Editor’s Note: Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of eight books, including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
At sundown on May 19, Jews around the world will begin celebrating the holiday of Shavuot. It marks the day in antiquity when Moses and his followers received the Torah at Mount Sinai. And, in modern times, Jews are urged to think of themselves “standing again at Sinai,” renewing their covenant with God and each other.
The Jewish national movement of Zionism, a kind of secular religion, offered a parallel way of unifying Jews in the cause of creating and sustaining modern Israel. Though relatively few American Jews ever immigrated there, multitudes enacted their Zionism with financial support and political advocacy.
This year, however, Shavuot will arrive as a painful travesty for the vast majority of American Jews. The events that unfolded in the Middle East on May 14 put an almost unbearable strain on the covenant between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, one in the United States and the other in Israel.
On that date, the 70th anniversary of Israeli statehood, Israel military forces killed more than 50 Palestinian protestors and wounded another 2,700 in a confrontation, as marchers tried to breach the security fence on the Gaza border. At about the same time, the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem turned into a virtual worship service for President Donald Trump.
In normal circumstances, a consensus of American Jews would have unreservedly cheered the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Jews of all stripes regard as the national capital despite international refusal to do so. In most other periods of terrorism, armed conflict or outright war, American Jews have readily rallied to the side of the Jewish state.
But the toxic partnership of Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has damaged the bonds between Jews here and Jews there. Instead of being an emblem of the entire Jewish people, Israel has overwhelmingly become the province of right-wingers – the settlers in the West Bank, their political patrons in Israeli politics, evangelical Christians in America and the minority of this country’s Jews who support its divisive president.
When Netanyahu and Trump’s presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner spoke of “peace” at the embassy opening, the word lost all meaning. The peace process, and the hope of a two-state solution, is effectively dead. It now seems that the only options on the table are a binational state, which would provide equal citizenship rights to all Jews and Arabs living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, or an apartheid regime of Israeli Jews ruling over Palestinian Arabs.
For liberal and moderate American Jews – the 71% who voted against Trump – a combination of entrenched sentimentality and practical fear of civil war will stop them from endorsing a binational state. Yet their democratic and progressive values also mean they cannot support the transformation of a sovereign Jewish nation into South Africa 2.0. American Jewish silence will speak volumes.
Even if Trump and Netanyahu continue to invoke a peaceful future under some “great deal,” their own alliance has alienated the mainstream of American Jewry. Trump’s recent pull-out from the Iran nuclear agreement echoed Netanyahu’s meddlesome campaign against it during Barack Obama’s presidency. As a result, Israel has rapidly shifted being from a bipartisan cause into a conservative Republican one. A poll by the Pew Research Center early this year found that 79% of Republicans, but only 27%of Democrats, sympathized more with the Israelis than the Palestinians.
Trump opposes most American Jews in his stances on issues ranging from immigration to abortion rights to separation of church and state. Indeed, as of a 2016 survey, nearly 80% of American Jews described themselves as liberal or moderate politically. As a religious minority, Jews feel indirectly threatened by Trump’s verbal attacks on other minorities – blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the disabled – to say nothing of his coddling of alt-right white nationalists.
By clutching Trump so closely, Netanyahu has now branded Israel with a set of political positions that are detested by the mass of American Jews. He has made Israel’s main American allies the Tea Party version of the Republican Party and the so-called “Christian Zionists” of evangelical Christianity. As a Pew poll showed in 2014, Jews give a lower approval rating to evangelical Christians (34%) than to any other major religious group.
Two of America’s most prominent evangelical ministers, Rev. Robert Jeffress and Rev. John Hagee, offered prayers at the embassy’s opening that portrayed it as part of Christianity’s grand messianic design – a theological stance, needless to say, that is totally at odds with Judaism. In the past, both ministers have also made statements disparaging Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus and Catholics.
For Netanyahu and Trump, such evangelicals serve as a reliable political base. With friends like those, however, Israel has decisively parted ways with the liberal and moderate American Jews who were the staple of Zionism here for decades.
One of the scriptures read on Shavuot is the Book of Ruth. A woman sometimes considered the first convert to Judaism, Ruth famously says in the text, “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” That testament to an embracing, overarching Jewish community has never sounded emptier than right now.