Identity, Politics

“Whose Jews? Whose Protection?”

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, MA. He lives in Maynard with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell

Back in the nineties, on my first trip to Israel, I had a conversation with a rabbi at Aish HaTorah, a religious Zionist yeshiva based in Israel.  He was, of course, trying to encourage me to make aliya.  He certainly didn’t have much good to say about the US, but there was one group of Americans who had, to my surprise, earned his admiration and respect.

“Your Christians,” he said, “always support Israel.”

It became clear that he meant Evangelical Christians, who had a reputation for supporting whatever policy pursued by the Israeli government.  Like the rest of the extreme right, Evangelicals had an obsession with anything Muslim.  But even more than Islamophobia, there was one overwhelming reason that Evangelicals supported Israel.

Evangelicals were, and remain, fervent Zionists because they believe the establishment of the state of Israel heralds the Second Coming of Jesus.

The true reign of Jesus begins, explains Elizabeth Oldmixon, a politics professor at the University of North Texas, when Jews reconvene in Israel and “the people of the Mosaic covenant” convert.

And what about the Jews who don’t convert?

“According to the Evangelicals who believe this,” continues Oldmixon, “they’ll end up with the rest of the unsaved, which means they’ll be wiped out and sent to Hell.”

Now back in the nineties, I didn’t know much about global politics.  But I did know about the apocalyptic eschatological fever dreams of Evangelical Christianity.  And I said as much to the Aish HaTorah rabbi.

“How could Israel want the support,” I asked him, “of people who want to see us go to Hell?”

He waved off my question with a dismissive wave of the hand.  “Let the goyim believe whatever narishkeit they want.  A friend is a friend.”


Fast forward twenty years, and — today — Jews are still trying to figure out who our friends are.  Since the last presidential election, some of us have wondered if we have any friends.

But even by the standards of this administration, the last week in Washington has been a tumultuous one for Jews.  On Saturday, the president gave a speech before the Israeli American Council (IAC), claiming that Jews who didn’t like him would still support him for reelection because he would help Jewish businesses.  Then, on Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the Trump Administration would be issuing an executive order reclassifying Judaism as a nationality, thus calling our American identity into question.  And, just as Jews were breathing a sigh of relief that the executive order would not in fact address the question of Jewish identity, the president held a Chanukah celebration, in which he invited an Evangelical pastor to deliver remarks — Robert Jeffress, a pastor who has publicly shared his belief that Jewish people are going to Hell.

Despite these unsettling developments, some Jews seemed unbothered.  Some, shockingly, even celebrated the week’s events.  When the president spoke before the IAC — telling a room full of Jews the anti-Semitic lie that they would base their vote on financial concerns — many in the room laughed.  Some cheered, chanting “four more years!”

And when the president celebrated Chanukah with Jeffress, who once claimed “you can’t be saved being a Jew” — alongside Pastor John Hagee, a man who claims that genocide against Jews is due to “disobedience and rebellion of the Jews” — the Jews present, including attorney Alan Dershowitz and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, said absolutely nothing.

Why?  In the presence of public leaders expressing public Jew-hatred, how could prominent and powerful Jews seemingly be struck dumb?

The answer, I believe, is found in the executive order that the president actually signed.  As written, the order includes anti-Semitism as a protected category in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits “discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  The order explicitly says, “students, in particular, continue to face anti-Semitic harassment in schools and on university and college campuses.”

The reference to campus speech is not accidental.  Under the new executive order, a university that allows unfettered criticism of Israel risks losing its federal funding — a longtime demand of Evangelical leaders.  The real goal of executive order is to squelch criticism of Israel, especially on college campuses.

I worked on college campuses for five years as a Hillel rabbi.  I heard criticism of Israel — some of it legitimate, some of it absurd, and some of it anti-Semitic.  But it wasn’t violent, and it didn’t endanger our campus communities.  The true mortal danger faced by Jewish communities, now more than ever, is the violent Jew-hatred, marked in blood, by shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Chabad in Poway, and the kosher supermarket in Jersey City.

The Tree of Life and Poway killers both wrote manifestos explicitly referencing White Nationalist Christian language, language both clearly anti-Semitic and blatantly violent.

If this president, and this administration, wanted to address this terror, they could.  They could step up federal efforts to uproot hate groups.  Or increase funding to fight domestic terrorism.  But, to this day, they have done absolutely nothing about this danger.

Because, one can only conclude, they don’t really care all that much.

What do they care about?  Seven million American Evangelicals alone, a number greater than all the Jews in the US, are members of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an almost 50-year-old organization that eagerly awaits the arrival of the end times.

This is the president’s base.  They love Israel, but not because they love Jews.  In fact, they want all American Jews to move out of the country.  It should go without saying — that’s not love.

Any concern about Israel on the part of this president is not concern about Jews.  It is about shoring up support amongst his political allies.


I suspect people like the attendees at the IAC dinner, men like Kraft and Dershowitz, know this, just as the Aish haTorah rabbi I met twenty years ago knew it.   In his words, let the goyim believe whatever narishkeit they want.  A friend is a friend.

But the time has come to ask.  Are people who support Israel while trafficking in Jew-hatred really our friends?

For some of the Jews who break bread with anti-Semitic Evangelicals, this can only be seen as a cynical ploy to ensure support for Israel, even as those very Evangelicals traffic in Jew-hatred.

But in this frightening American moment, when Jews from Jersey to Pittsburgh to Poway are all in danger, I want to give my people the benefit of the doubt.

There are some Jews who will do whatever to takes to defend the safety of the State of Israel – not out of cynicism, but out of fear.  The fear that Jews come by honestly, that we are always and everywhere living on the cusp of danger.  For those Jews, Israel represents the best hope to keep Jews safe.  If doing so means finding common cause with religious fanatics, in their calculation, that’s a small price to pay.

But, these days, that price has grown intolerably high.  Fueled by religious fervor, the enemies of the Jewish people have now consumed Jewish blood three times in the last fourteen months, all on US soil.

Like most Jews, I care deeply about the safety of the state of Israel.  But that safety cannot come at the expense of American Jews.

We’re not the first Jews to try to consider such calculations.  In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, Jacob fears the worst as he prepares to meet up with his brother Esau.  The text says plainly, vayira Yaakov m’od.  “Jacob was really afraid.”  In his fear he comes up with a plan.  Vayachatz et-ha’am.  “He divided the people.”

“If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it,” Jacob thinks to himself, “the other camp may yet escape.” [1]

Then as now, schemes that render some members of our communities expendable are unacceptable.  Sacrificing some Jews to save others was wrong for Jacob, and today we see that it’s wring for us.

The old political calculations no longer can protect us — if they ever did.  We can no longer stand side by side with those whose ideology has led to the death of Jews.

Rather, our best hope is for Jews to recognize the common destiny of all marginalized populations.  Under the current administration, all minorities are under attack — racial, ethnic, sexual, religious.  Each marginalized community has lost precious souls to the forces of hate.  As Jews, let’s find common cause not with our avowed enemies, but with those similarly endangered by the hate threatening to envelop this land.

And, together, let’s stand in solidarity with all of those who know suffering, leaving no camp behind, forging a path to the liberation of all people.

[1] Genesis 32:8-9


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