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The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump

A new generation of activists, disappointed by the mainstream Jewish response to bigotry, has come to the fore.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the run-up to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—where an assortment of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and fascists marched and chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” before plunging Charlottesville into a pit of deadly, hate-fueled violence—local Jewish activists desperately sought support from their community’s institutions. Ben Doernberg, a member of IfNotNow who was working in conjunction with Solidarity Cville, contacted area Jewish federations, synagogues, and Hillels to distribute information about counter-protests and alternative events on August 12. Doernberg wanted to recruit clergy around Charlottesville to join interfaith nonviolent actions—or, at the least, to facilitate housing and transportation for anyone who would stand against bigotry. He was stonewalled. Many places had already heard from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the most prominent Jewish monitor of anti-Semitism, which had advised that everyone stay away from the rally and leave things to the police. 

Some feared giving the fascists the attention they wanted, or putting their community directly in harm’s way. Others wouldn’t advertise for an event taking place on a Saturday, Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. And few could have predicted just how bad the situation would get. Still, reflecting last week, Doernberg told me that “there are many Jewish activists that felt very abandoned. We had been saying, ‘Somebody help us, there’s Nazis coming to our town and people are going to get hurt.’ And almost no one helped us—and then people got hurt.”

Mimi Arbeit, an organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville, sought advice and resources from half a dozen national Jewish organizations. She had a few helpful phone conversations, and received offers of educational resources or training. When it came to showing up to confront protesters, however, no one was sufficiently prepared to offer support or to refer her to those who could. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” she told me. “We don’t have a confrontational strategy; we don’t have a community support strategy; we don’t have a coping strategy; we don’t have a Jewish organizational strategy. That’s what I’ve found.”

Despite the assumption that America’s Jewish community would be united in the face of rising anti-Semitism and white supremacy, Charlottesville and the ascendance of Donald Trump have accentuated the opposite: There is a deep divergence, over tactics, ideology, and more. And in reaction to what is seen as a tepid approach from the ADL and other mainstream Jewish organizations, grassroots Jewish groups have asserted themselves and new ones have emerged, mirroring the awakening of other combative activist groups on the left, from Black Lives Matter to the Democratic Socialists of America.

Before and since Charlottesville, many Jewish groups have avoided confrontation and kept quiet, apparently in the belief that calling too much attention to anti-Semitism will only result in more anti-Semitism, or that rising white supremacy simply won’t be a problem for Jews. Other Jewish institutions have cynically protected and enabled the forces that have mainstreamed the far right. 

Among high-profile Jewish institutions there has been a tendency to condemn anti-Semitism without naming the people who have fueled its resurgence. This has been an effective fundraising strategy. The ADL, for example, received a 1,000 percent spike in online donations following Charlottesville. In a fundraising email on August 14, the ADL claimed that “at times like this, ADL mobilizes for action. We were on the ground in Charlottesville, working with officials and reporting on events.”

Its role in precluding a more forceful mobilization of the local community was not mentioned, nor that the police didn’t show up after all. The email went on to exhort the president to “fire all White House staff that do not clearly reject white nationalism.” The next day, the president himself called white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people.” While no one would classify that speech—or any of Trump’s actions—as “clearly rejecting” white nationalism, the ADL has not since called for the president’s resignation. The group did decide, however, to issue a call for law enforcement to infiltrate and surveil anti-fascist activists—which it later retracted.

While the ADL’s reluctance to confront the White House head on may be chalked up to a tactical preference, some Jewish institutions are keeping quiet to placate right-wing donors. At least the ADL called for Trump’s white supremacist underlings to go. On the same day as the ADL’s email, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), a national coordinating agency for local Jewish communal organizations, responded to constituent organizations seeking input about joining a similar call for Trump to fire advisers Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, and Steve Bannon, circulated by Bend the Arc Jewish Action. The JCPA, however, advised member groups to keep quiet—because speaking out would risk alienating donors. Joshua Nathan-Kazis at The Forward obtained emails in which JCPA leadership warned of an “unacceptable backlash.” David Bernstein, president and CEO of JCPA, elaborated that, since the Jewish community is “ideologically diverse ... we have to take into account the varied voices and sensibilities whenever we speak and act.”  

Then there are those Jewish institutions and power players who have defended and enabled white supremacy. Based on their perception that the right is the best ally of Israel, explicitly Jewish institutions have offered cover for an administration that has been reluctant to alienate its anti-Semitic supporters. Up until Charlottesville, the Republican Jewish Coalition had so loyally followed Trump and his ethno-nationalist team—defending Steve Bannon in particular—that the RJC suggested Trump might “provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism.” After Charlottesville, the RJC promptly returned to cozying up to Trump following a brief pause, praising his nationalist speeches and plans to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. 

The tendency to perceive the real threat to Jews as coming from the left, while embracing those who have made common cause with bigots and authoritarians on the right, is particularly prevalent within American-based Israel advocacy groups. The Zionist Organization of America hopes to host Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Sheldon Adelson at their November gala. Adelson, the mega-donor who isn’t so convinced about democracy, will be the evening honoree at the Birthright Israel Foundation gala. That group organizes free trips to Israel for American Jews.

This month, the Israel on Campus Coalition, which has board members from a swath of Jewish institutions, endorsed a blacklisting website attempting to identify, discredit, and make unemployable student supporters of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. There is not, however, any parallel movement to identify and discredit the present and dangerous ideologies among their allies on the right.

Though the Jewish left has a fraction of the institutional power, it has not been silent—and it is growing. While many groups were unprepared for Charlottesville, and others too deeply implicated with its associates, some Jewish groups have been on the front lines. Rabbis with T’ruah (“the rabbinic call for human rights”) traveled to the city to join the on-the-ground opposition to the white supremacists and issued a statement explicitly disavowing the idea of “ignoring violent white supremacist movements.” In February, the organization had also organized civil disobedience against the Trump travel ban, resulting in the arrest of 20 rabbis.   

IfNotNow, a movement of young Jews seeking to end the American Jewish community’s support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine (disclosure: I also organize with the group), has also been active fighting white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the U.S. IfNotNow members responded to Doernberg’s call and traveled to Charlottesville, and joined the subsequent march from Charlottesville to Washington, D.C. Last November, together with T’ruah, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), IfNotNow successfully thwarted the Zionist Organization of America’s first attempt at hosting Bannon.

Charlottesville was a watershed moment for a bold, new movement of Jews against prejudice that had been building since Trump’s election. Until Charlottesville, Torah Trumps Hate was a secret Facebook group serving observant Jews who were dissatisfied with their community’s politics, but were unable to voice their dissent or organize in public for fear of discrimination or isolation. Victoria Cook, who started the group, told me that while the group had considered public activism before, Charlottesville made that need unavoidable. “This was a huge moment. Many people in the group were sitting at Shabbos tables and people were telling them that Neo-Nazis are not as bad as Antifa,” she said. 

Ironically, it was the silence of leaders in Orthodox communities after Charlottesville that catalyzed Torah Trumps Hate to get loud. “It’s directly connected to that failure why we went public. It’s easier when we see things going wrong to just go along, but when you see things that are ultimately broken, you have to act,” Torah Trumps Hate member Elad Nehorai told me. “After Charlottesville, the failures of institutions and individual leaders in the Orthodox communities was glaring and painful.”

Nehorai pointed to the example of mitzvah campaigns, in which some observant Jewish communities organize good deeds in the community “to bring more light in to the world” after terrorist attacks and the like. After Charlottesville, Nehorai waited: “There was a terrorist attack here. And there was nothing.” Nonetheless, Torah Trumps Hate had grown thanks to coverage of the group, which showed that the leaders of traditional observant communities did not represent a monolithic political force. In September, they showed up for the first time as a public movement, joining other activists at the March for Racial Justice.

The Jewish groups at the center of this fight are ultimately a small fraction of America’s Jewish community. The question is how these groups—both those fighting and enabling anti-Semitism and white supremacy—will affect the vast, unpoliticized middle. American Jews opposed Trump in 2016 by almost a three-to-one margin, but that landslide is not reflected in the political maneuvers of the community’s major institutions. The Jewish activists who took to the streets in Charlottesville are searching for solidarity. “I am more interested in getting help and mobilizing the community than in guilt and shame,” Mimi Arbeit told me. “While I was hurt by how hard it was for me to access support this summer, I have a lot of compassion for how confusing it was for others to imagine what was happening while it happened.” Her community and communities of color, in Charlottesville and beyond, are still seeking support to recover from white supremacist violence—and to prepare for whatever comes next. “I really need Jews to fight Nazis right now,” she said.