One of the aftershocks of the Trump upset is the assertion by Jewish intellectuals that Jews are now not safe in America. Peter Beinart wrote, “I keep hearing my grandmother’s voice in my ear”– his immigrant grandmother who said “a Jew must always know when to leave the sinking ship.” Chemi Shalev has all but urged American Jews to leave an unfriendly America for Israel, saying they’d be welcome with open arms. Liel Leibovitz has compared America to Nazi Germany. Even David Remnick has said, “It can happen here,” with all the dark echoes that implies.
Any judgment about Jewish safety is of course highly personal; especially when no one in power has threatened Jews, and the threat is a shadowy prospect. So speaking for myself: I don’t feel any less safe in America under Donald Trump. I live in a county that voted for Trump and I don’t think Jews are threatened. I recognize the disturbing rise in anti-Semitic speech in the last year; but I think others have much more to fear in Trump’s America: Muslims and Hispanics and urban African-Americans. And though all fears are *real* especially when so many people are stating them, I see the Jewish fears as overblown and even self-involved, and an indication not of physical threats or discrimination but a potential shift in Jewish status inside the establishment. It is a real shift, and expressive of a real reaction; but is it meaningful apart from the shuffling of chairs in the elites, I say no.
Chemi Shalev makes my point. He says that Jews came to feel that they were insiders in America– and suddenly we are outsiders. But blue state culture is stronger than ever after this election; and we are winners in it. We are the most prestigious group in US society (says sociologist Steven Cohen), the group people want to marry, among the very wealthiest, the models of modern cultural norms on Seinfeld and in Marc Zuckerberg, Stephen Spielberg, David Axelrod and Bob Dylan.
This was not true just 40 and 50 years ago. Social discrimination by a Protestant ruling elite was real and biting. There were no Jewish deans at the Harvard Law School; and Dershowitz, who had eschewed private practice because of anti-Semitism in the high-end firms, threatened to quit the law school over this fact. “As recently as the 1970s, Jews and all others not of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ascendancy were still excluded from any position of real power at the bar, on the bench, at banks and in boardrooms,” said a report on PBS about how pioneering Jews unlocked corporate America.
A transformation came. A new finance culture embodied by mergers and acquisitions transformed Wall Street. Neoconservatism transformed the Republican Party. The first Jewish White House chief of staff wasn’t till 1988; and in recent years there have been three of them. Thirteen of fourteen of the largest donors to the Democratic Party are Jewish, what “I would delicately call the donor class of the Democratic Party,” as Jeffrey Goldberg, power journalist at Aspen and the Atlantic and the Oval Office, terms it. There have now been several Jewish Harvard law school deans, and many Jewish Ivy presidents. Four of the last five Democratic nominees to the Supreme Court have been Jewish and several leading media corporations are led by Jews, not to mention, as Beinart says, our role among the chattering classes: “Jews edit The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Weekly Standard, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Vox, Buzzfeed, Politico, and the opinion pages of The New York Times and Washington Post.”
This large presence is why I speak of the Jewish establishment; and the question arises, Why must it last? It is the destiny of American elites to change. The WASP establishment fell without a shot being fired, as its chronicler Joseph Epstein said: “Members of [the WASP] establishment dominated politics, economics and education, but they do so no longer. The WASPocracy, as I think of it, lost its confidence and, with it, the power and interest to lead.”
My wife remembers experiencing a lot of resentment toward her tribe, the WASPs, in the 1970s counterculture, after the great WASP war, the Vietnam War, and she did not resist it. She kind of respected it. Her former boyfriend tried to push warmonger Robert McNamara off the Martha’s Vineyard ferry, a famous incident in the revolt against the WASP’s. Today there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court; it is all Catholics and Jews. My wife could care less. (Though she didn’t get a job at a literary agency once because she didn’t know what “the UJA” is.)
Now we have entered a new period; and I wonder how much of this bellyaching about Jewish persecution is actually just the beginning of the end of the Jewish establishment. We’re not going to be as prominent in the elites as we once were. Jeffrey Goldberg and David Remnick got unprecedented access to the White House. They won’t have that any more.
There is, moreover, some fitness in this shift. The neoconservatives set out to run magazines and ended up running foreign policy. The Israel lobby– or the “Jewish lobby,” as Alan Dershowitz called it in 1991, cheering its power to defeat the enemies “of Israel or of the Jews”– helped to create the disastrous Iraq war and did not pay a price for doing so. People are angry about neocons and angry about the Iraq War. They should be. I believe this anger fuels some of the anti-semitism, and does so because the press is unable to talk about something that is right before their eyes, the large presence of Jews in the establishment, many of them, ala Jeffrey Goldberg and Mike Bloomberg and David Cohen of Comcast, endlessly pushing Israel.
Last year I reported that Gary Ginsberg of Time Warner was writing speeches for Netanyahu and against the U.S. president; and nobody really cared. This year I reported that our lead White House Middle East negotiator over the last 20 years, Dennis Ross, told a private synagogue gathering in New York that Jews “need to be advocates for Israel,” not for Palestine, and again, crickets. These are scandalous conflicts of interest; and both men got away with them, because mainstream reporters were incapable of passing along these simple facts about establishment Jewish support for Israel.
Jews don’t exist out of history, we exist in history. The Jewish rise happened inside the last generation, and had dramatic effects on the US power structure and culture– almost all of which I celebrate, even as I repeatedly called on Jewish organizations to examine the role of the Israel lobby inside American Jewish life. It is hard to balance parochialism and power. When the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin broadbrushes Christians as bigoted tribalists on twitter–
evangelicals cheered slurs on Muslims, would ban from entry and set up registry -showed they r hypocrites and bigotsIf Christian cons now make amoral, political calculations, they cannot sell themselves as arbiters of valueswhile claiming the mantle of Christian virtues, these voters aligned themselves with someone entirely lacking themevangelicals are no longer value voters, they are nostalgists and tribalists
–she believes she is a powerless Jew but she isn’t; and she is feeding resentment and reaction. The whole echo ((())) targeting of Jewish journalists in the last year has clearly been hateful and at times criminal and menacing and a source of real apprehension; but it is also an outsider group’s response to power. Trump guru Steve Bannon’s alt right obviously draws on some of these sources of resentment.
I can’t diminish that reaction, but no one with any influence is talking about a registry for Jewish names, as they are for Muslims. Or restrictions on Jewish emigration, as they do for Muslims. Or talking about the problems in the Jewish religion– as the new national security adviser and top strategist Bannon do. We are not at risk, I say it again. The portrayal of Bannon as an anti-Semite is unpersuasive; it is based on slapdash evidence, a comment about “whiney Jews” from a divorce proceeding, as if no one has ever talked shit to their spouse about other ethnicities; and when the evidence in front of our eyes is that Bannon is a white nationalist reactionary who hates Muslims, disdains gays, and praises the Judeo-Christian ethic. The portrayal of Donald Trump as an anti-Semite is also based on coded inferences; when he is very direct about his contempt for Muslims and disabled people and Hispanics.
I recognize the source of panic in the Jewish community. The Clinton campaign was bound up in the Jewish establishment, and the Clinton campaign overlooked and lost to a populist movement with working class ex-urban roots; and this triggers collective memories. We were highly vulnerable to rightwing populist movements in Europe, from the pogroms in Isaac Babel’s shtetl to Franz Kafka coming out of his insurance office in Prague to hear a crowd urging death to Jews.
We misread history if we think that is coming to the US. Other dangers are much closer. The Jewish establishment in its high flower is over, but American Jews are going nowhere. Our status may be shifting, but our political and cultural influence is not going away, it is taking new and opposing forms: Orthodox Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka, the de facto first lady of the Trump presidency; and Bernie Sanders, the universalist progressive Jewish prophet of 2016. We were ins, now we are outs. That is not the same as anti-semitism.