Donald Trump’s election to the presidency poses special challenges to many members of the Jewish community. How will they react to his proposed immigration raids and medical insurance cuts? What about Trump’s appointing to a top White House post Stephen Bannon, who heads the right-wing website Breitbart News, who has been accused of giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites?
Those subjects are being intensely discussed in the Jewish media and throughout the community, with many predicting the worst. Others, more optimistic, hope Trump’s campaign was just a stunt, staged to get him elected, and he’ll soon affect the solemn demeanor and sensible Republican politics expected of such a rich man. Jewish Trump supporters cite his relationship with his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his friendship with Likud Party-loving Jews such as Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson.
As I looked for Jewish reaction to the Trump victory, I came across a thoughtful, critical commentary posted on the website of the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles by council board president Helen Davidov and executive director Hillary Selvin. The council, with up to 3,000 members in the Los Angeles area, has been on the cutting edge of social change since it began helping Jewish immigrant women in the early 20th century. It rescued Jewish children from Hitler, fought McCarthyism in the 1950s and today is a leading fighter for reproductive rights and for the LGBT community. In the recent election, it was part of the coalition that won voter approval for the Los Angeles bond issue to finance housing for the homeless.
The piece by Davidov and Selvin was in line with that tradition.
“This election brought up levels of emotions for all Americans that we have not seen in years,” they wrote. “We must channel these feelings and ‘rise up’ to continue our fight for the rights guaranteed in our Constitution. The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles is a leader in the fight for women, children and families. … [We] will continue to advocate the rights of all women to make our own health care decisions, and for access to the health care we need, for the sustainability of our planet, for an end to gun violence, for the protection of our individual rights, for gender and racial equality … for immigrant rights and for health care for all. We will stand up against gender-related violence and all forms of hate and intolerance. We will stand up for inclusiveness, cooperation and collaboration.”
One morning, I drove to the Council of Jewish Women/LA office on North Fairfax Avenue to talk to Selvin. She’s been executive director of the council for 12 years and before that had worked in other Los Angeles Jewish community organizations. Older women and men were arriving for a program. Listening to them talk, I could see the facility filled a valuable place in their lives. Selvin talked to me about harnessing this energy.
“There are opportunities before us to create positive things,” she said. “When people feel frightened, threatened, they end up coming together to achieve greatness. And I think that’s what’s going to happen in this country. Our communities will get stronger. We don’t have a choice. Whether it is the Jewish community, the interfaith communities, the LGBT community, the divisiveness, the hatred this campaign brought out, we need to stop.”
I asked her about immigration, a subject with special resonance to Jews, a community of immigrants and those descended from them.
Trump’s demagogic anti-immigrant rhetoric, directed against Latinos and Muslims, helped get him elected. Now he will have power to unleash immigration officers against those suspected of being here without documentation, invading their workplaces or stopping them on the street. What should Jews do?
“We have to protest,” Selvin said. “We have to be out there vocally. We must have peaceful protests. But we have to protest. We have to say this is not OK. We have to be out there fighting for these rights and if that means we know a raid is going to happen, we put ourselves out in front. … We have to support the laws of this country but we also have to support the people who give to this country.”
I asked her about the increasingly controversial Bannon, whose appointment as Trump’s chief White House strategist has split the Jewish community. The Anti-Defamation League called the Breitbart News Network “the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” But the Zionist Organization of America has defended Breitbart as a strongly pro-Israel media outlet.
“The National Council of Jewish Women is appalled,” she said. “We will fight this with everything we have. This country will rise up against people like Bannon.”
As we wrapped up the interview, I asked Selvin if this election result presents a different kind of responsibility for the Jewish community.
“I think it wakes us all up and tells us we can’t be complacent anymore,” Selvin said. “It wakes us up to the work we need to do to help each other. It’s not just the Jewish community, but the whole community in which we live. If we see something wrong, we must stop it. If we see bigotry, if we see hate, if we see anti-Semitism, we have an obligation to stop it.”
As I left, the parking lot was filling up. From these women and men will come the activists in the National Council of Jewish Women/LA, ready for what promises to be a most challenging time.
BILL BOYARSKY is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).