We are a country divided, a community divided. More than ever, we need strong, nonpartisan, values-based leadership from our religious and secular institutions, particularly our synagogues and federations.
This column is being published three weeks after the presidential election. I considered not addressing the topic; after all, what hasn’t already been said or written? But it must be done, even if only as part of my own therapeutic process.
Obviously, many Americans supported President-elect Donald Trump, either to voice disgust with the Washington, DC, establishment or as an expression of a hope that, somehow, he can return quality jobs to middle-class workers victimized by the forces of globalization and technology. Antipathy to Hillary Clinton certainly was a factor as well. Most American Jews, approximately 71 percent, as per the exit polls, continued the historic pattern of voting for the Democratic party candidate. As in every election, many were disappointed by the outcome, but this time many, including yours truly, are also palpably fearful about the direction our country may take over the next four years.
This fear has two components: First, bigoted and misogynistic statements made during an ugly campaign by candidate Trump have unleashed forces threatening to tear the fabric of American society. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League identified “a sharp spike in reports of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti and vandalism, including widespread use of swastikas and other Nazi imagery” in the week following the election. In his community e-mail on Nov. 18, Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, wrote that, in the wake of the election, “there have been several anti-Semitic incidents, more than in the last several years combined.”
While his post-election statements about being a president for all Americans and repudiating hatred offer a modicum of reassurance that could serve to assuage those fears, the appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief strategic adviser in the White House is deeply unsettling. It is highly uncommon to challenge presidential appointments, but some major national Jewish organizations — including the ADL, National Council of Jewish Women, HIAS, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and all branches of the Conservative movement, along with about a half dozen mainstream community federations and Jewish community relations councils — felt compelled to do so in consideration of Bannon’s past association with Breitbart News, a major platform for the racist and anti-Semitic so-called alt-right movement.
The second component of this fear is policy-based. Will Trump succeed in using his office and a Republican-controlled Congress to reverse progressive social welfare, economic, and environmental measures long championed by most American Jews? The biggest concern seems to revolve around the potential for Supreme Court appointments that could shape American jurisprudence for a generation. Is Roe v. Wade, which enshrines the constitutionally protected right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy, at risk?
As the initial shock of the election result diminishes, one also senses an eagerness for greater political and civic engagement — and healing. Hence, an opportunity. As Jews, are we capable of serving as a model for the rest of American society? In recent years, our communal discourse, especially around Israel-related issues, has hardly been exemplary. We have found it necessary to launch special initiatives, such as Resetting the Table, designed to promote greater communal civility.
We should look to the example of our great rabbis Hillel and Shammai, whose schools differed significantly on halachic questions. They vigorously argued their positions, presumably with respect (I wasn’t there) and, at the end of the day, agreed to disagree. Both opinions — Elu v’elu (those and these) — were regarded as divrei Elohim chaim, words of the living God. They also operated from a shared Jewish values base, which included respect for the dignity of all human beings created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
Starting with our own community, can we bring together Trump opponents and supporters in civil dialogue with a view toward reaffirming our core and enduring shared Jewish values, and pledging that together we will seek to promote those values in the policies of the next administration?
There are positive signs around the country and here in New Jersey that we are moving in that direction. Dov Ben-Shimon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, intends to convene a series of inclusive and respectful consultations in the weeks ahead with his board members, area rabbis, and other Jewish leaders to discuss how best to advance our core communal mission “to care for those in need, to build Jewish community, and to save the world” in this fraught political climate. In his outreach, Ben-Shimon asserts that “bigotry, hate, and intolerance are threats to our community; they can arise both from expected and unexpected corners. And sometimes from within our own camp.”
Of course, these hateful impulses are threats not just to our community, but to a variety of vulnerable constituencies.
The multi-denominational Rabbinical Association in the Heart of New Jersey issued a post-election statement that “to heal the wounds of our fellow citizens” we must “acknowledge that we each have a different way of viewing and experiencing the world and that we each carry an element of the Divine Spark within [as we are] called by our tradition to pursue justice.” (For the full message from the Rabbinical Association in the Heart of New Jersey, see related story.)
Yes — respecting the Divine Spark within and unreservedly pursuing justice. If the Jewish community uses that as a blueprint for future efforts, we can fulfill our role as an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.