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America Does Not Need a Rabbi-in-Chief

By Shalom Lipner
US President Donald Trump's recent statements smearing American Jews who vote for Democrats as "disloyal" is merely the latest installment in a longer-running tragedy. American presidents have no business issuing pronouncements about Judaism – or, for that matter, about any religion and its followers.
US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalems Old City on May 22, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN (Photo credit should read RONEN ZVULUN/AFP/Getty Images)

If anything is sacred to Americans, it is the US Constitution, the founding document that contains the country’s source code. Sadly, one of that code’s key components – the First Amendment – is under attack from an aggressive virus unleashed from within the White House.

In 1802, America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, wrote that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Offering assurances to a group of Connecticut Baptists who feared for their religious liberty, he pointed out that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” That barrier is cracking badly now, owing to the actions of Jefferson’s two most recent successors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

It has been strange – and frightening – for Jews to see American presidents adjudicating between “good” and “bad” Jews. The question of “who is a Jew” has long been a mainstay of political debates in Israel, whose Law of Return extends citizenship to Jews who immigrate there, but personal beliefs have no bearing on that conversation. For matters of faith now to be put under a microscope in the US is unconscionable. Whether or not the responsible parties have the Jewish people’s best interests at heart is no excuse for this behavior.

Obama’s progressive agenda meshed perfectly with that of liberal Jews. “I’m told the definition of the Democratic Party is Reform Judaism without the holidays,” he reportedly quipped backstage at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference in 2011. “Well, that makes me a Reform Jew.” That denomination’s elasticity and inclusiveness – known in-house as “audacious hospitality” – made its adherents natural allies of a president with a universalist worldview. Reform Judaism’s central tenets that “all human beings are created in the image of God” and that “we are God’s partners in improving the world” (tikkun olam) jibed seamlessly with the Obama administration’s agenda.

But Israel didn’t get the memo. In 2013, after four years of sparring with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s hawkish government, Obama made his first visit as president to Israel. Talking up the virtues of tikkun olam in Jerusalem, he advised his audience that “the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized.”

That appeal fell with a thud into the growing chasm between America – including the roughly 75% of American Jews who supported Obama – and Israel. Obama’s subsequent remarks celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month in 2015 signaled unequivocally to his Israeli critics that, in his view, they were substandard Jews. “The rights of the Jewish people then compel me,” he reasoned, “to think about a Palestinian child in Ramallah that feels trapped without opportunity. That’s what Jewish values teach me.”

Trump’s flagrant interference in Jewish affairs has since rocked the US Jewish community to its core. Influenced by his coterie of Orthodox Jewish and Evangelical Christian enthusiasts, he has adopted a Scripture-centric view of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in which the two concepts are regularly conflated. This month, he tweeted a note of thanks to Wayne Allyn Root, a self-professed “Jew turned evangelical Christian,” for pronouncing him “the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world.”

For Trump, the sine qua non of Judaism is the execution of the Jewish people’s biblical deed to the land of Israel. With the wind of his religious conservative base at his back, he has formally recognized Jerusalem as modern Israel’s capital, and the Golan Heights as an integral “part of the State of Israel.” He touts these and similar actions to defend himself against charges of anti-Semitism. Trump’s claim that Israel and the Jews have never had a better friend has even received the backing of Netanyahu’s son.

Most recently, Trump tweeted that Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Michigan, “hates Israel and all Jewish people.” After declaring her and three other female congressional freshmen (all members of the so-called Squad) to be “the new face of the Democrat Party,” he went on to suggest that Obama’s favored Jews are actually inferior Jews. “If you want to vote Democrat,” Trump proclaimed the following day, “you are being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.”

The situation is spiraling out of control. Bestowing the status of “good Jew” – or, for that matter, “good Christian” or “good Muslim” – on some segment of the electorate is not part of a US president’s job. It is particularly offensive when such titles are reserved exclusively for political allies of the White House. Equally disturbing is the tendency of Republicans and Democrats alike to condemn anti-Semitism only when it emanates from the other party, thereby exposing their own cynical apathy toward an age-old plague.

The weaponization of Judaism is weakening the US, Israel, and the Jewish people. It is dissolving the bonds – E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) – that hold America together, and making it impossible for the US to gain the trust of international partners. It has jeopardized the critically important bipartisan US support for Israel, compromising the Jewish state’s security and prosperity. And it has sown division and discord among Jews themselves.

America does not need a Rabbi-in-Chief.

Shalom Lipner, a former foreign policy adviser in the office of the Israeli prime minister, is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.

Published Date: Wednesday, August 28th, 2019 | 08:38 AM

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