by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
The ambivalence of many American Jews to President Trump and his support for Israel is puzzling on one hand and downright churlish on the other.
Consider this: Jews have grown very comfortable with American presidents who promised to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American embassy to Yerushalayim, never fulfilled those promises, and kept making them anyway. It is as if Jews do not expect promises from politicians to be kept (well, maybe that is not so unusual). But Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who criticize the building of settlements in the heartland of Israel, and some who have even threatened to sanction Israel over it. And they accepted the anomaly of Jews being permitted to build in Bethel, New York or Shiloh, Tennessee but not in the original Bethel or Shiloh. That’s just the way it is – but it is strange.
Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who either pay lip service to Israel’s right of self-defense or seek to emasculate it entirely. These presidents routinely decried Israel’s “use of disproportionate force” or urged Israel to accept with equanimity “sacrifices for peace.” The better ones embraced Israel’s right to self-defense in theory but not always in practice, urging “restraint,” caution, and a limited response so as not to offend the terrorists or jeopardize the possibilities for a lasting peace.
And Jews have grown very comfortable with American presidents who have endorsed and even obsessed over the partition of Israel into two states (another partition, it should be added). These presidents have seemed to feel that only the two-state illusion will bring a just and durable peace to the region. That is, only allowing a hostile and irredentist enemy sovereignty over Israel’s heartland and control of its high ground will ensure prosperity and tranquility for the Jews of the truncated State of Israel. Most American Jews were fine with that – because that is what the presidents professed (and some Israeli prime ministers led them to believe) even when the facts on the ground taught the exact opposite.
It bears mentioning that Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who either were troubled by Arab terror (but more troubled by an Israeli response so they drew a moral equivalence between the two) or “understood” Arab terror as emanating from the frustrations of their lives. A State Department spokeswoman once attributed Arab terror to the lack of gainful employment in their communities. So these presidents demanded that Israel should understand it as well, and certainly not “overreact” to the murder and maiming of their own citizens. And we grew very accustomed to the notion that only Israel had to make substantive concessions on the road to “peace,” never the enemy who sought Israel’s dismemberment and dissolution.
We got used to this type of treatment, so used to it that many Jews today are more troubled by an American president who has renounced each of the approaches outlined above than by the presidents who squeezed, cajoled, threatened, criticized, censured, pressured Israel or otherwise failed to keep their promises. It is as if we feel that we do not deserve fair, decent and supportive treatment coming from a friendly president. Too many Jews find it hard to appreciate our good fortune or otherwise express their gratitude to the incumbent president. Of course, not every American Jew is a supporter of Israel and many agree with each of the disquieting and tendentious policies delineated above that were conventional wisdom for decades. But of those who don’t? How do they rationalize their reticence?
However one feels about President Trump, a non-politician to be sure and an individual whose approach to life certainly has its share of idiosyncrasies, the inability of many Jews to show appreciation and gratitude for his current policies towards Israel is inexplicable, even boorish. In their desire to be “super-moral” they have eschewed basic etiquette, something that itself is immoral. And appreciation is also due to his close advisors who share the views of supporters of a strong and proud Israel dwelling in security from sea to river and have been unafraid to promote and implement them.
Finally, American Jews have a president who, holding firm against intense pressure from most other American allies, fulfilled his campaign promise, recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there – abruptly ending Israel’s bizarre status as the only nation on earth not entitled to declare its own capital. The Trump administration has been unabashed in its support of Israel’s right of self-defense as real and substantive, and has steadfastly refused to second-guess or micro-manage Israel’s defense strategies. The Trump administration has muted any objection to Israel’s settlement policy, a marked change from generations of US opposition and occasionally antagonism to Jews living in Judea (of all imaginable paradoxes) and Samaria, and has even expressed occasional support for those endeavors as Israel’s natural right. The Trump administration has abandoned the two-state illusion in favor of the inspired characterization that the United States will support two states “if both parties agree.” Of course... The Trump Administration, and the outstanding Ambassador Nikki Haley, have afforded Israel complete protection from the hypocrisies and inverted reality of the United Nations.
This is in addition to the renunciation of the Obama agreement with Iran and the ramping up of pressure, sanctions and who-knows-what-else down the road – all to halt an Iranian nuclear program whose expressed aim is the destruction of Israel.
It is inconceivable that Hillary Clinton, had she been elected, would have done any of these things.
Have Jews become so partisan, or has support for Israel declined so much among American Jews, that simple recognition of these facts eludes us? Have we forsworn elementary derech eretz because the president is an imperfect man? Are his critics – and were his election opponents – perfect, all paragons of morality and virtue? How have we become so peevish as a people?
Perhaps there is another problem at play here, one that transcends politics and personalities.
The great Musarist Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote that every person has an erech elyon, a supreme value that transcends all others. What does it mean to have a supreme value? It means a value that is the measure of everything, the barometer by which every consideration in life has to be assessed, and into which all other values have to fit. Think, for a moment, of those Jews more than a century ago who made Communism their highest value. They sacrificed their souls, their families, their interests and their purpose in life to see Communism spread and succeed. In the early years, there were some religious Jews who were Communists – but when the contradictions and the challenges to the integration of Torah and Communism arose, it was the Torah that was abandoned, not Communism. It was the Torah that had to bend or break so that Communism could succeed. Whatever part of Torah did not conform to Communist dogma had to be abandoned.
Communism is dead (except on a few American college campuses and in North Korea) but was replaced by several other “–isms.” A century ago, secular Zionists made Zionism their primary value, and tossed out parts of the Torah that they felt impeded the realization of the Zionist dream. (That notion still exists but the number of adherents has dramatically fallen) In another iteration of this phenomenon, there are radical feminists today who evaluate and scrutinize every aspect of Torah to ascertain what conforms to feminism and what doesn’t – and the latter has to be discarded. That is their erech elyon, their supreme value. Rav Wolbe wrote that some people make money their erech elyonand for others it is the pursuit of honor or pleasure or children. As if to say, my pursuit of pleasure or my children’s happiness comes first – even above the Torah.
It is so difficult to break away from that mindset; but, Rav Wolbe noted, for the faithful Jew there is nothing in the world that we value as much as we value G-d and our relationship with Him and our fidelity to His will. That is always the erech elyon of the faithful Jew, who posits that G-d and His Torah are the primary values and every other value is subordinate. G-d is always at the top of our ladder of values, or is at least supposed to be, and whatever else a Jew values in life – justice, peace, wisdom, even feminism and Zionism, etc. – must fit into the hierarchy of values that places the Torah as supreme.
For too many Americans, hatred of Donald Trump has become their erech elyon – the one principle that dominates their lives, their every breath, waking moment and productive endeavor. They live to “resist,” whatever that means. As Chazal taught us, both love and hatred “disrupt the normal course of things.” We act differently, uncharacteristically, and sometimes even perversely, when we love or hate something too much, even irrationally.
But hatred of the President should not trump derech eretz, and ingratitude has a way of eventually biting the ingrate. Who’s to say such pro-Israel policies will continue indefinitely – and who’s to say they should, given the ungratefulness of the putative beneficiaries? Many American Jews dreamt that one day a genuinely, no-holds-barred pro-Israel president would emerge and embrace policies that many of us have been advocating for years. And now that it has happened, and while it is happening, isn’t elementary appreciation in order?
Unless we have grown so accustomed to maltreatment and criticism that we believe we deserve nothing but perpetual obloquy, it is. And it behooves us to demonstrate it, especially since G-d’s will is executed in mysterious ways and often through the most unexpected agents.
Here’s one Jew who is immensely grateful to President Trump. May his love of America and Israel continue – to the benefit of both countries.