For much of American Jewish history, Jews have celebrated the United States as exceptional, a country different and better for Jews than most any other in all of Jewish history.
Even as antisemitism has plagued American Jews from time to time, our story has largely been one of power, privilege and unprecedented opportunity.
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 challenged that optimism, surfacing a deep, painful communal divide and forcing us to reflect on how our profound political differences will shape our Jewish and national future.
Donald J. Trump, like every Republican who ran for president in the last century, did not enjoy majority support from Jewish voters, whose animus toward Trump reached epic proportions.
In both his domestic and foreign policy decisions, Trump alienated American Jews who saw in his policies the antipathy of their historic dedication to liberal causes. Under Trump, it seemed, the glory days of celebrating a pluralist American democracy had come to an end. The United States could not enjoy its status as exceptional as long as he remained in the White House.
Unless you counted yourself as one of Trump’s Jewish supporters.
For the 24 percent of American Jews who backed Trump in 2016 and the 22 percent who supported his reelection in 2020, efforts to “Make America Great Again” affirmed a different version of American Jewish exceptionalism. In this telling, the president’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and his backing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu testified to a government that understood and acted on Jewish interests.
Doubters need only review the extraordinary access Trump offered to Jews in his administration. Stephen Miller authored most of the White House’s immigration policies. Steve Mnuchin held a cabinet-level position as Treasury secretary while Lawrence Kudlow directed the National Economic Council. Alan Dershowitz defended the president in the first impeachment trial and may serve as lead attorney for the second.
Of greatest import, Trump centered his own Jewish children, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as key advisers. As impossible as it sounds, the president’s grandchildren could call him “zayde.”
Far from harming Jews and Jewish interests, Jewish Trump supporters argue, his administration did more to make the United States a different and better place for its Jewish citizens.
Jewish America, just like the nation at large, sits in a painful divide. These competing notions of American Jewish exceptionalism, of what is best for Jews and the nation, collided when news images of the insurrection showed a fur-laden Jewish man (the son of a prominent Brooklyn judge) among the rioters inside the Capitol.
At the rally preceding the violence, more Jews were gathered, chanting their support of Trump. Among certain segments of the American Jewish populace, the 45th president enjoys broad support.
While Trump-supporting Jews saw his uber-nationalist politics as the best path forward, anti-Trump Jews hold fast to a version of Judaism and Americanism that welcomes diverse peoples, seeks justice, and wants politicians and government to bring people together. They seek to translate the prophetic voice of Jewish text to the lived experiences of all of this nation’s inhabitants.
Just as 20th-century American Jews supported the civil rights movement, 21st-century American Jews want a turn away from the divisive rhetoric of the last four years. Trump, and especially the Jews who support him, represent an affront to Jewish values and any hope for recreating America as an exceptional place.
That’s the paradox of the exceptionalist thesis. It plays both ways. Most Jews see Trump as having ruined what makes America great, while a distinct minority buy into the MAGA sloganeering.
Did the last four years ruin every claim of America as different and better? Or has this new version of American politics centered and amplified Jewish interests, if even in unconventional ways?
In the last four years, and in the first few weeks of 2021 especially, American Jews are facing a fundamental question. Now that Jews have “made it in America,” gaining access to the highest levels of power and influence on both sides of the political aisle, what has Judaism come to represent?
Beware of American Jewish exceptionalism.
Taken at its optimistic best, it promises an American experience that affords Jews that rare historical status as powerful insiders. Channeled the wrong way, though, that exceptional access turns us against our immigrant past, persecutes our brethren of color, turns an apologist’s eye to antisemitism and undermines our dedication to repair the world.
Worst of all, it destroys the very hope that America can be a nation different and better for Jews.
The power and privilege so many American Jews enjoy today can be leveraged for the good … or they can blind us to the qualities that make the nation and the Jewish people exceptional.