On the holiest night of the Jewish year this month, my rabbi looked up from his Kol Nidre sermon — a homily about protecting America’s liberal democracy — and posed a question that wasn’t in his prepared text: “How many people in the last few years have been at a dining room conversation where the conversation has turned to where might we move? How many of us?”
Opinion | American Jews start to think the unthinkable
He was talking about the unthinkable: that Jews might need to flee the United States. In the congregation, many hands — most? — went up.
The sermon included a quotation from the Jewish scholar Michael Holzman: “For American Jews, the disappearance of liberal democracy would be a disaster. … [W]e have flourished under the shelter of the principles behind the First Amendment, and we have been protected by the absolute belief in the rule of law. Without these, Jews, start packing suitcases.”
The fear of exile has become common as Jews see the unraveling rule of law, ascendant Christian nationalists and anti-Israel sentiments turning antisemitic on the far left. Wondering where Jews might move “is among the most frequently asked questions that I get,” Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, told me.
Incidents of antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault nearly tripled between 2015 and 2021, the ADL reports, and it says 2022 attacks are on pace with last year’s record level. This week was the fourth anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, which was followed by other synagogue attacks in 2019 and earlier this year. One in four US Jews has experienced antisemitism in the past year.
Now we have Kanye “Ye” West unleashing a torrent of filth on social media (“death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE”), white supremacists applauding him (and giving Nazi salutes to Los Angeles motorists), Elon Musk’s Twitter preparing to welcome white supremacists, and the Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee deploying antisemitism against his Jewish opponent.
The leader of the Republican Party, who remains the top presidential contender for 2024, reacted to West’s attacks on Jews by saying, “He was really nice to me.” Donald Trump compared Jews unfavorably to “our wonderful Evangelicals,” and warned Jews to “get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel — Before it is too late.”
The threat was the latest of many Trump claims that Jews have a dual loyalty and are not fully American. As usual, Republicans were mostly silent.
For Jews, just 2 percent of the population but the targets of 55 percent of reported religiously motivated hate crimes, the trend revives centuries-old fears. This is not to compare Jewish victimhood to other groups that have had it much worse in this country; most Jews are White and benefit from associated privilege. But until the American experiment, Jews in the diaspora were marginalized, ghettoized, persecuted and eventually converted, exiled or killed. “As Jews, we know at some point the music stops,” Greenblatt said . “This is burned into the collective consciousness of every Jewish person.”
The United States has until now been different, because of our constitutional protections of minority rights: our bedrock principles of equal treatment under law, free expression and free exercise of religion. Now, the MAGA crowd is attacking the very notion of minority rights. Ascendant Christian nationalists, with a sympathetic Supreme Court, are dismantling the separation between church and state. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), for example, calls the principle “junk that’s not in the Constitution” and claims “the church is supposed to be to direct the government.” Red states, again with an agreeable Supreme Court, are rolling back minority voting rights and decades of civil rights protections. And leading it all is Trump, threatening violence and going to “war with the rule of law,” as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) puts it.
Without these protections, there is no safety in the United States for Jews — or, really, for any of us. In a perverse sense, Trump’s MAGA movement shares the fear of becoming a persecuted minority. The whole notion of the bogus “great replacement” ” conspiracy belief is that some nefarious elite is scheming to import immigrants of color to marginalize White people.
In reality, it will be almost a quarter century before White people are no longer a majority in this country — and they should remain a plurality well into the next century, at least. But if white nationalists truly fear becoming an oppressed minority, the best way to guard against that is to fortify minority rights. The rule of law protects us — all of us — from tyranny.
I admit I’ve thought about where my family and I might go if the worst happened here. But we’re not going anywhere. The only choice is to stay and fight for our liberal democracy. As my rabbi, Danny Zemel, put it on Kol Nidre: “If there is a Jewish message for our time, it is to support our great experiment with every fiber of our being.”
If it isn’t safe here, it won’t be safe anywhere.