Opinion – Haaretz August 23, 2020 – by Eric H. Yoffie
Under Donald Trump, America is a failed state. It’s no accident that anti-Semitism is at its highest levels since World War II. Against such a contemptuous president, U.S. Jews will back Biden in record numbers
The Democratic party convention is over. My take-away is a simple one: In November, American Jews will be voting for Joe, and in record numbers.
In the 2016 election, 71 percent of the U.S. Jewish community voted for Clinton, and 23 percent voted for Trump. My guess is that this time around, Joe Biden will do substantially better, perhaps breaking all previous records for Jewish votes received by a candidate for president.
Part of the reason is the Democrats did an impressive job in presenting the first social-media convention in America’s history. The convention was not really a convention at all, but a carefully planned mixture of live presentations and videos, filmed in every state of the Union. Absent the drama and the tumult of a large, in-person meeting, and given the possibility of technical glitches, it was initially unclear how all of this would work.
But while some of the sizzle of the traditional convention was missing, the virtual version succeeded remarkably well in conveying the Democratic message and in personalizing Joe Biden.
Speeches were shorter and more focused than usual. Average Americans spoke frequently and movingly of their pain in difficult times and of their admiration for the candidate. And Biden came across as what he mostly is: a decent, regular guy who has overcome personal tragedy multiple times, has a plan for the future, and cares about working Americans. The Republicans, of course, will try to do the same with their man. Yet what was possible with the amiable Joe Biden will be far more challenging with the belligerent, vituperative, and often menacing Donald Trump.
But the majority of Americans, Jews most definitely included, are getting profoundly weary of the president’s snarling persona.
Professor Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, wisely noted that “voters get tired of one-trick ponies.” This was true of Joseph McCarthy, he suggested, and is true of Donald Trump as well.
And he’s right. While much of any political convention is political rhetoric and show business, the prominence at the Democratic convention of regular people just trying to live their lives gave this event a different dimension. And what we saw was that these people, clearly sincere and speaking in their own words, had had enough. Beaten down by the pandemic, rising joblessness, and record inequality, they have lost patience with the “Fake News/They’re Out To Get Me” bellowing of the president.
True, in 2016 Trump managed to convince 63 million Americans, suspicious of elites and tired of establishment neglect, that he was on their side. And yes, at the beginning there was something weirdly fascinating about his outrageous mendacity, his endless stream of Twitter lies, and his disregard of constitutional constraints. But Americans assumed that this was a sideshow put on for their benefit, and that, sooner rather than later, a plan or a program to help them would emerge.
But that never happened, of course. And now, as millions of people lose their health insurance and bodies pile up from Covid-19, all that Americans are left with is deadly incompetence, obscene dishonesty, and pervasive corruption. More and more of them no longer believe that Trump is on their side, and his threats and bullying generate mostly exhaustion and disgust.
And where do the Jews fit in?
American Jews share the moral revulsion of most Americans at Trump’s actions and personal conduct. In the words of Michelle Obama, they yearn for a president with a “moral compass,” especially if they are conversant with the moral commands of the Jewish tradition. And that is why Biden will do so well in winning Jewish votes.
But there is more to it than that. There are specific Jewish interests at stake here. There is an unmistakable whiff of danger to Jews in what is happening in America, and Jewish antennae, always sensitive to potential threats, are up.
As a community, American Jews are classical liberals. They value stability and social cohesion. They worry about serious poverty and deep inequality among their fellow citizens. They know that tumultuous times, economic instability, and social tension inevitably lead to social unrest — and ultimately to anti-Semitism.
America now is a deeply divided society and more unequal economically than it has been in almost a century. In many ways, it is simply a failed state. In President Trump, Jews see a president who fosters division, thrives on disunity, and has failed to protect the American people against illness and financial ruin. And even if he wanted to solve America’s problems, he would be unable to do so. As things get worse, he gets meaner and angrier, careening between inaction and ineptitude.
Jews in America, to put it plainly, are at risk. It is not an accident that anti-Semitism at this moment is at its highest levels since World War II.
Jews are a small minority in America, but a successful minority. They are among the “haves” at a time when the “have nots” are growing in number and increasingly desperate. And Jews know that they will only be safe in a society where people have work and feel secure, where they can feed their children and see a doctor, and where a safety net is something that really keeps you safe. And if creating such a society means that many Jews — and others who can afford it — pay higher taxes, so be it; for American Jews, to do so is both moral and necessary.
Joe Biden could provide the leadership necessary to create such a society. He has the qualifications, as the convention again demonstrated, and Jewish Americans hope that he will do so. What they are certain of is that Donald Trump will not. Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite. It is important to be clear about that. But it is equally clear that he is incapable of creating the kind of country in which Jewish Americans can be confident of their community’s well-being.
And it is clear as well that despite living in New York City his whole life, and having a Jewish daughter, Trump frequently displays an attitude toward Jews that is awkward at best and sneering and even contemptuous at worst.
Other than his remarks on Charlottesville’s neo-Nazis, his most remembered comment relating to American Jews is his observation in 2019 that “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Disloyalty to America? To the Jewish people? To Israel?
He didn’t say, and it hardly matters. His words were appallingly ignorant and offensive to Jews of every persuasion and outlook. The only reason that they are not mentioned more frequently is that Trump’s public discourse is filled with a seemingly endless series of such comments. But it is hard to find much comfort in the fact that insults, baseless accusations, and misinformation are simply a part of his character, whether referencing Jews or somebody else.
And finally: What about his support for Israel?
Jewish Trump supporters argue that Trump’s backing for Israel justifies setting aside other indications of the president’s shortcomings and unfitness for office. This assumption, of course, is highly questionable, as even many in the Orthodox world have come to realize.
But with regard to the specifics of Trump’s Israel policy, there are three things that need to be said. First, President Trump deserves thanks and praise for a number of steps he has taken, including supporting Israel at the United Nations, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and facilitating normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Credit where credit is due.
Second, Trump’s approach to Israel must be seen in the context of his overall foreign policy, which is a chaotic and unpredictable disaster. An isolationist, unilateralist and America Firster, Trump has withdrawn from a long list of treaties and alliances, failed to respond to Russian provocations, and is friendlier to Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin than to our democratic allies.
When you add his handling of Covid-19 to everything else he has done in the foreign policy realm, what you have is the indisputable fact that America has become a laughing stock in the world.
Third, and most important, is that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are a dream team when it comes to support for Israel. Both are strong, reliable friends of the Jewish state. Both are sensible centrists who would rebuild support for Israel as a bipartisan cause. Both back a two-state solution, which is the consensus position of the American Jewish community. Pushing radical and anti-Israel voices to the margins, Biden made certain that the Democratic platform reflects his own moderation and love for the Jewish state.
In the short term, any American president will be focusing on domestic concerns, but Biden understands the world in a way that Trump never will. Who will do the best job in restoring American credibility, American alliances, and American standing in the world? And if Israel is truly threatened, who will ultimately be the best and most reliable defender of the Jewish state? To both questions, the answer is Joe Biden.
In short, Israel is not a reason to support Donald Trump. It is yet another reason to embrace Joe Biden.
With one convention over and another getting underway, my prediction is: Biden will get 80-85 percent of the Jewish vote. And he will deserve it.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie