Peter Beinart HARATZ Jun 22, 2016
In dangerous times, American Jews have a tradition of forming “Emergency Committees.” In 1939, fearing that World War II would imperil the activities of the London and Jerusalem-based World Zionist Organization, representatives of America’s major Zionist groups formed the Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs. Later renamed the American Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs and then the American Zionist Emergency Council, it operated until the establishment of the State of Israel. Meanwhile, in 1943, Ben Hecht and Peter Bergson created the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews in Europe to pressure Franklin Roosevelt’s government to do more to rescue Jews engulfed by the Holocaust. In 2010, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and some like-minded conservatives created the Emergency Committee for Israel to support Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish agenda.
But more than a year since Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, and several months since he became the presumptive Republican nominee, there is still no American Jewish Emergency Committee against Fascism (or bigotry, or whatever name you choose to describe Donald Trump’s attacks on American Muslims, Mexican immigrants, an independent judiciary and a free press).
I hadn’t thought about this absence until last Shabbat, when an idealistic young Orthodox rabbi named Joshua Frankel came up to me during Kiddush and proposed creating one. His vision is to create a network of rabbis and lay leaders across the country so that wherever Trump speaks, there is always someone to protest, in Judaism’s name.
Of course, some American Jewish groups have already criticized Trump. The Forward’s Nathan Guttman reports that between last December and this May, the Anti-Defamation League condemned Trump’s statements at least five times. The American Jewish Committee called his proposed registry of American Muslims a “horror movie that we Jews are quite familiar with.” The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism organized a walkout of Trump’s speech at AIPAC. The Jewish social justice group Bend the Arc led anti-Trump protests just this week. And earlier this month, four prominent rabbis—one Orthodox, one Conservative, one Reform and one Reconstructionist—jointly declared that “Men and women of faith should indeed form a coalition to denounce the racism and bigotry that Trump spews forth and inspires.”
These protests are laudable. But they’ve been episodic. Frankel’s idea is to create something continuous, a protest that does not end until Trump’s presidential bid does. By challenging Trump wherever he goes, rabbis could use his campaign to rouse their own communities against bigotry. After protesting a Trump rally, some might take their congregants to a solidarity event at a local mosque. Others might help immigrants register to vote. The goal would be a rolling mobilization in which thousands or tens of thousands of American Jews join the struggle to defeat the most openly bigoted and authoritarian major party nominee in modern American history.
Such a mobilization would counter the shameful acquiescence to Trump in some corners of the American Jewish establishment. It would counter AIPAC’s decision to invite Trump to speak, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ failure to issue a single press release condemning him and Sheldon Adelson’s pledge to spend as much as $100 million helping him get elected.
It would show that American Jews take seriously the Torah’s 36 injunctions to remember the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. And it would put Jews on the right side during a moral crucible that Americans will remember for decades. Mexicans and Muslims will not always be the reviled outsiders they are in America today. One day, the children and grandchildren of the people Trump is demonizing will be highly integrated and politically influential and they will remember who defended their communities when they were under siege.
In defending Mexicans and Muslims, American Jews will also be defending ourselves. Trump is a bigotry entrepreneur. He looks for racial, ethnic and religious resentments that are being underserved by the political class. Today, Jews are not a primary target of those resentments. Nonetheless, Trump’s supporters have generated more public Jew-hatred than any campaign in decades. If you loathe “hyphenated Americans” and yearn to restore the hierarchies of 1950s America, chances are Jews may bother you too.
In the mid-twentieth century, American Jews participated in the civil rights movement in astonishing ways. The American Jewish Committee funded the research into the effects of segregation by African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark that helped sway the Supreme Court in Brown versus Board of Education. In the 1940s, notes J.J. Goldberg in his book, Jewish Power, the American Jewish Congress employed seven lawyers working to fighting segregation, more than either the Justice Department or the NAACP.
The reason was enlightened self-interest. American Jews knew that, as a conspicuous minority with a history of persecution, they would benefit immensely if America became a more equal, tolerant society. Conversely, they knew that if African Americans failed in their struggle for equal citizenship, Jews might also fail in theirs.
The same is true today. An election like this comes along once or twice a lifetime. Let the Trump campaign be an opportunity for American Jews to show our children the kind of people we still are.