What Does it Mean to be Jewish in the Age of Trump?

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Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College

Ruth Langer, Boston College

Mark Silk, Trinity College

Date: October 16, 2018

Co-sponsored with the Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA) at the Boston College Law School.

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With the election of Donald Trump and the increased visibility of the alt-right, anti-semitic language, stereotypes, and violence have once again entered mainstream discourse, experience, and news cycles. What does it mean to be Jewish and American? What does it mean to be Jewish in America now? Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College), Ruth Langer (Boston College), and Mark Silk (Trinity College), will discuss these and related questions. 

Speaker Bios

Susannah Heschel

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. Her scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship, and the history of anti-Semitism. She is the author of numerous publications including Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (University of Chicago Press), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press). Heschel is currently at work on a history of European Jewish scholarship on Islam. She has taught at Southern Methodist University and Case Western Reserve University, and serves on the Board of Trustees of Trinity College and the Board of Advisors at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Heschel received her A.B. from Trinity College, her M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Ruth Langer

Ruth Langer is a professor of Jewish Studies in the theology department at Boston College and associate director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. She is also chair of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. She writes and speaks in two major areas: the development of Jewish liturgy and ritual; and Christian-Jewish relations. Her book, Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat HaMinim (Oxford University Press, 2012), combines these two interests, tracing the transformations of a Jewish prayer that was, until modernity, a curse of Christians. Most recently, she published Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to Research 
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), an annotated bibliography of over 1000 entries of English-language studies of Jewish liturgy accessible to those from outside the Jewish Studies world. She also co-edited Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue (Eisenbrauns, 2005) and has published a long list of articles. Langer received her Ph.D. in Jewish Liturgy in 1994 and her rabbinic ordination in 1986 from Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is the director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Silk served as editor of the Boston Review as well as a reporter, editoral writer, and columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is the founding editor of Religion in the News, a magazine published by the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life that examines how the news media handle religious subject matter. Silk's publications include: Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II (New York: Simon and Schuster) and Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). Silk received his A.B from Harvard College and earned his Ph.D. in medieval history from Harvard University.

Event Photos

Mark Massa, S.J., Susannah Heschel, Ruth Langer, and Mark Silk.

From left to right: Mark Massa, S.J., Susannah Heschel, Ruth Langer, and Mark Silk. Also pictured are Jorge Mejía and Monica Orona (far right), two Boisi Center Undergraduate Research Fellows.

Mark Massa, S.J., Susannah Heschel, Ruth Langer, and Mark Silk.
Mark Silk

Mark Silk, the director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Susannah Heschel and Ruth Langer

Susannah Heschel (right), Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Ruth Langer (left), professor of Jewish Studies at Boston College and associate director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.

Question from audience

Photos by MTS Photography

Event Recap

On Monday, October 16th, 2018, a group of distinguished scholars offered their thoughts on the condition of Judaism and lived Jewish experience in the United States under the current administration of Donald J. Trump. Moderated by Mark Massa, S.J., the speakers included Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College), Mark Silk (Trinity College), and Ruth Langer (Boston College).

The panelists first assessed connections between the election of Donald Trump and the contemporary resurgence of anti-Semitism in the Western world. Referencing historian Christopher Browning, author of The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy (2003), Heschel established a parallel between the antecedents to Germany’s mid-twentieth century genocidal program against its Jewish population and the presently contentious socio-legal landscape in the United States. Such a milieu, Langer observed, is characterized by political intolerance and economic disillusionment. Silk added that he felt “confused as far as American Jewry is concerned.”

The panelists reflected on the specifically political considerations associated with the lived experience of American Jews. Chief among these was the moral dilemma that Heschel referred to as a “compromise of conscience”: the question of whether Jews should defend Trump’s diplomatic support of Israel or, conversely, rebuke him for his installment of egregious policies such as child-parent separation. “Are we being hypnotized?” she asked. Silk added that even Rabbis who make formal judgements against national political issues are beginning to undergo what Massa called a “qualitatively new silencing of violences.”

Prompted by Massa, each panelist then engaged in an innovative mental exercise: to role-play a two-minute long Rabbinic sermon about America’s current affairs to a fictitious congregation. Heschel offered that she would urge listeners to “get beneath the politics of resentment” and write an “ethical will” of how they would like younger Jews to engage with politics.

During the question-and-answer session, audience members raised important points about the experience of ethnic minorities in the United States under the Trump presidency. One person broached the topic of Muslim-Jewish relations; some Boston College undergraduates (such as Boisi URF Mónica Orona) and professors (such as sociologist Eve Spangler) weighed in on cross-racial tension at BC. Most tellingly, one audience member issued a clarion call to American youth regarding economic disillusionment and civic disengagement: ask not “what is mine?” but rather “how can I help?”

Read More


Evan Kaplan, Dana, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism. Cambridge Companions to Religion. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter: A History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. 

Nirenberg, David. Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. 

Nussbaum, Martha. The Monarchy of Fear. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Sarna, Jonathan. American Judaism: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 

Weisman, Jonathan. (((SEMITISM))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2018.


Heschel, Susannah. “The Slippery yet Tenacious Nature of Racism: New Developments in Critical Race Theory and Their Implications for the Study of Religion and Ethics,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 35:1 (Spring/Summer 2015), 3-27.

Luce, Edward. “Anti-Semitism in the age of Donald Trump,”  Financial Times, March 21, 2018.

Other Media

The Jewish Americans: A Series by David Grubin. http://www.pbs.org/jewishamericans/

In the News

In a New York Times article from March, author and journalist Jonathan Weisman discusses the recent increase in Antisemitism in the United States. This rise has not gone unnoticed, especially by groups such as the Anti Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, but these groups increasingly appear to be standing alone as many do not raise their voices against this hate.