A few weeks ago, we Jews celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments to the Israelites by the Almighty (HaShem). It is a joyous holiday for me, but it is also a day of solemnity. As part of the holiday service, we observe the Yizkor, the memorial service for the deceased.
The Yizkor gets a little more difficult for me every year. I had the most wonderful parents, who sacrificed everything they had so that I could receive an education at one of the finest institutions of history and political science in America, Northwestern University, followed by study at a first-rate law school, the University of Wisconsin. At Northwestern, by enrolling in the NROTC, I received a commission as an officer in the United States Navy.
All this was made possible by my father, Melvin “Moshe” Steinberg, who passed away suddenly at the age of 85 in 2011, and my mother, Harriet Jean Miller Steinberg, who passed away at the age of 89 in 2016. There isn’t a day in my life when I don’t badly miss them. The intensity of my relationship with them makes the Yizkor service an emotional challenge for me.
For many years, I had a running disagreement with my father as to the extent of antisemitism in America. I felt that antisemitism, for the most part, had receded, and my mother, Harriet Jean Miller Steinberg felt that the situation for Jews had improved, but my father disagreed.
Dad’s life experience had taught him differently. He used to respond to me with the Yiddish saying, “Alan, es is schwer zu sein a Yid “(it’s hard to be a Jew).
At my swearing-in ceremony as President George W. Bush’s Region 2 EPA Administrator in 2005, I had the opportunity to not only personally thank my parents but also my late grandparents as well. That evening, I said to my father, “Well, Dad, do you still feel that it’s hard to be a Jew?” Dad responded, “I’m proud of you, Good Kid (his nickname for me), but my answer is yes.”
October 27, 2018. That was the day I learned tragically how right my father was. That was the Shabbat on which the worst violent tragedy of hatred for American Jewry, a literal pogrom, took place in the city of my birth and the place of my roots, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.
That night, I wrote for InsiderNJ the most heartfelt column of my life, “My Roots are in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh – And I Can’t Stop Crying.” https://www.insidernj.com/roots-squirrel-hill-pittsburgh-cant-stop-crying/
I then spent two weeks crying myself to sleep every night, yet somewhat relieved that my parents had not lived to see the catastrophe of the Squirrel Hill massacre.
And over the three years since the Squirrel Hill pogrom, the situation for American Jewry has worsened in two most significant areas: 1) the status of the Israel-America alliance, an entente vital to the very survival and security of the State of Israel and the protection of American interests in the Middle East Region; and 2) the revival and increase in antisemitism, a continuing component and manifestation of the White Supremacy movement.
The most alarming trend on both these issues for American Jewry is with regard to our two major political parties.
There is a strong trend within the Democratic Party to shed the Israel-American alliance. Within the Republican Party, where Trumpism is the entrenched philosophy, the trend is towards a growing tolerance and even influence of antisemitism.
In such an atmosphere, total dominance of the political system by either party presents a clear and present danger to the future of American Jewry. Jewish voters can continue to place trust in good and worthy candidates from either party whose views and policies are compatible with Jewish values and interests. But they cannot place similar trust in either political party.
For American Jewry, support for Israel is not just a matter of loyalty to fellow Jews. The Holocaust taught us that without a Jewish state where Jews could find refuge in times of persecution and determine our own fate, our very physical survival would always be at risk.
Within the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, there is a growing extremist fringe in the US House of Representatives that goes so far as to promote measures to prevent Israel from defending itself. This recently became abundantly clear during the Hamas war against Israel.
Hamas, which controls Gaza is a genocidal terrorist entity determined to destroy the State of Israel and annihilate its people. In the face of its current attacks on Israel, President Joe Biden has emphasized that Israel has a right to defend itself and has arranged for arm sales to Israel in order to enable the Jewish State to do just that.
Yet the anti-Israel extremist fringe among the Progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) from New York, is attempting to prevent Israel from defending itself by stopping these arm sales.
AOC is supported in her efforts by such other Democratic members of the House of Representatives as Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Jamaal Bowman (New York), Betty McCollum (Minnesota) Marie Newman (Illinois), and Cori Bush (Missouri). Tlaib and Omar have gone so far as to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, an effort that would destroy Israel’s economy, and AOC has endorsed their efforts
I recognized the dangers posed by AOC to Israel at the time of her initial House Democratic primary election victory in 2018 and wrote a column at that time for InsiderNJ regarding same. https://www.insidernj.com/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-national-new-jersey-democratic-party-disaster/ Since then, my fears have intensified, due to the growing number and influence of her supporters.
The majority of Democrats in the House and Senate remain supportive of the American-Israel alliance. President Joe Biden did yeoman work in standing by Israel and resisting the efforts of AOC and her supporters during the recent Hamas war.
Yet my fear is that a Democratic successor to Biden may not be so steadfast in resisting the efforts and growing influence of the AOC coterie. In the 2020 election, more anti-Israel Democratic allies of AOC were elected to the House of Representatives.
While American Jews have much to be concerned about future Democratic support for Israel, Republican support of Israel has remained steadfast, for the most part. Yet American Jewry has an equal, if not greater, serious worry about the Republicans. The GOP has become an arena of increased tolerance of antisemitism and indeed, growing antisemitic influence.
Accommodation with antisemites and antisemitism has become a central component of Trumpism, the guiding philosophy of the current GOP. While not an antisemite himself, in the interest of enhancing his reelection prospects, Donald Trump has warmly tolerated QAnon, embraced the Proud Boys movement, and legitimized the Nazi sympathizer marchers at Charlottesville as “good people”.
Even more ominous for Jewry are the isolationist, anti-democracy, authoritarian, ultranationalist policies inherent in Trumpism. Such policies have historically always been accompanied by antisemitism.
It must be said that there are plenty of individuals in the Democratic Party who are pro-Israel and numerous individuals in the GOP who are appalled by the increasing influence of antisemitic elements in the party. But the dangers for Jewry of total dominance of government by either party are very real.
Before we recite the Yizkor prayers on Shavuot, we first chant the Hallel prayer, thanking HaShem for his miracles in saving the Jewish people, again and again. The Hallel contains the following words from the Psalms, “It is better to take refuge in HaShem than to rely on heads of state.” As I recited these words this year, in this time of troubles for the American Jewish community, I was haunted by them.
In 1988, my book, American Jewry and Conservative Politics: A New Direction was published. One of the chapters in this book was entitled “Democrats and Republicans -Who Gets the Ketubah?” A ketubah is the traditional Jewish marriage contract. I ended the chapter with the following words:
“What I am suggesting, however, is that when Jews give their loyalty solely to one political party….they will certainly be taken for granted…..neither party should get the Ketubah.”
Thirty-three years later, these words still hold true.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.