That some proud Jews hail Donald Trump as the “first Jewish president,” while others call him an anti-Semite, tells much about Trump — and even more about Jews today.
Radio personality Mark Levin’s pro-Trump compliment makes sense to most conservatives — and to even more Israelis. Trump is the first president with a Sabbath-observing daughter, Ivanka. His executive order fighting campus anti-Semitism expanded Barack Obama’s approach. And Trump keeps granting Israel’s wishes, moving America’s embassy to Jerusalem, pressuring Palestinians, squeezing Iran, recognizing Israel’s Golan Heights annexation.
Alas, if Trump is Israel’s dream, he is most American Jews’ nightmare. Trumpaphobia among two-thirds of American Jewry runs so deep that his support for Israel has many questioning their support for Israel.
Liberal Jews abhor Trump for three reasons. First, Trump’s a Republican. Liberal Jews despised Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and especially George W. Bush. Only once they found the next guy truly intolerable did the predecessors suddenly look OK.
Second, Trump is an obscene, obnoxious, bigoted, bullying xenophobe whose defining stances and violent tone are guided missiles aimed at American Jewry’s deepest fears. Trump resents the liberal, minority-friendly, stable America that American Jews believe was the secret to their success here.
Finally, Trump’s tweet-from-the-hip “you people” rhetoric and his inexcusable “good people on both sides” comment about Charlottesville’s neo-Nazis sound like a Jew-hater’s words — or dog-whistles.
This gap in perceptions shows that today’s Jews are as polarized as everybody else. Religious Jews ask, “What’s the difference between Trump and liberal Jews?” snickering: “Only Trump has Jewish grandchildren.” Liberal Jews simply ask, “What’s the matter with them?”
Right-wing Jews only see campus anti-Semitism, left-wing Jews only see white nationalist anti-Semitism and too many ideologues downplay anti-Semitic hooliganism against the charedi Orthodox because it doesn’t advance their partisan agenda. If people cannot agree who the enemy is, they’ll have even more trouble identifying common friends or values.
This grand chasm also warns that Israel, the glue that united Jews from left to right, religious and non-religious, for decades, risks becoming another flashpoint.
Anyone who blames Trump for creating the polarization, or leftist alienation from Israel, has no memory. But anyone who doubts that Trump has made it worse has no credibility.
Jews will survive Trump’s presidency. America will too. Yet so will the internal and external tensions that preceded — and partially created — Trump’s polarizing tenure.
Gil Troy, a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas” and “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.”
More essays from The Decade In Review: 2010 – 2019 as well as snapshots from our editorial team on the last ten years in Jewish Journalism, including the key issues they covered locally and nationally.