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Posted by on Oct 17, 2018 in Haaretz | 0 comments

Why the Midterms Terrify American Jews

The midterm elections are less than three weeks away, and Donald Trump and his Republican party might even win.

Midterms Terrify Jews

(Credit: Andrew Harnik, AP)

The Republicans are certain to retain control of the Senate, probably adding several seats to their current majority. And while the Democrats are still favored to take the House of Representatives, their lead in the polls is small and shrinking.

What does this mean for American Jews? Nothing good. Mainstream American Jewry is terrified. (More on that in a moment.)

But it is not the Jews alone who are dismayed. Much of middle-class America feels panicky and threatened, fearing both for the future of the Republic and their own well-being.

In my home congressional district in central New Jersey, concern about a Trump victory has generated furious energy and a firestorm of anti-Trump activism. No one remembers when the district was last represented by a Democrat, but the race this year is fiercely competitive.

The Democratic challenger is impressive, smart, and articulate, and is running even in the polls.

His opponent, the incumbent, is a more-or-less moderate Republican. But like virtually all Republicans these days, he refrains from even the gentlest criticism of Donald Trump. The problem with this strategy, of course, is that Donald Trump is the only real issue in the campaign.

The waves of volunteers in my area who are registering voters and canvassing neighborhoods on behalf of the Democrats are an interesting bunch. Most of them have never volunteered before, and some are not even Democrats. But they know a threat when they see one, and when they look at Mr. Trump, they are incredulous at what he is doing to their country.

These volunteers, mostly women, are generally establishment types, not given to alarmism or conspiracy theories. But in Trump they see a man who is fully capable of leading America down the path to autocracy.

It is not the corruption that they fear; New Jersey is hardly a stranger to corruption. Neither is it Trump’s predatory tax policies, intended both to punish blue states and reward the extremely wealthy. Unfair taxation, while deplorable, has been around for a long time.

The volunteers are scared of other, more insidious things: Trump’s brazen, non-stop attacks on the media, intended to delegitimize any criticism before it is even uttered; his heartless and cruel treatment of children, tearing toddlers from their mothers’ arms at the Texas border; his contempt for the law, demanding that his Attorney General pledge loyalty to him rather than to the Constitution; and on and on.

These women are not radicals but they have become resisters. Are there no limits, they ask? Are there no basic democratic norms to which the President can be held? Can we not expect from him some measure of fundamental human decency?

And that is why the midterms have assumed such importance. These activists know that if the Republicans retain control of both the Senate and House, the floodgates will be opened. “I have been endorsed by the people,” Trump will proclaim, with some justification.

If that happens, Americans know what to expect. The President will likely fire Sessions and Rosenstein and terminate the Mueller investigation. He may pardon all those already implicated.

Other possibilities include ratcheting up anti-immigrant rhetoric, instituting a new family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexican border, encouraging more voter suppression at the state level, and pushing out James Mattis and the few competent staffers that remain in the cabinet and White House.

Perhaps he will even signal to the Russians that interference in another presidential election would not be seen as too big a deal.

Not long ago, any one of these actions would have been utterly unthinkable. Today, every one is possible, and many are likely. And the list is far from complete.

And that is the reason that volunteers in my district and around the country are working with such energy, every minute of every day, to win control of the House for the Democrats. They know that with a House majority comes investigative power, and that such power is the only check and balance available to combat an out-of-control president.

Without it, there might be nothing to prevent Trump from undermining our democracy in irreversible ways.

And what of the Jews? Among the volunteers, there are many Jews, both in my district and elsewhere. Most would probably say that they oppose Trump for the same reasons as everyone else.

But my view is that the fear quotient among Jews is probably higher than it is for most Americans. After all, as a dispersed and vulnerable minority for much of their history, Jews have more experience than most other Americans with demagogues and autocrats. Decimated by the Holocaust, they also have a fuller understanding of how fragile modern democratic governments are.

And the result of this experience is that Jews crave the stability and security that attracted them to America in the first place and enabled them to thrive here. They prefer solid, established, middle-class governments. Rank populism scares them. Massive income inequality rattles them. Leaders who play coy with white supremacists frighten them to death.

But a solid, steady America is not Trump’s America. After almost two years of a Trump presidency, American Jews see an angry and divided country, a leader who thrives on chaos and disruption, a governing tone of incitement and petulance, and an America that has been turned upside down before their very eyes.

And if Jews know anything, they know this:  When large segments of the electorate are filled with rage, normal standards of decency and civility fall quite easily, almost without notice.

Does this mean the emergence of anti-Semitism? Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, America is not an anti-Semitic country. Anti-Semitism exists here, but mostly on the fringes. On the other hand, anti-Semitic hate crimes rose almost 60% last year, the largest single-year jump on record.

This trend has attracted attention in my congressional district. In the last few months alone, swastikas have been painted on the walls of local high schools, KKK and other white supremacy literature has been distributed throughout the area, an explosive device was planted in a Jewish cemetery, and the home of a Jewish congressman was defaced.

Each incident, by itself, would likely be seen as “low level.” Collectively, they constitute a worrisome trend.

And the best explanation for what is happening is the nature of Trump’s leadership. The President, it should be noted, is not an anti-Semite and has not attacked the Jews. But he has shown no reluctance to attack and offend African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and immigrants.

In expressing bigoted ideas about other minorities and foreigners, the President has crossed a threshold not even imagined by any other modern President. And the result is that the lowlifes on the anti-Semitic fringe have been emboldened to come out from under their rocks and go after the Jews. And Jewish voters, in my area at least, have taken notice.

And finally, Israel. Support for Israel is strong in my district, and the President’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem won wide backing. Some Jews will vote for Trump’s party for that reason alone.

But most will not. Israel, after all, is an important consideration for American Jews on election day, but rarely the only – or even the decisive factor. And in any case, the idea of Trump as Israel’s savior doesn’t quite compute for many Jews, even enthusiastic Israel supporters like me who praised the embassy move as long overdue.

Let’s be brutally honest here. Trump has an allegiance to the Kremlin, expressed at Helsinki and elsewhere, that is so bizarre that we must wonder if he is even an American patriot. And let’s remember what Russia is doing right now: Allowing Iran to become entrenched in Syria, limiting Israeli intervention against Iran on Syrian soil, and colluding with Iran to evade American sanctions on Iranian oil. Is this really the best time for President Trump to be turning America into a Russian-proxy state?

The bottom line is that Trump is an America Firster, an isolationist, a nativist, and a protectionist. Trump has never really believed in American leadership in the world. And without such leadership, Israel will never be secure.

What Israel needs is an ally in America that is the dominant world power, militarily strong, and committed to prudent globalism. What Trump offers instead is a narrow parochialism that is simply untenable – dangerous for America, dangerous for the world, dangerous for Israel, and dangerous for the Jews. Right-wingers who pay attention to Trump’s bluster and think only of the embassy are being bamboozled.

For all these reasons, most American Jews will vote for Democrats this November.

For all these reasons, masses of American volunteers of all faiths and ethnicities will work until the last possible moment to assure a Democratic House of Representatives in the midterms.

And for all these reasons, if we value our democratic rights, fear the Trumpian drift toward autocracy, care about repairing our social fabric, and desire to recreate a real sense of American community, let us hope and pray those volunteers succeed.

Everything – including the fate of the American experiment and the welfare of the Jewish community – depends on the outcome.

 

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