Donald Trump’s election has highlighted pre-existing divisions within the American Jewish community. These have tracked largely along two specific fault lines: Israel, and access. Yet neither concern is really a good enough reason to fight over, and so the growing splits within the Jewish community are not only based on false assumptions, but are creating imaginary disputes and weakening the community’s ability to advocate effectively.
The first fault line is ostensibly partisan. The Zionist Organization of America expressed real pleasure at the outcome; the Republican Jewish Coalition was equally excited, stating that it “could not be happier with the election of Donald Trump.” In sharp contrast, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami underlined the opposite view that “Donald Trump is beyond a doubt the wrong choice for president.” A group of liberal/progressive/leftwing Jewish organizations also published an open letter calling on the President-Elect to take a firmer stance against bigotry and intolerance, as well as to recommit to the two-state solution.
These aren’t, of course, just partisan divides. There is a more fundamental disagreement over what it means to be Jewish in the diaspora, and more specifically the place of Israel in marking and sustaining Jewish identity, especially in America.
The groups that have been less critical of Trump and the ideas that he encouraged during his campaign—intolerance, bigotry, delegitimization of opponents—have also been those willing to overlook both these ideas and the appointment of Steve Bannon, who has clearly facilitated them, as Trump’s chief strategist in the expectations that a Trump Administration will be “pro-Israel.” The RJC’s congratulations to Trump, for example, did not mention domestic policy issues but did specifically mention the Iran deal and “support for Israel.” The ZOA scheduled Bannon to speak at its annual gala dinner. Being Jewish in the diaspora is first and foremost about Israel, for them.
But this is faulty reasoning. While presidents do dominate the foreign policy-making process, Congress is a major address for lobbying on Israel policy. This will be especially the case with a President Trump, because of both his lack of knowledge and because the few foreign policy positions he has held to with any consistency (reducing America’s military commitments and avoiding trade entanglements) are about pulling back from international engagements—including Israel. Congress will be a necessary bulwark against these conditions and to shore up the relationship with Israel.
The second fault line is whether access to decision-makers in a Trump White House is necessary to continue an organization’s mission. Thus the big centrist groups like AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Federations of North America were more congratulatory than the leftwing groups, but expressed hope for a more united and tolerant country under a President Trump. David Bernstein, President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, captured the issue most succinctly, writing that “Despite all the objectionable things that the President-elect said and did during the campaign, many Jewish and non-Jewish groups must eventually come to the table with the new Administration in the hopes of influencing its policies and politics.”
But access as a goal is a chimera when it comes to thinking about how to influence a Trump Administration, because policymaking in such an administration is, as mentioned above, likely to be structured by Trump’s own general and vague preferences as they shift according to a number of personal factors that undermine stable and serious thinking on policy.
Mr. Trump lied repeatedly and unabashedly during the campaign, and has flip-flopped on multiple issues. His tendency is to tell people what they want to hear, which helps account for these flip flops. His position on an issue is said to be based on the last person he’s spoken to, and he likes to make promises without any real knowledge of the issues involved or the consequences of such promises—so much so that foreign leaders are now being told by his aides not to take what Trump says literally.
Finally, Mr. Trump himself has shown no curiosity about policy, and no interest in consulting with those who understand such issues. Most of his political appointments so far have been chosen for their absolute loyalty to him during the campaign rather than any particular store of knowledge and experience.
Under these conditions, access to the president will be so unpredictable as to undermine any serious effort at advocacy and lobbying, on any issue. Influence, then, will not depend on access but on navigating the entire US government, being able to read the political tea leaves of the day, and knowing how to work around whatever conditions have emerged at any given moment.
Usually American presidents are an important focus for advocacy and lobbying on foreign policy. But given Trump’s own idiosyncrasies, that won’t be enough now. US Jewish organizations are likely to have a greater effect on policy if they understand these constraints and limitations. While Trump likes to retain ultimate decision-making control, he is more likely to leave details and everyday decisions to subordinates. Here, then, is where advocacy organizations can target their efforts, to have the greatest effect.