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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

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


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?”