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The American Jewish Litmus Test Should Be Democracy

Ron Skolnik
November 17, 2016

by Ron Skolnik

AS WE CONTINUE to reel following the Electoral College victory of Donald Trump -- and, to make matters much, much worse, his appointment of rightwing extremist Steve Bannon as the chief architect of his administration’s strategy -- it’s important to keep tabs on the reactions coming out of the American Jewish organizational world. Which Jewish organizations are soft-pedaling the latest developments, downplaying the dangers, and helping to normalize (or even welcome) Trumpism? And which ones, by contrast, are hewing to the American Jewish community’s core liberal-progressive values and refusing to take the anodyne "Let’s give him a chance" approach?

The positioning of various Jewish groups is of more than passing academic interest: The imminent Trump presidency should be a wake-up call for the American Jewish community to adjust our priorities, rethink our alliances, and cast out would-be communal leaders who are out of step with the 75 percent of Jewish Americans who did not give Trump their vote.

Over recent decades, the organized Jewish community’s acid test has been one’s positions vis a vis Israel, with organizations and individuals being measured by their stances on a variety of Israel-centric questions such as settlements, BDS, the two-state solution, U.S. pressure, etc. On the basis of this prioritization, the organized Jewish community has fostered a working alliance between centrist, center-right and far-right Jewish organizations that share a belief that the Israeli government should be shielded from any outside pressure, be that at the UN, from the White House, in state capitals, by investors, or at the grassroots consumer level. Those standing outside this "consensus" have had their Jewish bona fides questioned and their voices muted -– and sometimes muzzled.

Our priorities need to change. The key litmus test for the American Jewish community going forward should be (as it once was) the defense of civil liberties, the rights of minorities, the protection of those most vulnerable, and American democracy generally. Old rivals will, of course, continue to spar over Israel-Palestine, but with so much at stake domestically, the Jewish community simply does not have the luxury of allowing this issue to divide those who would otherwise work together in anti-Trumpist coalitions. The Israel question, in other words, must no longer define whether this or that organization is allowed “in the tent.”

Such an approach is in line with the priorities of the broader American Jewish public: Asked on Election Day which issues were most important in deciding their vote for president, Jewish Americans ranked Israel ninth, far behind the economy, health care, ISIS and terrorism, Social Security, the Supreme Court, immigration, the environment, and education.

Furthermore: With the Party of Trump having vanished the two-state solution from its platform and the President-elect not expected to make Middle East peacemaking much of a priority, Israel stands to lose centrality as an actionable item in the years to come. Once President Obama steps down, we will probably not see any new Western initiatives at the UN on Israel-Palestine, nor any meaningful negotiations between the parties, nor any American pressure on Israel to freeze or limit its settlement expansion.

BDS efforts will persist, and we will perhaps see the EU toughen its stand on the Occupation, but, barring any major surprises, the Trump administration will lay off the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel-centric organizations of all stripes, if they’re to stay relevant, will need to shift their attention to other aspects of their mission, or redesign their mission entirely, and devote greater attention to the domestic American arena.

WITH GROUPS ranging from the Anti-Defamation League to Jewish Voice for Peace issuing strong stands against the threat represented by Trumpism, we are hopefully seeing the initial outlines of a new anti-normalization, pro-democracy coalition in the American Jewish community. Such a coalition should incorporate all those in the community willing to stand up for voting rights and First Amendment rights, and against the targeting and vilification of any group in society, be it Jews, Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, or others. The American Jewish pro-democracy coalition should draw on both the legal and lobbying tools of the veteran organizations and the energy and growing direct action experience of newer groups, such as IfNotNow. Nor should the coalition have trouble finding and drawing upon a common Jewish inspiration, such as the instructions in Exodus and Deuteronomy to love and not mistreat the foreigner, "for you were foreigners in the Land of Egypt."

To build such a coalition, however, many organizations, and the people who run them, will have to swallow hard. Anti-BDS and pro-BDS forces will need to relegate their differences to a secondary status and agree to disagree. Mainstream figures will have to accept the partnership of those whom they regard as too harsh on, even hostile towards, Israel. Just as importantly, those struggling to end the Occupation will need to work with groups and individuals whom they believe are enabling oppression by a hard-line Israeli government. Disputes over Israel won't stop, of course, and Israel-related activism will continue outside the framework of the alliance -- but these mustn't be an obstacle that prevents collaboration at home. All coalition members, left and right, religious and secular, Zionist and non-Zionist, will need to make these compromises for the sake of preserving American democracy.

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THE PUBLIC REACTIONS of various organizations to the latest developments are surveyed below and provide an indication of which groups might be part of a pro-democracy alliance, and which will likely absent themselves from the struggles ahead.

Anti-Defamation League The ADL, which fights anti-Semitism and intolerance and has often defended the Israeli government from criticism, is the most important organization in the Jewish mainstream to reject normalization and call out the dangers lurking ahead. The ADL, which throughout the campaign slammed the anti-Semitic undertones of Trump’s messaging, has harshly criticized the appointment of Bannon, “a man who presided over the premier website of the Alt Right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” Other groups, such as the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, have echoed the ADL’s sentiment.

AIPAC AIPAC, the right-of-center pro-Israel lobby, is taking a “business as usual” approach to the Trump victory. The lobby refuses to comment on the appointment of Steve Bannon, citing its “long-standing policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments.” In other words, the organization feels that the latest developments are not worrisome enough to warrant a break with tradition or protocol. The March 2016 AIPAC conference, it will be recalled, whose theme, ironically enough, was “Come Together,” was the scene of massive standing ovations for Trump.

American Jewish Committee The American Jewish Committee, which bills itself as the "global Jewish advocacy organization," has reacted similarly to AIPAC, noting that “Presidents get to choose their teams and we do not expect to comment on the appointment of every key adviser.” The AJC statement weakly added the hope that Trump will make good on his election-night promise to enact policies that benefit all citizens. On a more positive note that leaves room for optimism, the AJC has just announced the creation of a Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, set up jointly with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Among its aims, the Council will seek to develop a “coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism in the U.S.”

HIAS The organization, which aids refugees and asylum seekers, has broken with its 135-year practice of not commenting negatively on political appointments and is urging Trump to reverse course. “If President-elect Trump is remotely serious about his promise to unify our divided country,” HIAS stated, “he must urgently withdraw his job offer to Mr. Bannon.”

Bend the Arc Bend the Arc (formerly Jewish Funds for Justice), the progressive Jewish movement that advocates for a just and equal American society, and that organized Get Out The Vote drives for Hillary Clinton, was a strong voice throughout election season against the hatred and bigotry coming out of the Trump campaign. It reacted to the Bannon appointment by terming it "as horrifying as it is unsurprising." Trump's selection of Stephen Bannon, "a professional purveyor of white nationalist and anti-Semitic rhetoric," warned Bend the Arc, "normalize[s] and legitimize[s] white supremacy."

American Jewish Congress Chairman Jack Rosen of the once-liberal American Jewish Congress , which now focuses on opposition to BDS and support for Israel, said in an interview that American Jews “shouldn’t necessarily start off immediately being . . . overly critical. We should give our new president an opportunity” and “wait and see.” This, he said, applied equally to the Bannon appointment. Describing alt-right antisemitism as unremarkable and nothing new, Rosen expressed confidence in Trump to “put down that kind of stuff.”

Republican Jewish Coalition Over the past few months, the RJC remained silent when many other Jewish organizations cited the anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery being used by numerous Trump supporters and that had crept into the Trump campaign itself. The RJC’s executive director has referred to Trump as a “strong and loyal ally” and, rather ominously, has publicly warned the ADL to tone down its criticism of Trump lest it get on the bad side of the President-elect. And the organization has tweeted out the statement of its board member, Bernie Marcus, who is defending Bannon as a “passionate Zionist and supporter of Israel.”

Zionist Organization of America The pro-Settlement, anti-two-state-solution ZOA has rushed to the defense of Steve Bannon, demanding that the ADL apologize for its criticism of him. The organization has also invited Bannon to speak at its upcoming gala. ZOA’s lengthy statement on Bannon claims that his support for the agenda of Israel’s right-wing government is proof of his philo-Semitism.

J Street Throughout the election campaign, J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace PAC and lobby, termed Donald Trump “not fit” to be President of the United States. In the wake of the Trump victory, J Street has indicated that it plans to go “beyond our core agenda” of promoting a two-state solution to take on other challenges such as defending American democracy, standing up for immigrants, and fighting anti-Muslim bigotry. The organization termed the Bannon appointment “alarming” and has called on Trump on rescind it immediately.

Israel Policy Forum The IPF, the centrist organization which seeks to promote a two-state solution that is consistent with Israel's security needs, initially congratulated Trump in a rather upbeat fashion. It quickly changed its tone, however, in the wake of Trump’s appointment of Bannon, “someone who has purveyed ugly and divisive rhetoric.” Warning that “American Jews have much cause for concern,” IPF cited the “ugly anti-Semitism that was unleashed during the campaign [and that] has been even more apparent since the election.” Significantly, IPF suggested that the need to address the threats to American society takes precedence and now outweighs the importance of minimizing differences within the American Jewish community.

Jewish Voice for Peace JVP, the pro-BDS , anti-Occupation organization which the ADL once included in its list of the ten "most influential and active anti-Israel groups” in the U.S., has created a stopbannon.com petition website. Its petition states that, “Bannon’s appointment is not normal, and we will refuse to treat it as business as usual.” An open letter on its homepage from Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson suggests that, in wake of the Trump victory, the organization will now increase its activism on domestic American issues, alongside its efforts regarding Israel/Palestine.

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, the legislative advocacy arm of Reform Judaism, stated that the RAC is “deeply disturbed” by the Bannon appointment: “both in his roles as editor of the Breitbart website and as a strategist in the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia. There should be no place for such views in the White House.”

Conservative Judaism Citing the instruction in Leviticus 19:17 ("You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart."), the institutions of the Conservative movement -- the Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Cantors Assembly, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Women's League for Conservative Judaism, and the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs -- have called on Trump to rescind the appointment of Bannon, "who, as head of the Breitbart News site, trafficked in white nationalism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and misogyny." The movement's statement focuses on both American values ("tolerance, justice, freedom and respect for all people") and Jewish values ("As Jews, we are compelled not to remain silent in the face of hate or the vilification of any group").

Reconstructionist Movement The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, along with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, have called on Trump to appoint, instead of Steve Bannon, "a strategist who will work for the inclusion and well-being of all Americans." Bannon’s appointment, the Movement states, "reinforces concerns that expressions of anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia—all normalized through the presidential campaign—will be embraced by the highest office in the land."

Americans for Peace Now The sister organization of Israel's Shalom Achshav peace movement has "unequivocally condemn[ed] the appointment of Steve Bannon", who, the organization states, is the personification of the "poisonous racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other vile hate-mongering that grew alongside and in support of the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump." In equally strong language, APN has also condemned those Jewish groups and individuals who, as part of their strategy to defend a hard-line Israeli government, "ignore, tolerate, whitewash, and even justify anti-Semitism and hate-mongering."

Ron Skolnik, associate editor of Jewish Currents, is an American-Israeli political analyst, columnist, and translator. For many years he directed Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), prior to which he served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter @Ron_Skolnik.