If Donald Trump’s campaign was hoping for strong support from American Jews, they are surely disappointed. Trump’s support among Jewish voters is at an historically low 19%. There is an active website with contributions from rabbis and Jewish leaders called jewsagainsttrump.com. The Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc has shared a satirical video of Jewish grandparents threatening to haunt their offspring if they vote for Trump. Rabbis, normally fearful of running afoul of congregants and IRS regulations, are openly considering speaking against the man on the High Holidays.
For many Jews, the choice is obvious. Trump’s use of xenophobic language about Latinos plays to white America’s basest instincts. His record of slurs against women he finds unattractive is shameful; and his boasting about assaulting women he does find attractive even more so. He all but bragged at the first Presidential debate about his record of shady business ethics. His proposals for a “shutdown” of immigration from Muslim nations calls to mind the religious bigotry that has plagued Jewish communities over the centuries. And there is, of course, the stereotypical Jew-hatred Trump himself shared in a room of Jews, during a meeting with the Republican Jewish Coalition, in which he referred to Jews as deal “negotiators” and claimed we would not support him “because I don’t want your money.”
For Jews, of course, this isn’t just election time. It’s also the Yamim Noraim, the awesome days in which we are invited to confront our own failings and shortcomings. A key part of that process is the sounding of the shofar. The cry of the shofar is designed to wake us up from our ethical slumber, an alarm clock of the conscience.
So while it may make us feel good, or even smug, to say that we’re better than Mr. Trump, to do so would miss the point of this time of year. Our reaction to Trump’s candidacy, instead, is an invitation to look at our own actions, as individuals and in Jewish community. What if we saw him not just as a man who evokes hatred and fear, but as a walking talking wake-up call, a big orange shofar reminding us to get our own houses in order? Consider the following:
- Racism and xenophobia. Most Jews are rightly outraged by Trump’s shocking comments about Mexicans, and his support of racist stop-and-frisk policing initiatives. But what is our record as Jews? Do we respect and honor the 1-in-5 Jews in our communities who are Jews of color? Do we actively support Jews of color taking leadership positions? Do Ashkenazi Jews say “we Jews” when we really mean “white Jews?” Do we ensure our publicity materials and school textbooks feature Jews of color? If we are employers and landlords, do we give fair consideration to people of color as employees and renters? Do we challenge a criminal justice system that unfairly and disproportionately targets people of color?
- Sexism and misogyny. Trump’s comments about women are despicable. But they reflect a culture that too often judges women’s worth by their appearance. How do we challenge that culture? Do we pressure Jewish women to “look pretty” so they can “find a husband?” Do we challenge gender roles that shut women out of our most cherished Jewish rituals? Do we raise up young girls to be scholars? Do our congregations consider women as rabbinical candidates? Do we challenge congregants who say they could “never pray with a woman rabbi,” or who judge the women who do serve as rabbis on the basis of their hair and clothes?
- Business Ethics. Trump made jaw-dropping comments boasting how it was “smart business” not to pay contractors and skirt his tax obligations. How do we fare on that score? Do we see paying workers and supporting the public good as the mitzvot that they are? Do we take seriously the volumes of Jewish learning regarding business ethics, or subordinate those teachings to “more important” mitzvot like kashrut and Shabbat observance? Do we see supporting civil society and keeping “honest scales” as the holy obligations that they are?
- Islamophobia. While we’re right to challenge Jew-hatred and ensure our safety and the safety of our children, do we do what we can to make sure that doesn’t slide into bigotry? Do we criticize Muslim Jew-hatred and give a pass to the Jew-hatred that comes from our Christian neighbors? Have we made the effort to meet the Muslims who live in our towns, go to our schools, work in our offices?
- Jew-hatred. Trump’s snide remarks about Jewish “negotiators” were rightly condemned. But how many times have we heard the same language used within the walls of our own homes and communities? Do we make the easy joke about Jews being cheap? When we hear our kids make these kinds of jokes, do we challenge our children to love themselves and take pride in their remarkable heritage of learning, personal and social ethics, and tzedakah?
One last thought. Donald Trump is, sadly, not the only one to make regrettable comments during this election season. While it pales in comparison to Trump’s despicable record, it was nonetheless disappointing that Hillary Clinton labeled half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Racism, homophobia, and xenophobia are, indeed, deplorable. But there is a difference between labeling actions deplorable, and writing off people as deplorable. To take Judaism seriously, and to take the process of teshuvah seriously, means to reject the idea that people are irredeemable. To her credit, Clinton has since apologized for the statement.
“Free will is granted to all,” wrote the Rambam, the renowned medieval Jewish commentator. “There is no one who can prevent a person from doing good or bad,” he continued. We ourselves decide “whether to be learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly.”
As the new year dawns, and the election season mercifully comes to a close, may we commit to making ourselves and our communities learned, compassionate, and generous. And having done so, may we commit to bringing that same spirit to our neighbors, or towns, and — God willing — our whole world.
A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Blogs section on The Times of Israel and reprinted with their permission.
Rabbi Mike Rothbaum serves as Bay Area Co-Chair for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and lives withhis husband, Anthony Russell, in Oakland. He has been extensively involved with faith-based social justice organizations, and spoken widely at conferences and rallies, from Moishe House to the House of Representatives. His writing and speaking has been featured in Tikkun, the Huffington Post, KQED radio, CNN, and Zeek.
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