In a Jewish community where 70 percent of the people supported Hilary Clinton, the election of Donald Trump has impinged on individuals’ identities as Jews, but even more so as Americans. Serious concerns about anti-Semitism and hate speech and even the deeper roots of democracy itself are pushing community leaders to think about the appropriate Jewish communal response to current events.
Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a member of the Jewish Center in Princeton, said he is concerned that anti-Semitic rhetoric and connections to anti-Semitic groups were part of a major political campaign.
“When something like this gains some legitimation, there is a danger — in what message that sends and what groups are allowed to participate in a party coalition,” he said. The appointment of Stephen Bannon — the CEO of Trump’s campaign and named chief strategist and senior counselor for his White House — “sends a message that organizations of the alt-right are part of the Trump coalition and has lowered the bar in terms of what can be said,” Zelizer said.
For Zelizer, the campaign and election of Trump has touched his sense of Jewish identity.
“As someone who comes from a family of rabbis and is religious…” — his father is Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, religious leader emeritus of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen — “it’s troubling to see anti-Semitism become a legitimate part of the political discourse.”
Citing anti-Semitic messages he has received in the Twitter sphere, what some considered to be overt anti-Semitism tropes in Trump’s final campaign ad, and white nationalist David Duke’s support for the Republican candidate, Zelizer said, “I’m a little surprised that the Jewish community isn’t more concerned about this, at least from what I can sense from discussions in shuls and Hebrew schools. This should be front and center.”
In another era, he said, “American Jews would be outraged” over the appointment of a man like Bannon, and Zelizer finds the relative lack of concern “surprising and a little disturbing.”
Zelizer called on Jewish conservatives to react to the offensive rhetoric used by Trump and his supporters.
“There shouldn’t be a silence in the Republican Jewish community about what is going on,” he said. “Sure, there are many Jewish Republicans who are upset and saying things, but it needs to be front and center.” Zelizer would like to see “efforts to mobilize and create political pressure in both parties against [the language of anti-Semitism] as something to be tolerated.”
Zelizer also imagined how this election is likely to affect younger Jews “who will become aware and cognizant of anti-Semitism in the U.S. in a way that they weren’t before.”
However, according to Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Yardley, Pa., the seeming rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior is secondary to the overall tenor of racism, misogyny, and homophobia that has emerged. He suggested that as a result of the hate speech that has become abundant, “it is a lot scarier to be Muslim, Latino, gay, and maybe even a woman” than a Jew.
Although Gruenberg was “very loath to say that Trump represents a danger to the Jewish community,” he acknowledged that he is concerned about the situation of minorities in an atmosphere where hate speech is normalized, and he would like Trump to speak against it.
“I think President-elect Trump has a unique opportunity and responsibility…to stand up loudly and say that that kind of speech and action is never accepted,” Gruenberg said. “I look forward to the possibility of him doing that, and if not I will be the first in line to call him to task for that.”
Gruenberg said regarding possible threats to American Jews, “I want to be reflective and thoughtful before I sound the alarm bell.” He referred to an “ironic fine line,” adding that he “does not want to be a victim, but part of the solution.”
“As Jews we hold certain values dear and when they are not supported in the country, I believe we have the responsibility to speak out when something happens.” He added, “We can be part of the solution, part of the element of our society that won’t stand for this [hate] language or this behavior, whether done to us or other people.”
As an American, Gruenberg said he is upset by the divisiveness in this country, and wished that people would follow the example set by talmudic scholars.
“The piece of my Jewish and rabbinic identity that is heightened is the history of civil discourse in Judaism, back to the Talmud, where they argued on every issue of Jewish law but were able to do so in a respectful and constructive manner.”
Like Gruenberg, Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Newtown, Pa., is concerned about the rhetoric and level of divisiveness that characterized the election, suggesting that it’s time for the United States “to create a sense of shared values.”
At the same time, he said, he feels fortunate to be living in a country with a working democracy. “The Electoral College,” said Gaber, “ensures a fair representation of every state and the fact is that whoever is elected and becomes president, there will be a peaceful transferal of power from one administration to another.”
With Trump having emerged the victor but with little detailed information about the actual policies he will pursue, Gaber said, “We need to be proactive and push for those policies and plans which will provide the most good.”
Within his own congregation, where people fall on both sides of the political divide, Gaber said, “the synagogue leadership and I are doing our best to bring people together rather than create more divisiveness.”
Over the past year and a half his congregation has been discussing how to talk about current issues. “Some don’t want to hear different points of view,” he said. “I hope people of varying beliefs will argue their beliefs passionately, but my hope is that all can still sit down to Shabbat dinner together and have Kiddush together and enjoy each other as part of a community.”