Jonathan S. Tobbin
2018 will go down as a year in which hyper-partisanship reached new heights in the United States. Those on one side of the partisan divide blame it all on U.S. President Donald Trump. His supporters blame it on the “resistance.” But as the secular calendar year ends and a new one begins, it’s time to think about the role many of us have played in worsening this situation.
The problem is not that Americans are divided on the issues. There’s nothing new about that. The problem is that those disagreements have escalated beyond the normal contention that is, like it or not, part and parcel of life in a democracy. While most venerate the notion of compromise and pay tribute to gestures of bipartisanship, there is nothing wrong with sharp and even bitter disagreements in a free society.
But as we look back on the events of the past 12 months, among the most dangerous trends in Jewish life was the growing willingness of Jews to prioritize their partisan loyalties over those of their community.
I’ve written repeatedly about how some on the left have chosen to ignore the growing and increasingly loud instances of anti-Semitism on that end of the ideological spectrum.
The willingness of some Jewish liberals to ignore the anti-Semitism that exists on the left is a disgrace. By that I refer to both the BDS movement, which is steeped in Jew-hatred, as well as the willingness of some to wink or excuse the blatant anti-Semitism of the leaders of the Women’s March, the group that has organized the largest protests against Trump.
The danger here is that some Jews who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead in an alliance with open anti-Semites are so angered by Trump that they are willing to make common cause with anyone who shares that sentiment. So when a group like the National Council of Jewish Women isn’t prepared to stop working with the Women’s March—in spite of the fact that its most visible members are supporters of hatemonger Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, and have reportedly been caught spreading his lies about Jews—that should scare you no matter where you stand on Trump.
The same criticism should apply to Jewish groups willing to embrace the two newcomers to the House of Representatives who are open supporters of BDS: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), simply because of party affiliation.
But while Jewish conservatives have rightly chided liberals about this, in the last week we’ve learned that some of them are capable of making the exact same kind of error and for the same unacceptable reason: partisanship.
Last week’s decision by Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria showed that he is still a welter of contradictory impulses that can sometimes lead him to do the right thing (moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal), but, as with Syria, can just as easily can impel to make a terrible mistake.
The move is good for ISIS (which has been badly beaten, but is by no means finished and can easily be revived by a George W. Bush-style “mission accomplished” blunder based in Trump’s abhorrence for nation-building). It also is good for Iran (which saw the U.S. presence as an obstacle to its bid for regional hegemony); good for Turkey (which hopes to use this opportunity to wipe out the Kurds, who have been America’s brave allies in the fight against ISIS); and very bad for Israel, which now finds itself more isolated just at the moment when its northern front has started to look even more dangerous.
The point here is not so much that Trump is wrong, but that too many of his Jewish supporters are so deeply immersed in the partisan battle against his opponents that they are unwilling to speak out against a policy that they wouldn’t have hesitated to criticize if it was a Democrat ordering the pullout.
Many on the Jewish right have tied themselves in knots as they sought to justify the unjustifiable by claiming that Trump’s moves are good for Israel, even though the president resorting to his neo-isolationist tendencies on foreign policy is a potential disaster for the Jewish state.
That they have done so even after we’ve learned that the decision was preceded by a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—pleasing him is the last thing those who support the interests of the United States or the Jewish state should want—is also discouraging.
Yet they’ve either kept silent or resorted to disingenuous and contradictory arguments that are as unpersuasive as they are embarrassing.
They, like their liberal co-religionists, are part of a political culture in which there is no middle ground, and in which every event or policy is evaluated solely through the prism of being pro- or anti-Trump. But just as it was wrong for some friends of Israel to oppose the president’s laudable gesture on Jerusalem and his decision on the Iran deal simply because they despise him, so, too, is it dead wrong to give Trump a pass on Syria because you may have liked other things he’s done.
This is particularly troubling because—unlike most Jewish liberals, who stick to the Democrats no matter they say or do about Israel—Jewish conservatives have shown themselves willing in the past to vote against Republicans who abandoned the Jewish state. If that is no longer true, then we have crossed a partisan Rubicon that bodes ill both for the American Jewish community and for Israel.
Partisanship distorted every debate and issue in American politics in 2018 and will probably only get worse in 2019. But it’s not too late for Jews on both sides of the political aisle to step back from the brink, and return to prioritizing the defense of Israel and opposition to anti-Semitism over their political affiliations. If not, the values American Jews hold most dear will be the biggest loser.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS – Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.