September 19, 2018

Obama Jews, Trump Jews – is the division inevitable?

What unites the Jews? What is it that makes them one people? A recent study I authored for JPPI (with my colleague Dr. John Ruskay) argues that while “complications are many,” more than a few Jews “would deem it desirable to develop as broad as possible an understanding of what Jewishness means.” What Jewishness means – that is to say: what is the secret ingredient that makes us all a people.

What is it then? It is not easy to find or define. And thus, many people tend to look for it in the field of “values” and its more earthly extension, the field of politics. For example: If what unites all Jews – what makes a Jew “Jewish” – is a shared belief in the need to help the poor, some Jews would turn this shared belief into a specific criterion of proper Jewishness: support the minimum wage because that’s the Jewish thing to do.

Values, translated into specific criteria, then become a political platform. If Jewish values mean support for the poor, and proper Jewishness means supporting a higher minimum wage, then the obvious conclusion would be that voting for the candidate who wants to raise the minimum wage is the Jewish way to go. And of course, such beliefs come in many forms: some Jews will say that the minimum wage is the test, while others might say that supporting the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem is the more fitting criterion; some Jews would argue that refraining from building a wall between the US and Mexico is the key demonstrative act of Jewish belonging, and others would contend that allowing vouchers for private religious schools is what the Jews really need and hence what a good Jew ought to do.

All of these tests lie at the base of the Obama Jews\Trump Jews formulation. Namely, the common understanding of the Jewish world as one split between better and lesser Jews based on their political affiliation.

And, of course, the Jewish world is split between supporters of Obama and those of Trump – as America is split between supporters of Obama and those of Trump. The question is: should we apply any Jewish meaning to such a split, or is this a wrong way of understanding the Jewish world? Like saying, for example, that Jewish America is split between those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes – a fact that means nothing.

On the practical level, it is easy to demonstrate how “Trump Jews” are truly different from “Obama Jews” in ways much more profound than the way blue-eyed Jews are different from brown-eyed Jews. Trump Jews tend to be more observant, tend to be Orthodox, tend to have a stronger connection to Israel. So their markedly Jewish behavior is different from the Jewish behavior of Obama Jews.

Is it because they support Trump? No, they are different because they tend to be Orthodox\observant. Do they support Trump because of “it?” Possibly yes. Because they tend to be more conservative in outlook, and more tribal.

But does this make them all Jewishly different? That is a tricky question, because it much depends on one’s definition of Judaism and the meaning of Jewishness. If indeed supporting a raise of the minimum wage is more Jewishly appropriate than opposing it – if several such specific political questions combined are the essence of Jewishness – then the Jewishness of Trump supporters is indeed unlike the Jewishness of Obama supporters (and vice versa).

If, however, politics is politics, liberalism and conservatism are liberalism and conservatism, tribalism and universalism are tribalism and universalism – and Jewishness is something else entirely – then Trump Jews and Obama Jews are only different from one another in the way that blue-eyed Jews and brown-eyed Jews are different from one another.

Confused? I am certainly confused. This whole exercise is not aimed at convincing you that supporting the minimum wage is the Jewish thing to do, or that supporting the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem is the Jewish thing to do. It is aimed at raising the possibility that our tendency to politicize Jewishness is not because Judaism is a certain formulation of political beliefs – but rather because our proficiency in Jewishness is lacking. Because instead of looking for ways to make Trump Jews and Obama Jews dwellers of the same Jewish tent – like blue-eyed and brown-eyed Jews – we define Jewishness in political terms and hence force separation on them.