Tired Tropes and Modern Politics: A Shabbat Sermon
On Wednesday, the Chief Executive and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis released the following statement:
“The Central Conference of American Rabbis is dismayed by President Donald J. Trump’s politically charged and divisive statement referring to Jews who vote for Democrats [by saying]: “I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge, or great disloyalty.” The deployment of this classic antisemitic trope should raise serious concerns for every member of the Jewish community, regardless of one’s political party.
Throughout our history, Jews have been maligned by the dangerous, antisemitic speech of individuals in positions of power who accused us of placing loyalty to Israel or Judaism over loyalty to the lands of our sojourn. Often, those accusations have contributed to violence against Jews and expulsion.
American Jews are well informed voters—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—who are deeply devoted to American values, including bipartisan support for Israel. The suggestion that Jews, or any religious group, should be affiliated with any one political party is un-American and should be challenged directly and unequivocally.”
The same day as the CCAR released it’s statement, President Trump retweeted the comments of a supposed member of the Jewish community. The President’s tweet thanked Wayne Allyn Root for saying, “President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world … and the Jewish people in Israel love him … like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God.”
All of this means that in the last several days, the president accused American Jews of disloyalty and then embraced the idea that he is beloved by the Jewish people because he is, “the best President for Israel in the history of the world.” To say that these actions are unsettling would be a gross understatement. In a single week, the most powerful politician in this country used and shared language that has haunted the Jewish people through centuries if not millenia. Unsettled is the least of what so many of us are feeling.
It is sometimes difficult to remember that in Christian Europe, as recently as 1790 Jewish people were universally denied citizenship and were therefore refused the rights and protections that had otherwise been afforded to citizens of those nations. In 1791, the revolutionary government of France adopted the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” which granted, for the first time, full civil rights to French Jewish people. In a lesson on the subject, Facing History and Ourselves points out that even as this history-changing development occurred, there were those who feared the ramifications of Jewish emancipation.
A member of the National Constituent Assembly, Clermont-Tonnerre, revealed his concerns about the Declaration when he said, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to the Jew as an individual.’ In other words, as long as Jews kept their collective identity and religious practice private, their rights as French citizens were ensured. But the constitution granted nothing to them as a religious group.”
Sixteen years after the Declaration was adopted by the assembly, Napoleon submitted to a group of French Jewish leaders twelve questions about their relatively new status as citizens. Among these questions were the following:
“In the eyes of the Jews, are Frenchmen considered as their brethren? Or are they considered as strangers?
Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as French citizens, consider France their country? Are they bound to defend it?
Are they bound to obey the laws and to conform to the dispositions of the civil code?”
Even the most generous reading of these questions implies that for Napoleon and the leaders of the French government, Jews were completely foreign, mysterious, and potentially dangerous. In the same lesson, Facing History teaches that the Jewish participants in Napoleon’s survey were fully aware of the deeply-held distrust that many in France held toward non-Catholic minorities, and so they answered in such a way as to positively address as many of their concerns as possible.
“The love of country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful, and so consonant to their religious opinions, that a French Jew considers himself in England as among strangers, although he may be among Jews; and the case is the same with English Jews in France. To such a pitch is this sentiment carried among them, that during the last war, French Jews have been seen fighting desperately against other Jews, the subjects of countries then at war with France.”
We like to imagine that the United States, as a relatively new country, was founded free from the inherited bigotry that each European nation had to overcome in order to even consider the idea of universal citizenship for male residents. But the reality of Jewish life in North America is much more complicated than that rosy portrait.
The first historically known Jewish people to arrive in North America were a group of refugees fleeing the threat of the Inquisition in the newly recaptured Portuguese colony of Brazil. Their boat landed in New Amsterdam in 1654. They were met by the colony’s director, Peter Stuyvesant, who, “seized the Jews' meager possessions and ordered them sold at auction. When this failed to raise enough to meet their debts, he jailed two members of the group,” and then immediately wrote to his superiors in the Dutch West India Company of Amsterdam. Here is an excerpt from that letter:
“The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians) were very repugnant to the… people having the most affection for you; the Deaconry also fearing that owing to their present indigence they might become a charge in the coming winter, we have, for the benefit of this week and newly developing place and the land in general, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart, praying as also for the general community… that the deceitful race-- such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ-- be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony…”
(The Jew in the Modern World, pg 452)
In April of the next year, Stuyvesant finally received a response from his superiors that denied his request and stated that Jewish people would be allowed to live in the colony; however, this official response relies on the same dangerous assumptions that we saw in France- namely, that the Jewish people are foreign agents, loyal primarily to themselves, and should only be tolerated because of the capital they have to offer.
This suspicion from the non-Jewish majority toward the Jewish minority continued even after the founding of the United States.
Famously, George Washington received multiple congratulatory letters from Jewish communities after his election as the country’s first president. In his response to the Jewish people at Touro Synagogue in Newport, President Washington wrote the following,
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
But for every example of Washington’s generous, although obviously still limited, vision of citizenship there is a counter example where Jewish people were treated as a monolithic, duplicitous, foreign group living within a country where their citizenship is always at risk.
For an example of this attitude, we need look no further than General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order #11:
“The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”
It is important to remember that this assault on Jewish citizenship was issued at the same time that Jewish soldiers were fighting and dying for the Union Army.
Throughout Jewish history- including the millenia before the creation of the modern State of Israel- political leaders have consistently exploited the theory that Jewish residents cannot be loyal citizens because they harbor emotional, spiritual, and historical connections to the idea of a Jewish homeland. Time and again, those in power have pointed to this perceived duality of loyalty and then used it to actively undermine the safety of the Jewish people in their country. Time and again, Jewish people have bent over backwards to demonstrate their sincere patriotism only to be accused of disloyalty by governments that were in need of an easy scapegoat.
This historical context is the reason that so many, including myself, are extremely concerned by the president’s equating voting for a different political party to being disloyal to the country. Jewish Americans do not all share a single point of view or a single set of priorities. To treat us as a monolith is to reduce the beautiful, powerful diversity of our people to a caricature. For almost two thousand years, accusations of disloyalty and stereotypical, simplistic depictions of our humanity have been directly linked to a less secure existence for the Jewish people. That historical reality is the reason that we can not simply brush aside the words coming from the highest echelons of political power.
As I mentioned, the second incident that I want to address tonight is President Trump’s decision to embrace the words of Wayne Allyn Root who had once said, “President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world … and the Jewish people in Israel love him … like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God.”
In an article published this week, the Jewisth Telegraphic Agency explored who Wayne Root actually is as he is not someone who has been associated with Jewish leadership positions in this country. About himself, Root has said, “I’m an Ivy League-educated Jewish kid from New York. I am a Jew and you can’t take away from a person being a Jew. I’ve got Jewish blood and passion and zeal.” He told JTA that he, “took Jesus Christ as a savior’ about 30 years ago, but he still considers himself Jewish.” The reporter from JTA also explained that Root, “calls himself a ‘capitalist evangelist’ and told Daniel Davis, a syndicated radio host, that his Jewish background informed his philosophy [because] Jews were ‘relentless,’ and that, ‘they like to hammer down the door till they get what they want.”
Wayne Root is a Christian man who is disingenuously using his family’s Jewish heritage as a cover for his own, skewed commentary on the political allegiances of American Jews. That he is neither a leader nor a member of the Jewish community should be obvious to everyone, including our political leaders, even if they only know him from his original tweet, which specifically refers to the second coming of God while the Jewish people are still waiting for the messiah’s first appearance.
Root’s words, especially his argument that all Jews should love a particular person who represents a single perspective on how best to support Israel, are part of the same toxic strategy of stripping away nuance from the diverse reality of Jewish identity. Instead, Root and those who employ these strategies seek to represent the American Jewish people as an uncomplicated mass that is best served by following the dictates of people outside of our own community.
Generations of Jewish people have fought to defend this country, held political office, and worked ceaselessly for our nation.
We deserve so much more than the rehashing of these persistent, dangerous, and toxic tropes.
Our country deserves better than to be the latest setting for hateful rhetoric that seeks only to undermine and diminish.
The American Jewish community- along with every other minority group- deserves the expansive humanity of Washington, not the vitriolic suspicion of Stuyvesant.
We deserve it, and we demand it.
Finally, after a week like this past one, it is important to remember that we do not have to prove that we belong in this country. We are citizens. We have served, prayed for, fought for, and worked to better this country. It is as much ours as it is anyone else’s, and it is incumbent upon all of us to demonstrate our belonging by voting for leaders- regardless of their party affiliation- who respect the magnificent diversity that exists within our community.
Chazak. Chazak. V’nitchazek.
Be strong. Be strong. And let us strengthen one another. Amen.