religious obligation. Many in the Jewish community see Martin Niemöller’s famous poem that begins, “First they came for the Socialists … ,” and its third line, “Then they came for the Jews,” as not just an accurate analogy, but a gloomy prediction. They believe that it’s only a matter of time before a country where insults are aimed at women of color and where the government orders arrests of illegal immigrants will be followed by a targeting of the Jews.
Writer David Frum referenced this assumption in an article published this week in The Atlantic. Frum is part of the dwindling band of former Republicans who remain steadfast #NeverTrump advocates. But he is able to recognize that—despite the efforts by some on the left to smear Trump as an anti-Semite or an enabler or encourager of anti-Semites—this administration is, as he put it, is “not coming for the Jews this time.”
As Frum conceded, the stance of prominent members of the administration at last week’s Department of Justice Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism was that of genuine friends to the Jewish people and not allies of convenience. On any number of issues, the Trump administration has demonstrated its friendship for the Jewish community. And that’s even before you take into account the fact that it has been the most pro-Israel administration in history.
Still, in Frum’s words, this isn’t so much a reason for Jews to support Trump as it is setting up a quandary in which the community’s commitment to its values is being put to the test. Frum sees Trump as part of a new generation of authoritarians who view Jews as a protected class, even as they treat other minorities harshly and undermine everyone’s rights.
Frum seeks to frame the Jewish debate about Trump in such a way as to argue that this is a devil’s bargain in which Jews are being asked to join the oppressors.
In an odd way, he is unintentionally echoing the intersectional ideology motivating many on the left who view Jews and the State of Israel as enjoying “white privilege.” But the problem is not just that Trump is a friend to the Jews as opposed to an enemy; it’s that the basic assumption that they feel the president is destroying American liberty is mistaken.
It’s true that at times the president’s language is appalling and the opposite of what a nation in need of healing needs to hear from the leader of the free world. Many of Trump’s ardent followers are too far gone in their hero worship and their animus for his foes to admit that he is flawed and irresponsible messenger. That is testimony to the damage that our bifurcated political culture has done to what was once a national consensus on the importance of civic virtue and civility.
But it’s equally true that the claims that this administration is destroying democracy and liberty are partisan hogwash. Trump’s opponents face no restraints or penalties for daily pillorying him and his supporters in prominent forums or in Congress. The policies Trump critics decry are not Trumpian tyranny, but conservative ideas that any Republican would have tried to implement. His “oppression” of immigrants that offends so many Jews is nothing more than an attempt to enforce the law, not an echo of Nazi oppression of the Jews.
Equally important, Trump is entirely correct when he describes members of the squad, such as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), as virulent anti-Semites who have often been given a pass by some in their party. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—the most prominent member of the squad—is, like her two friends, a loud and dangerous opponent of Israel and a defender of the anti-Semitic BDS movement. Should AOC and her friends ever gain control of their party — and we’re nowhere near that point yet — then the threat to Jews will be similar to one that a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party poses in Britain.
Frum believes that this situation tests the ethical obligation of Jews to set aside their own parochial interests and defend others, much as the great Jewish teacher Hillel admonished us that, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” while also stating that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
However, he and other Trump critics are wrong to view this as the moral dilemma they assume it to be. Opposing the president is what liberals, who would prefer a Democrat, should do. Trump is a conservative and someone who says inappropriate things. But he poses no more of a threat to American liberty than he does to the Jews. The same cannot be said for Democratic Socialists who support BDS.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.