President Trump has accused American Jews who do not support the Republican Party of ignorance or disloyalty. One, under-reported, aspect of the remark and its aftermath is the notion that American Jews, should care, above all else, about Israel. Back in April, of course, Trump, speaking to the American Republican Jewish Coalition, referred to the Prime Minister of Israel as “your Prime Minister.” It’s a strange twist on an old antisemitic trope. Through history, Jewish citizens of diasporic countries have been accused of disloyalty – as not ‘really’ being true citizens of their diasporic homeland - because of an assumed sense of citizenship felt elsewhere. In this new world, Trump welcomes American Jews as American citizens if they support his party, and calls them disloyal citizens if they don’t. The loyalty of American Jewry is being recast to depend, not on the support of their country, but the support of which party they support within their democracy.
Loyalty proved or disproved based on the support of different political parties WITHIN a democracy is deeply worrying, and not exclusively an American, or Trumpian, concern. Democracy does indeed entail majorities wielding casting votes in complex matters, but that’s not the ideal I care for in the democracies I inhabit. As one person in a father in a family of five, as a Jew in a non-Jewish society and in the vast blend of interests and commitments that make up my values and norms, I’m a minority. We all are, Jew and non-Jew alike. Our minority status should make us more interested in the protection of difference within society than the drawing of ever-more power into the hands of the already powerful. While democracy might mean the majority will exercise control, the most valuable elements of a democratic system are the protections on the wielding of that power – the ability of the people to hold leaders to account, the balance of power delineated between the judiciary, legislative and executive and so on.
In Talmudic terms, there is only one story in our greatest rabbinic text which evokes the dictum ‘power to the majority.’ It ends in global devastation (the ‘Oven of Achnai’). Meanwhile, the careful balancing of checks and balances, the recording and honouring of minority opinion covers thousands of folios.
We have just closed a survey on the role of women at New London. It’s an important and contentious issue for us as a community and I have spoken out strongly in favour of our becoming fully egalitarian. I don’t expect all other members to agree with me. That’s not how I understand Rabbinic leadership or membership of any social grouping. So I was particularly concerned to hear one member share that I was in danger of ‘making my position at the Synagogue difficult’ if the outcome didn’t accord with my own position.
New London always has been a place where difference is considered more valuable than conformity, where minority opinions are honoured, even if not followed, and where questions of loyalty aren’t made dependent on which of differing positions one follows. May we be blessed to be part of broader societies, nations and a world where these values are equally held dear.