Two recent headline events encapsulate the partisan chasm dividing traditional, Orthodox Jews from their liberal brethren. The most profound difference is not political, but ideological — and that requires looking past those headlines.
Just a few months ago, the National Council of Young Israel (which is affiliated with Orthodox Judaism) hosted its annual dinner, which the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) somewhat accurately characterized as "mostly a tribute to Donald Trump." More recently, the Religious Action Center of the Reform Judaism movement hosted its "Consultation on Conscience" in Washington, D.C. — and the JTA called it "a Democratic lovefest." Taken at face value, this tells us nothing new. Political analysts and pundits have long known that liberal Jews are usually politically liberal, while Orthodox Jews are disproportionately politically conservative.
It is worth looking deeper.
Last week I attended an intimate meeting, arranged by a Jewish community group, between a Jewish congressional leader and a select group of rabbis. I was one of three traditional rabbis present, while the others were from more liberal Jewish movements.
Two of the clergy asked about anti-Semitism, whether in Congress or the United Nations. The others inquired about a laundry list of issues: Gun control, immigration and the Mexican border, abortion rights, and climate change. The astute reader can probably guess which questions were asked by the traditional rabbis, as opposed to those from rabbis with the more liberal movements.
There was only one question from a liberal leader that could be deemed of specific concern to Jews — one regarding the Trump administration’s Middle East peace initiative, on which the politician could do nothing more than opine. The liberal rabbis focused upon issues in touch with the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
This is underscored by returning to the JTA coverage of the disparate Jewish events. JTA's article covering the Reform movement's Religious Action Center conference begins: "Senior Democrats in Congress embraced the agenda of the Reform movement, including gun control, immigration reform, abortion rights, and dealing with climate change." Wonder of wonders, these were the same four legislative issues addressed by liberal clergy at my meeting. Apparently, describing them as "the agenda of the Reform movement" was no exaggeration.
On the other hand, why did the Young Israel dinner come across as "a tribute to Donald Trump?" There was no praise for new trade agreements, unemployment numbers, or bringing North Korea to the negotiating table. The issues that concerned Young Israel were recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, fighting anti-Semitism in America and the United Nations, and Trump’s personal respect for Orthodox Judaism and the Jewish community.
Many Orthodox Jews do not love Donald Trump for being a Republican, but because he is so responsive to the legitimate needs of Jews and encourages policy favorable to traditional Jewish values. Many theologically liberal Jews love Democrats because both are progressive; their common interests have no real connection to authentic Judaism. Traditional Jewish teachings do not directly require a particular stance on gun control, immigration, or climate change. They do lead to a specific stance on abortion, but one essentially opposed to that of progressives.
To understand why this is so dangerous to America and America’s Jews, we need merely study the words of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who addressed his peers last year concerning the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in Britain. He said as follows, in September 2018:
Anti-Semitism, or any hate, become dangerous when three things happen. First: When it moves from the fringes of politics to a mainstream party and its leadership. Second: When the party sees that its popularity with the general public is not harmed thereby. And three: When those who stand up and protest are vilified and abused for doing so.
Two months later, America elected a pair of congresswomen who clearly espouse bigoted views about Jews, and a third who casually parrots anti-Semitic tropes. Not only did Democrats fail to condemn anti-Semitism clearly and forthrightly on Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) third go, but they then turned and vilified those who condemned her anti-Semitism. They claimed the vilification was motivated by "Islamophobia," or otherwise related to Omar’s race or gender.
We have arrived at a moment where America will decide whether anti-Semitism should be stamped out, or permitted to become dangerous. Not only America’s Jews, but all of good conscience must demand that Lord Rabbi Sacks’ prescient warning not be in vain. Either the Democrats will sincerely, forthrightly and permanently reject the haters among them, or voters must reject the Democrats.
But for Jews who adhere to the faith of progressivism, there is no such option. To reject Omar’s anti-Semitism would require that they vote against what even the JTA aptly described as their very "agenda." For them, it is all too easy to join those who claim that Omar really can’t be all that bad — and who vilify those who wish to stop the spread of anti-Jewish hatred.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Managing Director of the Coalition for Jewish Values.