JERUSALEM – Many of us American expats living in Israel for years or even decades woke up early on Nov. 9 to watch the presidential election returns. Not obscenely early, of course, because the result was not really in doubt. The idea was to be awake for the moment that the networks declared the winner.
As we sat in shocked silence listening to the newscasters question whether Hillary Clinton “still has a path to the presidency,” Israeli radio reported that others, also American immigrants, had gathered in a celebratory rally in downtown Jerusalem. “Lock her up! Lock her up!” they chanted, echoing one of the uglier memes of a bitter campaign just ending.
Putting aside the sadness that the meanness had reached Israeli shores, the belief that Donald Trump’s shocking victory augers well for Israel or American Jews is also simplistic and dangerous. Trump’s election, in fact, represents a danger to the world’s largest Jewish communities.
Some of the Jerusalem celebration stemmed from the fact that Trump had “said all the right things” during the campaign, as far as American immigrants to Israel, most of them staunchly right of center, were concerned. He said he would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, something that previous presidents avoided so as not to enrage the Arab world. He does not believe the settlements are a major impediment to peace, said Jason Greenblatt, a Trump policy adviser. Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, immediately declared that Clinton’s defeat meant the end of Palestinians’ drive for statehood. And, of course, Trump promised that he would “rip up” the Iran deal, which many Israelis think paves the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Trump’s rhetoric appeals to Israelis who believe that President Barack Obama’s refusal to speak directly about the threat of radical Muslim terror makes fighting the scourge all the more difficult. Other believe (as Michael Oren asserts in his book “Ally”) that Obama purposely misled Israel regarding his intentions with Iran. And, of course, the specter of “moral clarity” coming from the White House is certainly appealing to Israelis who strongly believe that Palestinians’ rejection of Israel’s very right to exist is the root cause of the conflict’s insolubility.
Yet Trump and Israel will quickly find themselves in choppy seas should he move forward as he promised. Not surprisingly, Trump is already backing away from his promise regarding the Iran deal. The president-elect is also walking back his call to move the embassy — someone must have explained to him that the move is more complicated than buying a building.
Even those Israelis who would understandably like the U.S. Embassy to be located in their country’s capital should be relieved that Trump is rethinking that promise. The Palestinians have already said they would make his life miserable if he does it, using every diplomatic means at their disposal. What Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot say publicly, but is obvious, is that moving the embassy would likely unleash a new round of Palestinian violence, perhaps unprecedented in its ferocity. Ironically, were that violence to erupt, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could find himself begging Trump not to move the embassy so that some stability might return to the region.
Trump and his Israeli supporters would do well to recall that Israel walks a fine line in these tumultuous times. The Palestinians clearly have to hear that time is not on their side and that continued resistance to compromise will only harm their position (something that the Trump statement on settlements might actually accomplish). At the same time, however, Palestinians who think that they have nothing to lose will resort to violence. A careless Trump could bring about the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians, something no utterance or action by Obama ever did.
Across the ocean, there is equal cause for concern. Trump’s campaign has unleashed a stream of anti-Semitism that American Jews have not had to face for decades. Trump’s refusal to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as quickly as he should have, his campaign’s use of a Star of David to connote the corruption of the moneyed class, his appointment of alt-right supporter Steve Bannon as a senior adviser, and the wave of anti-Semitic tweets and even death threats against prominent Jewish journalists ought to have Jews everywhere very worried. The KKK’s announced victory march in North Carolina is an indication that anti-Semitism may just be warming up.
What’s at stake are not tweets or marches, offensive graphics or graffiti. What is at stake is the American Jewish future. The question is whether history will see 2016 as the beginning of the end of the Golden Era of American Judaism. Jews thrived in America not because all Americans loved Jews, but because America was, with many notable exceptions, a fundamentally tolerant place, at least to Jews. There were, of course, periods of hatred and of hate filled demagogues such as Father Charles Coughlin and others, but because the U.S. was fundamentally a place where abject public hatred was out of bounds, Jews thrived. That unspoken social contract may just have ended.
The world’s two largest Jewish communities, in Israel and in the U.S., now face dangers that just months ago would have been unthinkable. Across the ocean, one wrong Trump move could unleash a wave of Arab violence that Israel could not easily subdue. And closer to home, Americans have elected a president who floated to power on a wave of hate. With derogatory remarks toward Muslims, Hispanics, women, people with disabilities and more, Trump has legitimated the sort of discourse in which Jews have never flourished. Those with even a modicum of knowledge of Jewish history know that there has never, ever been a society that was shaped by hate that sooner or later did not come for the Jews.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.”
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