How is the Jewish community reacting so far to the election of Donald Trump?
At what was effectively the country’s first public forum on the new political reality for American Jews, the panelists and their audience struck alternating notes of fear, anxiety, uncertainty — and a touch of hope.
On Dec. 13, more than 400 people gathered at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles for a Jewish Journal’s Crucial Conversations event titled, “The New Reality: Jews in Trump’s America.”
The evening’s healthy attendance, said IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of the panelists. “reflects a really desperate hunger in the community to connect in what I hope will be a very respectful way about what the future might hold.”
The conversation was, by turns, surprising, hopeful and deeply uneasy, as when Brous declared the country to be in a state of “moral crisis.”
Joining the progressive rabbi on stage were Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Jonathan Greenblatt, Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet head of school, and Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey and a former John McCain presidential campaign staffer. Jewish Journal columnist Danielle Berrin moderated the conversation, which was cosponsored by the ADL and the Shalhevet Institute.
Greenblatt kicked off the panel by sounding a rare hopeful note about Trump, of whom he has been a frequent critic.
“The notion of having Jewish children who are shomer shabbos in the first family is pretty remarkable,” he said.
Having Jewish kin doesn’t give the president-elect a pass on hateful speech or action, Greenblatt said. However, “Those who say he doesn’t understand [Jews] and has no connection to us are wrong,” he explained later in the evening. “He does. That doesn’t, again, give him a get out of jail free card.”
Brous dismissed the significance of Trump’s Jewish family.
“Forgive me for not being to reassured by the presence of Jared Kurshner and Ivanka Trump… I’m sorry but I don’t think she’s going to be our Queen Esther in this case,” she said, referring to the heroine of the Purim story.
Berrin called on Greenblatt to defend himself from accusations that he had taken the century-old civil rights watchdog in a partisan direction.
“I’m an easy target for those types of accusations, because I worked in the Obama administration, full disclosure, three and a half years,” he said. “Full disclosure: I worked for the Clinton administration.”
But, he added, “No one accused me of being partisan when I came out against the Iran deal, much to the umbrage of my former colleagues in the White House.”
Much of the evening was spent grappling with the fact that nearly half of Americans – and as much as a third of Jewish voters – chose a candidate who, to many in the audience, is synonymous with racial hatred and bigotry.
Berrin asked panelists to speculate, for instance, on why Orthodox Jews favored Trump.
“They saw President-elect Trump as the religious liberty candidate – the candidate who was going to say slow down for a second” on questions of progressive America’s moral standards, Segal said.
He added that Trump’s perceived favorability on Israel helped attract Orthodox voters.
But it was Schnur who provided the evenings most comprehensive psychological profile of Trump voters: “The overwhelming majority of the people who voted for Donald Trump are not haters. They’re frightened.”
Brous agreed that not all Trump voters were bigots or anti-Semites.
However, she said, “there was a certain amount of willful blindness toward those dog whistles and those explicit statements that were bigoted, anti-Semitic and racist and misogynistic in order to support a candidate whose fiscal policies you might have preferred or whose Israel approach you might have preferred. And I think that is a moral crisis for our country.”
Berrin challenged her, asking, “Are you saying that 30 percent of the Jewish community was exercising willful blindness and lacks decency?”
Brous doubled down.
“It’s not only 30 percent of the Jewish community it’s 47 percent of the country,” she said.
The evening wound down on a discordant, if respectful note. Segal noted Brous had as much respect for human dignity as any person he ever met, but he took umbrage with her comments.
“You say its some fiscal policies I’m not sure about, some policies about Israel, as if those are throwaway lines,” he said.
Brous ended on a hopeful note, urging the audience to engage in the political process and not be despondent. Segal pressed for continued civil dialogue.
“This is a very painful election for a lot of people… We need to be careful not to fall into our echo chamber, which is what got us here in the first place.”