This evening marks the beginning of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance day. It's one of the most grave and somber days of the Israeli Jewish year, up there with Yom HaZikaron (memorial day for Israeli soldiers) and Yom Kippur. Everything, even the most secular businesses that stay open through Shabbat, closes. I just got back from a sunset walk through the streets of Tel Aviv, and an eerie silence has fallen over the city. The day culminates tomorrow morning at 10 am, when the national air raid sirens sound to signal a moment of reflection and everyone, even drivers behind the wheel of a car, stop to commemorate the occasion.
It's especially interesting to think about Yom HaShoah this year because of something that happened 24 hours earlier: namely, the nomination of everyone's favorite orange ethno-nationalist, Donald Trump, as the Republican candidate for President of the United States (I had to write that out in full to remind myself that it actually happened). Now, it would obviously be hyperbolic to argue that Trump is Literally Hitler, although it's not an exaggeration to say some aspects of Trump's campaign, such as ethno-nationalist politics, a palingenetic national narrative (a word that's particularly amusing in the context of the Obama-era GOP!), demonization of minority groups, calls for mass deportation and internment, etc. evoke memories of not only Nazi politics, but a variety of regimes that have engaged in state-sponsored anti-Semitic persecution. What I instead want to do is note that Trump, with all of the very real parallels between his politics and the politics of some people who have been very bad for the Jews, evokes very different reactions in Israeli Jews and American Jews, and argue that this difference reflects a profoundly different understanding of the Holocaust and the lessons that Jews should take from the Holocaust.
My time in Israel has overlapped with the Trump phenomenon. For obvious reasons, Israelis are obsessed with US politics, and I've had plenty of occasions to discuss Trump with Israelis (almost every single time I've taken a taxi, the driver has heard my poor attempts at Hebrew, asked me in English if I'm American, and then proceeded to ask me about my thoughts on the election). Among non smolani (literally just "leftist", but with a somewhat pejorative connotation, something like "pinko" in English) Israelis, sentiment about Trump is pretty positive. They like what they perceive as his strength, they like that he wants to fight "the Arabs." They even admire his birtherism: Obama is reviled here, and birther sentiments are pretty common. Sometimes, if I'm feeling disputatious, I'll make an anti-Trump argument. I'll bring up the bigotry, the promises of deportations and detainment, the vow to aggressively use American military power abroad. And the response is always "he says he's pro-Israel and his daughter's married to a Jew. He'll be good to the Jews. Who cares about that other stuff?"
American Jews--certainly the vast majority anyway--would never argue this way. Look at the response to Trump's AIPAC speech, or the fact that the ADL has repeatedly criticized Trump's rhetoric, etc. American Jews hear Trump's rhetoric and recoil. This, I think, points to a sharp difference between the American Jewish community (maybe all diaspora communities?) and the Israeli Jewish community that I've noticed during my time here. American Jews tend to be universalistic, defenders of universal values and social justice for all people, while Israeli Jews tend to be particularistic supporters of things that'll benefit Jews, while remaining largely indifferent to the fate of other peoples.
I think that this difference stems largely from the response to the Holocaust (and note that this is not entirely my own thinking: I'm hugely influenced in my thinking here by Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism). The two centers of Jewish life in the wake of the Holocaust became the U.S. and Israel. Each provided a different model for living in the wake of the Holocaust. In America, Jews were a minority, with the knowledge that it would be hard to protect Jews qua Jews, so they advocated for policies, ideas, and values that protected minority groups collectively-a universalistic approach. Whereas in Israel, where Jews became a majority with control of territory, the need to protect other groups became irrelevant to ensure Jewish safety. So a particularistic set of values and norms developed. This is why you see such different responses to Trump. American Jews look at Trump, see the fact that he poses a very real threat to the safety of certain minority groups within the United States, and believe that the universalistic structures that protect Jewish safety in the United States are at risk. So they reject Trump. Israeli Jews have no such compunctions-they have their state, with their weapons, and as long as no one gets in the way of the IDF, screw the Latinos and the Muslims.
This divergence isn't just limited to Trump, of course. American Jews engaged in advocacy and public education around the genocide in Darfur. Israel locks Darfuri refugees in prison camps. American Jews fought apartheid. Israel supported apartheid South Africa with weapons sales. My point here is not to say that American Jews are great, and Israeli Jews are terrible people. In both instances, Israel's actions had a certain logic from a particularist perspective. According to this logic, making conditions intolerable for refugees ensures that more won't come, protecting the Jewish majority in Israel, which is essential to ensuring Jewish safety from a particularist perspective. Overseas trade in weapons, even with awful regimes, supports the Israeli military-industrial complex, which is necessary to protect Jewish safety. It's in my view a deeply immoral logic, but it is logical.
I think particularism fails not only from a moral perspective, but from a pragmatic one. It's cliche, but the Niemoller poem (first they came for the socialists, etc) is, I think, a good reflection of Jewish history when it comes to authoritarian regimes. Jews don't tend to do well in them, no matter how well they're positioned at the outset. Certainly there are many Trump supporters who are no fans of Jews (and this is, in fact, the argument I find usually convinces Trump-curious Israelis). Nevertheless, this particularism vs. universalism divide is a major one that separates Israeli Jewish politics from American Jewish politics, and it's one that's important to understand as the two groups continue to diverge.