— The Current Year (@TheeCurrentYear) December 20, 2016
For weeks now, Jewish communities across America have been troubled by an awkward phenomenon. Donald J. Trump, a ruthless politician trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, has been elected to become the next president, and he has appointed as his chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, a prominent figure of the “alt-right,” a movement that promotes white nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny. Though Bannon himself has expressed “zero tolerance” for such views, his past actions suggest otherwise; as the executive chairman of Breitbart News for the past four years, he provided the country’s most powerful media platform for the movement and its ideologies.
Still, neither the United States’ most powerful Jewish organizations nor Israeli leaders have taken a clear stance against the appointment. In fact, they have embraced it.
Immediately after Trump appointed Bannon, the Zionist Organization of America prepared to welcome him at its annual gala dinner, where he was to meet Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education, and Danny Danon, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations. (Bannon didn’t show up.) Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, publicly announced that he was looking forward to working with the entire Trump administration, including Bannon. And Alan Dershowitz, the outspoken Harvard emeritus professor of law who regularly denounces non-Zionists as anti-Semitic, preferred in this case to turn not against Bannon, but against his critics. “It is not legitimate to call somebody an anti-Semite because you might disagree with their politics,” he pointed out.
The alliance that’s beginning to form between Zionist leadership and politicians with anti-Semitic tendencies has the power to transform Jewish-American consciousness for years to come. In the last few decades, many of America’s Jewish communities have grown accustomed to living in a political contradiction. On one hand, a large majority of these communities could rightly take pride in a powerful liberal tradition, stretching back to such models as Louis Brandeis — a defender of social justice and the first Jew to become a Supreme Court justice — or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched in Selma alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On the other hand, the same communities have often identified themselves with Zionism, a political agenda rooted in the denial of liberal politics.
To appreciate this inherent tension, consider Hillary Clinton’s words from the second presidential debate: “It is important for us as a policy not to say, as Donald has said, we’re going to ban people based on a religion. How do you do that? We are a country founded on religious freedom and liberty.” Here Clinton establishes a minimum standard of liberal decency that few American Jews would be inclined to deny. But she is not the incoming president. Trump’s willingness to reject this standard is now a cause for alarm among Jewish communities, along with those of other American minorities.
Yet insofar as Israel is concerned, every liberal Zionist has not just tolerated the denial of this minimum liberal standard, but avowed this denial as core to their innermost convictions. Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish. As such, the country belongs first and foremost not to its citizens, but to the Jewish people — a group that’s defined by ethnic affiliation or religious conversion.
As long as liberalism was secure back in America and the rejection of liberalism confined to the Israeli scene, this tension could be mitigated. But as it spills out into the open in the rapidly changing landscape of American politics, the double standard is becoming difficult to defend.
That difficulty was apparent earlier this month at an event at Texas A&M University when Richard Spencer, one of the ideological leaders of the alt-right’s white nationalist agenda — which he has called “a sort of white Zionism” — was publicly challenged by the university’s Hillel Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, to study with him the Jewish religion’s “radical inclusion” and love. “Do you really want radical inclusion into the state of Israel?” Spencer replied. “Maybe all of the Middle East can go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?” Spencer went on to argue that Israel’s ethnic-based politics was the reason Jews had a strong, cohesive identity, and that Spencer himself admired them for it.
The rabbi could not find words to answer, and his silence reverberates still. It made clear that an argument that does not embrace a double standard is difficult to come by.