Last week’s presidential election was a moment of truth for the US Jewish community. On November 8 Jewish voters passed the test when they voted by an overwhelming 71 to 24 percent margin for Clinton over Trump, supporting the former (or opposing the latter) more decisively than any other religious group. But a major exam question is yet to be answered: Will Trump’s aggressively Zionist agenda sway their opinion during his administration?
As with virtually every single issue, what Trump actually stands for is swathed in layers upon layers of contradictions. On the one hand, he has named white nationalist and anti-Semite Stephen Bannon his chief strategist; on the other hand, he is reported to have found an influential advisor in his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The fact of the matter is that contradictions more often than not shed light on the truth of ideology—in this case, the mutual compatibility of Zionism and anti-Semitism. Bannon, after all, is not only an anti-Semite but also vehemently pro-Israel, which makes him a strange bedfellow of someone like Kushner and of Trump himself, who has often expressed his admiration for Benjamin Netanyahu. For the freshly minted ideologue-in-chief, the signifier “Semite” simply slides between the Jews and the Palestinians, that is to say, between classical anti-Semitism and a Zionist stance.
Far from marginal to the president-elect’s racist agenda, Israel is its fulcrum. First, the apartheid wall erected under Netanyahu serves as a model for Trump’s own plans to build a similar structure on the border between Mexico and the US. Second, given the appointments announced on Friday, particularly of Michael Flynn as national security advisor, it is clear that Israel is viewed by the Trump team as the frontline in the flight against “radical Islam”. Third, the current Israeli and the incoming American administrations share the emphasis on national purity, implying a disturbing anti-minority and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions. So much so that, already in January of this year, Bradley Burston writing for Ha’aretz equated the possible future of Trump’s America to “Netanyahu’s Israel on bad steroids”.
It could well be that certain pro-Israel Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, and leading Zionists, such as Alan Dershowitz, are denouncing the choice of Bannon for a powerful, albeit amorphous, role in the White House for the same reason that the Republican establishment distanced itself from Trump during the campaign: these “extreme” figures mirror and magnify the disavowed reality of their critics on the right. Zionist anti-Semitism reveals the hidden core of Jewish Zionism, just as Trump’s bigotry pulls the curtain on the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the Republican “mainstream”.
In this explosive situation, Jewish Americans will not pass the test of the post-election period if they criticize or even oppose the forming administration out of pragmatic and self-serving concerns. Their political conduct should be rather guided by an intense identification and solidarity with the victims of the newly installed (but also very old) barbarism: Palestinians, undocumented immigrants, racial minorities… Granted, a spate of anti-Semitic incidents all over the country after November 8 renders any such identification, at bottom, egoistic and self-referential. But there remains an important difference between the symbolic violence these incidents represent and the threat of real violence (e.g., deportation or denial of basic rights) to be enshrined in law. The political friend-enemy distinctions have not been delineated as clearly as they are now for decades. At home and abroad, it is up to Jewish Americans to take the side of the oppressed.