There are ten trillion things one could say about the presidential candidates’ overtures to AIPAC that might draw outrage, in goodness knows how many quarters. But what surprised me about this year’s candidates and speeches was when Donald Trump—the would-be-dictator—wrapped up his remarks with an evidently spontaneous non sequitur. “My daughter Ivanka is about to have a beautiful Jewish baby,” he told the assembled crowd, pausing ever so slightly after “beautiful” and “Jewish” for emphasis. (Also with hand gestures that may or may not have been meant to convey a baby being delivered. Those hands…) This was followed by great cheering. Seems the audience loved it.
There are Jews, and there are babies. I’m not talking about the babies born to people who happen to be Jewish—babies who will, in all likelihood, grow up to be Jews as well. I want to talk about the concept: so central to contemporary Jewish life, and so deeply politicized. It was a very specific kind of pandering, with a very specific resonance.
This is Trump at his most devious. Yes, yes, it was yet another unsettling allusion to his own daughter as a woman, but this time around that’s not front and center. He’s really saying that a vote for him is a vote for Jewish fecundity. Vote Trump, he’s saying, and the Jewish population will increase! Why “beautiful”? Because it’s a catchphrase of his, because this is a thing that’s said of all babies. What he’s doing is reminding the audience that Ivanka (unlike, say, Chelsea) converted, and is raising her children Jewish—that’s what Trump’s pointing out. Given how touchy and controversial a subject intermarriage is in much of the Jewish community, what Trump’s doing here is putting the audience at ease regarding his daughter’s in-marriage. He may not be Jewish, but he gets just as many Jewish-babies points as many who are.
To be able to summon a Jewish-babies remark off the cuff is a sign that he knows his audience. As I’ve been pointing out for almost a decadeJewish babies is the organizing principle of Jewish communal life. It’s the (at times) overtly stated background behind the warnings not to date or marry out. It’s also what undergirds the so-called Jewish “singles crisis,” the term used to describe the fact that there are, in this world, unmarried Jews. Whether these are Jews who wish to be married or not isn’t always taken into account. In many Jewish communal publications, and in (some) Jewish circles, the existence of unmarried Jews is treated as a disaster. (This is particularly true for Jewish women; Judaism is traditionally matrilineal, plus policing women’s romantic situations is always more popular.) A Jewish “single” is defined as anyone who doesn’t emerge from the womb already pregnant with Jewish quintuplets.
And in the abstract it makes sense: Millions of Jews perished in the Holocaust; others still from anti-Jewish violence before and after. I also think there’s a general understanding that Israel would be a bit more secure in its Jewish identity if it had a larger Jewish population. Jewish natalism thus shares some traits with other nationalist natalisms—think France after the Franco-Prussian War—but is also kind of its own thing.
So, in a sense, I get it: If Jewish babies just happened, there would be a couple fine ethical reasons for creating more Jewish babies. That is: If natalism weren’t always, always about controlling women’s lives (if not directly at least indirectly), I’d be prepared to reconsider. That day, however, isn’t coming.
But there’s something especially troubling about this would-be politician appealing to Jewish peoplehood anxieties. The thing with ‘Jewish babies’ is always that having them is a way of sticking it to Hitler. Somehow, I just don’t get the sense that a vote for racist demagogue Donald Trump—regardless of the halachic status of any of his grandchildren—would constitute that.