October 19, 2019

Where are Jewish leaders on Trump?

I am 29  years old; like most Jews of my generation, I was raised in a Holocaust-heavy curriculum that started with “Number the Stars” in third grade and culminated in a full year of religious school dedicated to the topic in eighth. I find our communal obsession with that part of our history both understandable and exhaustingly, upsettingly macabre — I get why we do it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish we would stop. 

I’ve always been able to accept it, though, as long as Jews could also look past our own suffering and oppression to see that we are surrounded every day by suffering and oppression — that we understand “never again” not as a warning against future danger, but a rallying cry to present work.  

 And so it has been particularly devastating, in a time when every day brings devastating news, to watch the legacy of the Holocaust used as a justification to support an incoming administration so deeply, obviously, proudly racist that it seems likely to encourage Holocaust-style atrocity. To witness conservative, pro-Israel American Jewry react to President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon as a senior adviser with the complicity of silence is to understand viscerally that having endured your own suffering does not make you compassionate. It just makes you scared.  

I have been profoundly disappointed to watch groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) fail to denounce Trump’s selection of Bannon, a man who has boasted of creating a media platform for extremists who label themselves “alt-right,” thus enabling them to avoid their proper identity as neo-Nazis. Like the Jewish obsession with the Holocaust, I understand the impulse to make nice with Trump’s administration: It is an attempt to align themselves with an abuser in order to avoid being abused. It is the product of the racism that is the inheritance of every American but which, for Jews specifically, is compounded by a lifetime of being told to see the future of our people as endangered by the continued existence of the Muslim world. And it is a move undergirded by the deep-seated fear that has drilled into post-Holocaust Jewish heads from Day One: that we are and always have been a persecuted people. That we must be concerned, first and foremost, with how we will save ourselves. 

Other Jewish groups have spoken out against Bannon, notably the Anti-Defamation League and countless Jewish professionals and writers, but as far as I am concerned, “some” aren’t enough. For years, I have allowed myself to imagine that the Jews I love and agree with are the face and voice of our religion; this election has been a rude reminder that, in fact, they are not. And among the faces the Jews are showing the world right now  are our ugliest. 

I have never related to the idea of the Jews as a Chosen People, perhaps because I was born into an interfaith family — my mother converted eventually, but not until I was 12. Instead, what I have always loved about the religion is that it has allowed me to choose it: that it asks us to choose it in action and deed, minute and mundane, every single day, just as much as in faith and prayer on the holy ones.  

I was born white, given power and privilege rooted in violent history, and which can be exercised only at someone else’s expense. Many other Jews are born the same. I was born white but I try to choose to be Jewish: to believe that it is my work to help put a broken world back together, and that if being vulnerable teaches me anything, it is that it is my particular work to stand in solidarity with those even more vulnerable than I am. And at a moment when I need my faith and my tradition most of all, it is gutting to know that so many in our community are abandoning its core value of the justice: justice we have been commanded to pursue. 

If I believe we were chosen for anything, it is not adulation or exemption but instead the holy action of work — that since such a good teaching has been given to us, it is our sacred duty to live by its principles, instead of being governed by our animal fears.

We are in a precarious position now, the Jewish people, in which many of us can turn toward our whiteness and the history of selfishness and exploitation that the label entails; we can try to get close to people in power who we know to be vicious, and live on the prayer that they don’t turn their viciousness onto us when they are done with other victims. We can call ourselves chosen, and use it as an excuse to choose ourselves. Or we can choose to turn toward our Jewish history, and remember that we, too, have been “othered” and oppressed, and that what this means is that it is our work as a people to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen to us — but also to anyone else — ever, ever again.

Zan Romanoff is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her first novel, “A Song to Take the World Apart,” was published by Knopf in September.