Prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and the wife of Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, have recently engaged in an unusual form of antisemitism: attacking American Jews for being insufficiently loyal to Israel.
The most recent instance was last Saturday, when an Israeli reporter asked Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator, about his association with the antisemitic founder of the far-right social network Gab and Mastriano’s criticism of his Democratic opponent for sending his children to a Jewish school.
Mastriano’s wife, Rebecca Mastriano, then stepped in front of the microphones and offered a her own response.
“As a family, we so much love Israel,” she said. “In fact, I’m going to say we probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do, I have to say that.”
She then added that she and her husband have been involved for “at least 10 years [in] outreach to Israel and Jerusalem. We have — I had — visited Israel, say, for five years.”
When asked to condemn anti-Semitic comments about Josh Shapiro and his association with white nationalist platform Gab, Mastriano’s wife steps in and says, “We probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do.” pic.twitter.com/hHaW9Say6k
— Ron Filipkowski 🇺🇦 (@RonFilipkowski) October 30, 2022
By responding to a question about antisemitism with a pivot to Israel and a swipe at the many American Jews who do not necessarily support all of the Israeli government’s policies, experts on antisemitism say Mastriano was playing into long-standing tropes that depict Jews as foreigners with loyalty to another country.
“She’s basically saying, how dare you raise the question of antisemitism? We’re more committed to the state of Israel — i.e. the Jewish people, for her — than many Jews,” Eliyahu Stern, a professor of modern Jewish history at Yale University, told Yahoo News. “That’s very problematic. Mastriano’s comments make evangelicals more authentic Jews than Jews. They seek to divide Jews against themselves.”
Mastriano’s comments were similar to an Oct. 16 post by Trump on Truth Social, in which the former president also suggested that Jews in the United States are insufficiently supportive of Israel.
“No President has done more for Israel than I have,” Trump wrote. “Somewhat surprisingly, however, our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S. Those living in Israel, though, are a different story - Highest approval rating in the World, could easily be P.M.! U.S. Jews have to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel - Before it is too late!”
Trump’s messaging on Jews is deeply problematic, experts say.
“On the one hand, you see [extremist candidates] using antisemitism, and on the other hand, they seem to use this pro-Israel language of a means of offsetting their hateful language against Jews,” Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, told Yahoo News. “To use Israel as a wedge ... that doesn’t help Israel at all, and it upsets the Jewish community.”
Surveys show American Jews have the same breadth of political concerns as their non-Jewish neighbors. A national survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute in September asked Jewish voters to choose the two issues most important to them this year, and found that Israel was the ninth most popular choice, tied with affordable housing, and chosen as a top-two issue by only 7% of voters. That’s far lower than the proportion who chose issues such as the future of democracy, abortion, inflation and the economy, and climate change.
“Our issues are American issues: the welfare of people in the country, health care, education etc.” Rosen said, “We’re not a single-issue community.”
Many American Jews also bristle at the implication that criticizing policies of the right-leaning Israeli government means one is insufficiently committed to Israel.
“‘I love Israel’ could be interpreted as a blanket statement that Israel can do no wrong,” said Andy Bachman, a Reform rabbi and former executive director of the Jewish Community Project of Lower Manhattan. “What they’re really saying is Republicans will give Israel a blank check.”
But immunity from criticism isn’t in Israel’s best interest, Bachman added.
“To truly love a child is to point out a child’s errors,” Bachman said. “To truly love a child is to criticize a child because criticism leads to growth.”
Mastriano’s opponent, Pennsylvania Attorney General Joshua Shapiro, is an observant Jew who sends his children to Jewish day school, for which Mastriano has repeatedly attacked him. Mastriano calls it a “privileged, exclusive, elite” school, and has said that it demonstrates Shapiro’s “disdain for people like us.”
Jenna Ellis, a campaign aide to Mastriano, falsely claimed on Twitter that “Shapiro is at best a secular Jew in the same way Joe Biden is a secular Catholic.”
Mastriano’s campaign paid paid $5,000 to the Christian nationalist social media platform Gab, whose founder Andrew Torba has made a number of antisemitic statements including one in which he said that Jews are not welcome in the conservative movement. “We don't want people who are atheists,” Torba said in a livestream. “We don’t want people who are Jewish. We don't want people who are, you know, nonbelievers, agnostic, whatever. This is an explicitly Christian movement because this is an explicitly Christian country.”
Torba also said that he and Mastriano do not do interviews with reporters who aren’t Christian. “[Mastriano] does not talk to these people,” Torba said. “He does not give press access to these people. These people are dishonest. They’re liars. They’re a den of vipers, and they want to destroy you.”
Under pressure to renounce Torba’s statements, Mastriano issued a statement rejecting antisemitism.
On Monday, a coalition of Democratic and progressive Jewish groups called on Mehmet Oz, the Republican senatorial nominee in Pennsylvania, to unendorse Mastriano. “Despite the recent rise in antisemitism, Oz has refused to denounce Mastriano’s hate speech and instead continues to endorse and support him,” leaders of Democratic Majority of Israel, Jewish Democratic Council of America, Democratic Jewish Outreach PA, Pittsburgh Jews Unite Against Extremism and the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street wrote in a statement.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Mastriano was featured in a 2019 film about the Holocaust that scholars say is inaccurate and offensive. In it, a Holocaust survivor asks a modern-day school board to include the Holocaust in school textbooks — while also deploying conservative talking points about gun control and abortion. “It’s time to say never again!” the survivor played by Mastriano says about abortion, repurposing a familiar refrain about the genocide of Jews. “It is offensive to weaponize the Holocaust for political ends, yet that is what this film does and quite proudly,” Neil Leifert, director of the Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Penn State, told the Post.
Trump has repeatedly complained that American Jews do not reward the Republican Party’s blanket support for Israel — which he has referred to as “your country” when speaking to American Jews — regarding the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Jewish people who live in the United States don’t love Israel enough,” Trump told an Orthodox Jewish magazine last year. In 2019, he said “any Jewish people who would vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Since at least 71% of Jewish voters lean Democratic, according to a Pew Research Center study from 2020, Trump essentially called the majority of the Jewish population ignorant or disloyal.
In 2017, Trump infamously said there were “some very fine people” among the white nationalists who held a rally in Charlottesville, Va., and chanted “Jews will not replace us,” in reference to the “great replacement“ theory that also motivated the mass shooter who killed 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.
Trump has also engaged in crude ethnic stereotyping about Jews as transactional and obsessed with money. In 2015, he told the Republican Jewish Committee, “I don’t want your money, therefore you’re probably not going to support me,” and “I’m a negotiator like you, folks; we’re negotiators. ... This room negotiates perhaps more than any room I’ve spoken to — maybe more.”
Mastriano’s and Trump’s recent comments come at a time in which open antisemitism has become a regular occurrence, including recent comments by the hip-hop artist Kanye West and Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving. The Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in 2021.
“I’m concerned at a time of rising antisemitism, [Mastriano is] dodging the question to talk about Israel instead,” Stern said.
Mastriano’s campaign and a representative for Trump’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Mastriano is a staunch social conservative who has said that the separation of church and state in the U.S. is a “myth.” His wife’s comments, like Trump’s, stem in part from the embrace of Israel by many evangelical Christians, who believe that the Jewish return to the Holy Land is a necessary condition for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the subsequent rapture, in which Christians will ascend to Heaven. Jews, many evangelicals believe, will be left behind to suffer tribulations such as earthquakes and stars falling from the sky.
Christian Republicans have sometimes accused Jews of being inadequately supportive of the Israeli government. For instance, in 2014, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said Jewish leaders who supported the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran to prevent the country from obtaining nuclear weapons “sold out Israel.”
“For the better part of the last 40 years, the Christian evangelical community has been very proud of its blanket support for Israeli policy,” Bachman said. “The evangelical movement, in particular, really gives Israel for all intents and purposes carte blanche, does not believe it’s acceptable to criticize Israel.”
“There also is a kind of millennialist movement afoot and they see support for Israel as necessary to bring about the messianic age and the return of Jesus and the rapture,” Bachman added.
Comparisons of evangelicals and Jews on the question of loyalty to Israel invites more antisemitism, some observers say.
“This doesn’t come out of the blue,” Peter Beinart, editor at large of the magazine Jewish Currents, said in a video posted on his Substack about Rebecca Mastriano’s comments. “This has been Trump’s line, right? Trump has said now repeatedly that basically there’s something wrong with American Jews because they don’t love Israel as much as he does. And again, I think you see the way that Trump has changed American discourse in ways that make antisemitism more legitimate. Right-wing American support, evangelical Christian support for Israel is really nothing new. It goes back certainly to the 1980s. But I think what is more new is this use of the Christian right’s support for Israel as a weapon to attack Jews in the United States.”
“Trump and other Republicans have responded to criticisms that they tolerate and accept antisemitism on the political right, associate with antisemites, or make use of antisemitic stereotypes with defensive statements that themselves have antisemitic undertones,” Chad Goldberg, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, told Yahoo News in an email. “They expect American Jews to be primarily and even exclusively motivated by allegiance to Israel, which (ignoring Israel’s own internal political conflicts) they nearly always conflate with Israel’s far right.”
And then, using a Yiddish word for audacity — which Bachmann once famously mispronounced — Goldberg added, “Furthermore, with this kind of rhetoric, non-Jewish Republicans arrogate to themselves the authority to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ Jews. This is not just laughable chutzpah.”