November 13, 2018

Three rules for American and Israeli Jews in the Trump era

Yesterday evening President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had their first official conversation as leaders of the US and Israel. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between these two.

For American Jews, who voted in large numbers for Trump’s opponent and participated in large numbers in demonstrations against Trump in recent days, such a friendship is a challenge. For Israelis, who agonized over the policies of Barack Obama and now feel that a new era of understanding is dawning on US-Israel relations, such Jewish-American rejection of Trump is also a challenge.

Jewish relations in the Trump era are going to be complicated (as I noted not long ago). But by keeping certain things in mind, the Jews who support Trump and those opposing him could still work together and could still advance shared goals. Here are three basic rules:

1. Keep expectations reasonable

Dear Israeli Jews: don’t expect American Jews who view Donald Trump as a disaster for America to embrace him because he agrees to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, or because his relations with Prime Minister Netanyahu are more cordial than the Netanyahu-Obama relations. Israel is understandably, and sometimes rightly, disappointed when it feels that some American Jews prioritize its wellbeing way below other, less important issues. But asking Jews to turn a blind eye to what Trump represents it much too much to ask. Business is not as usual in America. American Jews should be forgiven for being somewhat self-centered.

Dear American Jews: please keep it in mind that for Israel the American President, be it a Trump, an Obama, or even a Carter, is not someone to shun or ignore. If Israel can have great relations with Trump – it ought to. If Israel can advance its preferred policies aided by an understanding Trump – it will be natural for it to do it (and irresponsible for it not to do it). If Israel needs to turn a blind eye to some of Trump’s less appealing qualities to get on his good side – it will do that too. The Israeli government has a whole lot of things on its to-do list, and educating Trump is not one of them.

2. Debate like Jews

It is easy to get carried away by the winds of anger and frustration that have been blowing all over the globe. It is easy to get carried away and lose one’s ability to listen to an opponent, one’s openness to hear a new argument, one’s readiness to admit error – or accept a new reality.

Many opponents of Donald Trump find it hard to acknowledge that some of the sentiments the new president is channeling are real and worthy of attention. These opponents will automatically disregard everything Trump does or says. If he decides that the embassy should move to Jerusalem – it must be bad. If he decides that the agreement with Iran must be enforced more vigorously – it must be dangerous. Of course, some supporters of Donald Trump have the same dogmatic tendencies. If Obama was for something – then it must be repealed. If Obama was against something – then it must be instated.

For the Jews there is a challenge and an opportunity here: There are Jews supportive of Trump. There are Jews supportive of everything-but-Trump. More of the latter Jews live in America. More of the former Jews live in Israel. But all of these Jews can resist the fashions of the time. Being Jews, they can forge a counterculture language – a culture that enables a conversation. Jews were always masters of debate – real debate, not angry name-calling debate. So let’s develop a language of Jewish debate. That is, a language that allows people to talk, disagree, listen, be convinced, be flexible, protest, cave, relax.

3. Save time for other things

Politics is important, at times even crucial. But people tend to get lost in a fierce political debate and forget that there are things other than politics worthy of their time.

True, if one believes that Trump is a reincarnation of Pharaoh (or if one believes Obama was a reincarnation of Haman), one is likely to argue that there are times in which politics is everything, in which all energy should be saved for only one thing: to fight against evil. No Golf, no entertainment, no vacation in Europe, no going to Vegas, no fancy restaurant, no surprise birthday. The fight against evil consumes all, engulfs all.

But most people will keep Golfing, vacationing, enjoying their lives, doing stuff other than fighting political evil. Maybe they will keep doing these things because fighting against evil is tiring. Maybe because what they call “evil” is not real evil – it is annoying, enraging, politically infuriating, vulgar, off-putting, frightening. But not yet evil. No matter the reason, it is important for Jews to save some of these precious positive moments for their Jewish fellows. Don’t spend the time reserved for “Judaism” battling with other Jews over politics. But rather – spend the time reserved for “Judaism” having fun, or meaningful experiences, with other Jews, no matter whom they support politically (and reserve your political battles for elsewhere).