It has been a phenomenally busy news period — and for once the heavy news is not from the Middle East. Between Brexit and the jaw-dropping reality of the Trump administration, this news quietly slipped away: the bulk of bomb threats to American JCCs, Jewish schools and other cultural institutions appear to have been made by a 19-year-old Israeli-American Jew using encrypted phone calls from Israel.
This links two things: the uptick in open antisemitism in America and the civil war within the Jewish community over Israel, religion, assimilation, J-Street — every component of what it means to be Jewish in the modern world.
As with the vote for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump has brought forth a flowering of what until a year ago would have been considered hate speech into the public sphere. In the US much of this venom has been directed at Jews.
But Jewish Trump supporters have been sanguine about this. Marc Zell, director of Republicans Overseas Israel, told Ha’aretz the arrest of the JCC caller showed that “a lot of the uproar about antisemitism among American Jewish leaders and Democratic politicians — particularly those going after Donald Trump and his administration — has been over the top.”
Mr Zell might want to discuss that point with Jewish journalists and other Jews on social networks who have received a torrent of abuse in the comments columns of Breitbart, the alt-right “news” website run until recently by Mr Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
But then Mr Zell would say that Mr Bannon’s deputy, Stephen Miller, and Breitbart’s CEO, Larry Solov, are both Jewish, so no antisemitism here.
A more troubling measure of the split in the community are the comments of Mr Trump’s Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who was confirmed by the Senate the same day the JCC caller was arrested.
Last June, Mr Friedman, who had been Mr Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer (a busy job) wrote about the liberal Jewish organisation, J-Street, for Arutz Sheva website, “Are J-Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no, they are far worse than kapos … The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J-Street? — smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”
As repulsive as that statement is — and it was written by a lawyer, not some off-the-cuff remark in an interview — it is revelatory.
J-Street does not advocate for Israel’s destruction but to Mr Friedman that does not matter because the state of Israel has become a religious totem in the Jewish diaspora. How one views the occupation and the prospects for a settlement with the Palestinians may be a political question for Israelis, but for diaspora Jews it is a sectarian question. It defines whether you are a good Jew or a bad Jew. And since Judaism, like Islam, does not have a Pope to rule on doctrinal issues, it is left to Jews themselves to argue out what a good or bad Jew is.
You don’t keep kosher? Bad Jew. You don’t support the two-state solution? Bad Jew. You don’t think Israel is under existential threat? Bad Jew. You think Israel with its nuclear arsenal and world leading electronic defence systems cannot take care of itself? Bad Jew. You think there is such a thing as secular Judaism? You’re a non-Jewish Jew. You think the Oslo Accords were a disaster and that Yitzhak Rabin was a traitor? You’re a Jewish Salafist.
And on. And on.
You do not have to be religious or view the Tanakh as divine to see in it a history of a people and their culture which, even if the details are exaggerated, tells a factual story. Sometimes it feels as if history — even history from nearly several millennia ago — may repeat itself. The Jews will split, the people will follow kings who are not wise. Destruction looms.
Michael Goldfarb is the author of ‘Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance’