It may be just another holiday party, but the decision whether to attend it may be more than a matter of scheduling. By boycotting the Chanukah party hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, eight groups are signaling their potential willingness for an all-out war against the Trump administration. The groups staying away from the event are claiming that they are primarily motivated by ethical considerations because the party is being held at a Trump hotel. But you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see that the real reason for their stand is to send a message that a business as usual policy with regard to dealing with a president they oppose is something they cannot abide.
The party is a joint event being sponsored by the umbrella group and the Embassy of Azerbaijan and is scheduled for December 14th at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The hotel is one of the focal points for concerns about possible conflicts of interest involving a sitting president who is also the head of a major corporation. Since Trump and his family appear to have no intention of separating themselves from their businesses, the mere act of staying in or holding an affair at one of their properties is seen by those who oppose the president-elect as not merely ethically questionable but also an act that will “normalize” a president and an administration they view as being beyond the pale. That is why groups like the Union of Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the National Conference of Jewish Women, HIAS, Ameinu, Jewish Women International, Workmen’s Circle (the publisher of the Forward newspaper), and Americans for Peace Now are all boycotting the party.
In doing so, these liberal groups are reflecting the views of their constituents. The panic among liberals has been even more pronounced among liberal Jews, who have, as I noted yesterday, been throwing around promiscuous and absurd analogies between Trump’s victory and the collapse of the Weimar Republic as Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. To their way of thinking, Trump isn’t just another Republican with whom they might disagree on many issues but an illegitimate president whose prejudicial statements may herald the collapse of American democracy.
Liberals are complaining that choosing to hold a party at a Trump hotel is an act of “sycophancy” (the explanation is that the venue was chosen by Azerbaijan) but what they are really expressing is their intent to mobilize the Jewish community—or at least its liberal majority—to oppose Trump in every possible way.
The irony here is that “sycophancy” might well be an adequate description for the attitude of the groups in question and many others that have been active during the last eight years. The willingness of so many Jewish groups to take sides with President Obama on a host of issues—including the Iran deal—even if that put them in direct opposition to the position of the government of Israel, was a natural expression of their liberal faith.
The divide among mainstream groups hinges on what you think the purpose of groups that purport to represent the Jewish community is. For many on the left, the traditional belief that Jews should try as much as possible to speak with one voice when defending Israel (which was, in fact, the purpose behind the founding of the Conference in the 1950s) and to avoid being identified with strictly partisan concerns, is out of date. They claim, not without some justice, that non-Orthodox American Jews are far more divided when it comes to supporting Israel than they are on social issues like abortion or global warming. If the old joke that Reform Judaism consisted of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in was a bit unfair, it also reflected the plain fact that for the majority of Jews who are liberal, their faith had a lot more to do with their ideas about social justice than it did with Zionism.
Seen from that perspective, and faced with a unique challenge in Trump, many liberal Jews are borderline hysterical at the prospect of his presidency. Deaf to pleas to treat Trump as they would any other president, they also think that anything other than resolute opposition to both his policies and acceptance of his legitimacy is obligatory. Moreover, coming after Obama, whose embrace by liberal Jews was largely unconditional, the thought of dealing with this administration as anything but a foe to be opposed from its first day in office is unacceptable.
For those who think of Judaism as a branch of political liberalism, a war on Trump even prior to him doing anything that could be reasonably interpreted as a threat to the community is both emotionally satisfying and the right thing to do. But for those Jews—liberals as well as conservatives—who understand their brief is to represent the interests of the Jewish people as a whole, such a course is mere partisanship masquerading as social justice.