What Orthodox Jews Can Learn from Mitt Romney’s Faith
Our Zoom call this week will be at our regular time: Friday at Noon EDT.
Our guest will be Maytal Kowalski. Maytal says she was fired in August from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver after objecting to its refusal to ask the Canadian government to oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. We’ll talk about her experience and about the particular dynamics inside Canada that make Jewish institutions there even less tolerant of criticism of Israel than their counterparts in the US.
As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.
Sources Cited in this Video
How Jeff Flake’s Mormon faith shaped his opposition to Donald Trump.
An article I wrote in 2017 on the impact of Glenn Beck’s Mormonism on his (short-lived, sadly) opposition to Trump.
David Campbell, John C. Green, and J. Quinn Monson’s Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons in American Politics.
A Personal Note
My son Ezra runs a program aimed at exposing Jewish (and other) teenagers to Palestinian perspectives. On Sunday, September 24 at Noon Eastern, his group is hosting a conversation with writer and businessman Sam Bahour. If you know any teenagers who might be interested, they can register here.
Things to Read
Gary Shteyngart’s scathing, hilarious review of a new biography of Elon Musk.
The Jewish ANC spy who advised Hamas. (If anyone knows how to get in touch with Ronnie Kasrils, please let me know.)
“Speak the words we were taught to fear”: A goodbye from Edo Konrad, outgoing editor of the great 972mag.
On October 15, I’ll participate in a zoom panel on the new documentary, “Israelism.”
See you on Friday,
Hi. Our call this Friday is gonna be at our regular time, noon. And our guest is going to be Maytal Kowalski. Maytal was fired in August from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver for, as she tells it, criticizing the Federation’s refusal to challenge the Israeli government on its human rights abuses. And I thought it would be a great opportunity to have a conversation I wanted to have for a while, which is about the state of the debate about Israel-Palestine in Canada, and inside the Jewish community there, and why Canada seems to be a place even more than the United States in which criticizing Israel-Palestine, especially inside the Jewish organizational establishment, is so difficult, as Kowali’s experience shows. That’ll be on Friday at noon for paid subscribers, and of course they’ll also get access to all of our previous conversations.
I wanted to talk about a remarkable new book published about Mitt Romney, a biography of Mitt Romney, by the journalist McKay Coppins. There was an excerpt in The Atlantic, which just came out. This excerpt is about Romney’s decision to challenge Donald Trump when his Republican colleagues—who were telling him privately that they loathed Trump just as much as him—were too cowardly to do so. And what fascinates me is the role that Romney’s faith, his Mormon faith, played in that decision. And, in particular, what really intrigues me is the differences between the way Mormons have responded to the Trump moment, and modern Orthodox Jews, who have a lot in common with Mormons. So, on Romney. Romney says in his speech that he gives where he says he will impeach Donald Trump, which literally puts his own life in danger, that he is profoundly religious. Now, of course, many of the Republicans, you know, who support Trump—the evangelicals and Catholics—are deeply religious themselves. But there’s something about the nature of Romney’s Mormonism that leads him to interpret his religious faith in a way that leads him to take a very courageous anti-Trump position.
And he’s not alone in that. A very disproportionate number of the Republicans who oppose Trump were in fact Mormon. So that even though Mormons have historically been just about the most Republican group in the United States, that Jeff Flake, the senator from Arizona who basically destroyed his political career because of his public opposition to Donald Trump, was Mormon. Evan McMullin, who was a Republican who ran as a third-party candidate against Trump in 2016, was a Republican. Glenn Beck, who has now become pro-Trump but in 2016 was the most high-profile talk show host who was against Donald Trump, who was Mormon. And, in fact, in 2016, Trump did not even win a majority of the vote in Utah. He won a plurality, but because McMullin got such a large third-party vote that actually Trump did far worse in Utah in 2016 than he did in other very red states.
So why is this? So, there’s an argument among people who study Mormonism that the Mormon experience of persecution in the United States—you know, Mormons know this history although many others don’t—that in 1838 the governor of Missouri called for Mormons to be exterminated in the United States. They fled from the Midwest to Utah, a kind of an experience that they reenact every year, and that this experience of being persecuted in the United States has led to Mormons having an unusual reverence, a kind of theological reverence for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So, a political scientist named David Campbell notes that 94% of Mormons believe the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are divinely inspired, almost as many as believe that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired. So, this notion that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution will be trampled, will be destroyed, provokes in Mormons, as Campbell and others argue, a tremendous visceral fear of what will happen given their own history of persecution in the United States.
Now, Mormons have a lot in common with modern Orthodox Jews—not with Jews necessarily in general who tend to be, you know, more secular and progressive, but with modern Orthodox Jews. Mormons and modern Orthodox Jews are both very socially conservative, very economically prosperous, very strong family structure, very cohesive strong communities, very strong kind of sense of their own religion, and their own history as a people. And yet, modern Orthodox Jews, even though they’re less firmly entrenched in the Republican Party than Mormons are, I think overall have been more willing to embrace Trump, less able to produce the kind of figures like Romney or Jeff Flake that have opposed Trump. And because modern Orthodox Jews increasingly form the backbone of the American Jewish organizational establishment—AIPAC, for instance, I think is more and more essentially its backbone, comes from the modern Orthodox community—you see that reflected in groups like AIPAC that essentially are willing to support Republicans who tried to overturn the election.
Now, why is it that the modern Orthodox community—a community I would say for which I have lots of affection in many ways, and you know, for most of my life I’ve gone to modern Orthodox synagogues—why has that community not responded in the way that some Mormons have? And I have a theory about that. I think it’s firstly that although modern Orthodox Jews, like all Jews, fear of persecution, have a historical memory of persecution. For Jews, it’s not persecution in the United States. It’s persecution in Europe or somewhere else. So, the prospect of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights collapsing here does not provoke the same visceral terror among modern Orthodox Jews that it will result in our persecution than it does for Mormons because they had that experience on American soil.
And the second is that I think Israel—and modern Orthodox Jews are much more likely to focus on Israel politically and to vote on Israel than other Jews—has become a bridge that has led modern Orthodox Jews to become comfortable with the Trump-era Republican party, which is very, very pro-Israel, to the extent that it has made them willing to overlook the grave danger that that party represents to American liberal democracy. That Israel has created a kind of comfort level with the party, which has overridden the potential fear of what this party might do to American liberal democracy. And so that while Mormons are more able to imagine themselves as the victims of a white Christian America in which liberal democracy is trampled, then modern Orthodox Jews don’t fear that as much because they have gained a comfort level with this party, and the primary reason for the that comfort level that has been built over the years, and particularly continued in the Trump era, is because of the alliance on Israel. And so, that’s why I think you can see an organization like AIPAC essentially prioritizing American unconditional support for Israel over the survival of American liberal democracy, as tragic as that is.
This is all really very sad to me, I think especially in these days, you know, as we enter the most important religious days of the Jewish calendar. That in what I think remains a moment of extreme peril for the United States, that the part of the Jewish community in some ways I identify with the most, I think is not producing figures like Mitt Romney. But it is really deeply inspiring to me, not just someone who cares about American politics, but someone who also considers myself in a way someone for whom religion plays a very, very important role in my life, to see that there are figures like Mitt Romney, and also McKay Coppins, the journalist who writes about him, who’s also a Mormon. And I think it’s why McKay Coppins understands Romney so well. And so, even though I feel like I may have to look outside of my own community for those figures of religious inspiration, and even though I may disagree with Mitt Romney on a whole bunch of things, Romney does remain for me, in the way he’s dealt with Donald Trump, a figure of not only political inspiration, but a model for how one can use one’s religious vision, and one’s understanding of the role of religion in society to do brave things that support the fight for the survival of really, really crucial principles like liberal democracy in the United States. Again, on Friday, we’ll be joined by Maytal Kowalski from the Greater Federation of Vancouver, and I hope many of you will join us.