Jewish Grassroots Organizing in the Age of Trump

Huffington Post
December 16, 2016
Stosh Cotler

When Barack Obama first ran for president, he was derided by those on the right for the work he did as a community organizer. They criticized him for going door-to-door listening to people’s concerns, and coming up with a plan of action to help them improve their communities. They said it was not the kind of early-career work that would prepare someone for the highest office in the land. And yet, of that time, President Obama said it was “the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School.”

In just a few weeks we will be saying goodbye to President Obama and watching a man who is his polar opposite — in policy, temperament, and character — assume his place in office. And the Jewish community must follow the example Obama set if we want to succeed in the fight against Donald Trump and his message of hate and exclusion.

We need to empower millions of everyday people to make change, but we aren’t starting from scratch. Before Election Day, Bend the Arc Jewish Action was actively engaging and growing a grassroots base to help defeat Donald Trump for over a year. In fact, we were the first Jewish organization to mount a large scale effort against his platform of hatred and bigotry by starting the “We’ve Seen This Before” campaign. We organized protests and held vigils against Trump’s divisive rhetoric targeting Muslims, immigrants, women, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. We called out the antisemitism and white nationalism spread by some of his supporters, which included messages to our volunteers that photoshopped images of their faces into images of gas ovens. And we worked hard to get voters in swing states out to the polls to defeat him, sending hundreds of volunteers to knock on over 22,000 doors.

While we did not achieve our larger goal, we learned a powerful truth - that we, as Jews, are made for this. The Jewish people, and Jewish tradition itself, were designed for survival and social transformation. We are the people who have fought empires for religious freedom, whose central story is one of liberation from bondage, who have fought Goliaths with slingshots - and won. We are the descendants of the huddled masses, the tempest tossed, yearning to breathe free. We are made for this. And we must resist.

Our experience over the past year shows that it is possible to organize Jews at the grassroots level to unite in political action and fight back in a ways that haven’t been seen since the 1960s and 1970s. We saw thousands of people take action with us who had never taken political action before. And in the weeks since the election, tens of thousands more have signed up with our organization and other Jewish groups, looking for a way to make a difference in this new reality.

So we intend to build upon our grassroots organizing like never before, and we invite the full breadth of the Jewish community to join us in the extension of our campaign. We will use Trump’s election as a rallying cry to mobilize Jews in partnership with other targeted communities to join together in fighting against his hateful and dangerous agenda. In fact, right now Jews and Muslims are working together with national progressive organizations to deliver 1 million signatures to the president-elect to protest the appointment of Stephen Bannon, who has a long history of promoting antisemitism and white nationalism, as his senior counselor and chief strategist in the White House.

Over the next four years, we will take to the streets and we will work in the halls of power to fight against any attempt by the government to wrongfully abridge people’s safety, liberty, or dignity. We will stand in solidarity with Muslim communities, immigrants, people of color and women to speak out against hateful proposals and against the already rising tide of hate crimes. Where we can, we will advocate for policies at all levels of government that will mitigate the damage Trump and his allies seek to inflict.

We also plan to learn from and leverage the success of our voter turnout program in states like Nevada to build support for the Congressional candidates who can change the balance of power in Washington. We will coordinate work between our local organized groups and our Bend the Arc Jewish Action PAC to secure electoral victories across the country for those prepared to fight back against Trump and advance a progressive agenda.

As a community, Jews must face this new reality and mount a collective response that matches the moment. In the coming weeks, Bend the Arc will be presenting a detailed proposal of how the Jewish community can collectively plan a bold, pro-active and coordinated Jewish response to what will surely be a difficult few years.

The election of Donald Trump is a tectonic event in American history. We will not sit idly by and wait for the worst outcomes, nor will we allow ourselves to be tested and silently acquiesce. We will get through this time by answering hatred with blazing love, and injustice with moral clarity, as our deepest values as Jews and as Americans demand.

As President Obama made clear, it is from organizing and these face-to-face conversations that we will learn and achieve the most. We call on our fellow Jews — and all those who seek to preserve the foundations of a democratic society — to stand together in this fight.

Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, a national organization inspired by Jewish values and the steadfast belief that Jewish Americans, regardless of religious or institutional affiliations, are compelled to create justice and opportunity for Americans.