President Trump has caused outrage by criticising Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats. Speaking to the press in the Oval Office about Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar – the Democratic congresswomen recently barred from entering Israel over their involvement in the movement to end international support for the country because of its policies towards Palestinians – Trump said that Jewish people voting Democrat show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."
Since Omar and Tlaib’s Congressional inauguration in January, their criticism of the Israeli government has made them hate figures of the evangelical right. This has inspired Trump to assume his most unlikely role yet: the Jew defender. Or so he thinks.
With his outrageous comment in the Oval Office, Trump implied something for which he excoriated Omar earlier this year: the concept of American Jews holding dual national loyalty. In fact, by suggesting that Jewish Americans should have primary loyalty to Israel above the United States, what he said was actually worse. By saying that we show “great disloyalty” by voting for a party that includes members critical of Israeli policies towards Palestine, Trump is saying that we’re disloyal – not to him or the Republicans – but to Israel, which he considers to be our true homeland.
In reality, the political alliance between Trump and Netanyahu is hugely damaging to the US-Israel relationship and the long term future of Israel. Trump’s assumption that voting for him helps Israel is hugely flawed. But regardless, his remark is a classic antisemitic trope. In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, of which the United States is a part of, agreed on a working definition of antisemitism, along with illustrative bullet points of contemporary examples. One reads: “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” This is even listed on the State Department website.
Another element of Trump’s flawed approach to American Jews is that he sees us as single-issue voters who are willing to abandon all other principles in order to protect Israel from threats – real or perceived. And the implication that our single issue is the unbridled sovereignty of Israel doesn’t just violate the IHRA definition of antisemitism, but it’s simply not supported by facts.
In a survey of 1,000 Jews in May of this year, the Jewish Electorate Institute asked American Jewish voters to rank the importance of a 2020 presidential candidate’s stance on 16 foreign and domestic issues. Though 90 per cent identified as “pro-Israel”, they ranked a candidate’s stance on Israel at the very bottom of the list. More than half (53 per cent) “are critical of at least some of the current Israeli government’s policies.”
Trump’s problem, among many, is that he conflates Jewishness with Zionism. In his simplistic and flawed view, American Jews must love Israel because there are a lot of Jews there. But we are not required to support Israel. It is well within our rights as Americans to air our criticisms freely. After all, any child of Jews knows criticism is our love language.
It is our love for Israel’s past and the role it played in providing a safe haven for Jews after six million of our relatives were annihilated by a murderous regime that means we won’t allow Trump and the Christian right to uncritically support the policies of its current leadership. Prosperity for Jews cannot come at the anguish of others.
To put in context Trump’s most recent claim that Jews who vote for Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” let’s rewind to a scene from one week ago.
A row of Jewish protesters sit peacefully at the entrance of a parking lot across from the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a privately-run prison that contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The protesters are part of a group called Never Again Action, and they’ve assembled to demand the centre cease it’s inhumane and indefinite detainment of migrants, as well as its contract with ICE. “Never again” is a phrase often used by Jews as a reminder of our painful experience with ethnic cleansing, and a call to do whatever it takes to stop history from repeating itself. Moments later a police truck ploughed into these protestors, sending two of them to hospital.
Next, let’s rewind to summer 2016. I sat with four American Jews around a small conference table. We each have at least one grandparent who survived the Holocaust, and had gathered to discuss Trump’s racism and use of antisemitic imagery. Trump, in full campaign mode, had tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton with a Star of David, surrounded by piles of money, and the notorious antisemitic catchphrase “America First.”
As we recount our families’ painful history, and the painful history of our people, we quickly veer to other marginalized communities – Muslims, Mexicans, and Syrian refugees, among others – who we predicted would face an even greater danger in a Trump administration. Because that’s what most Jews do: we think about the world beyond ourselves and see ourselves in the faces of the oppressed.
While the Democratic party by no means has a perfect record on human rights and social justice, most American Jews vote Democrat because they are the party that strives to lift up the many instead of the few.
Trump is not our “king” or “the second coming of God”, as one evangelical Christian and conspiracy theorist put it today (and was praised by the president for doing so). We understand he doesn’t actually care about us – just his own good fortune – and that’s why we’ll never allow this president to define our loyalty.