Trump Accelerates the Dangerous Politicization of Israel

President Donald Trump walks with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The president's talk of American Jews’ ‘loyalty’ and interference in two congressional Democrats’ trip to Israel hurt the interests of the Jewish state.

President Trump has opined that Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats (as 79 percent did in the 2018 midterms) are demonstrating “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” At first, he didn’t say to whom. An eager Trump explainer, Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition, leapt to clarify. The president wasn’t accusing Jews of disloyalty to America, he said, nor to Trump himself, but rather “to themselves.”

That’s artful. Look, lots of people think other people don’t have a good grasp of their own self-interest (see, for example, What’s the Matter with Kansas?). I have often expressed frustration about the political leanings of my co-religionists. But it’s never a good idea for a Jewish leader like Brooks to accept the framing of the matter as one of loyalty when we are speaking of Jews. (It doesn’t help that Trump later said American Jews were being disloyal to Israel.) Jewish Americans are free to vote with an eye toward Israel’s welfare or to ignore it altogether. They can be religious or secular, liberal or conservative, and as George Washington promised in 1790, there “shall be none to make [them] afraid.” You can write whole books about why many Jews are liberals without suggesting for a moment that this reflects disloyalty to anyone or anything. Just say you think they’re wrong, because the accusation of disloyalty has a long and ugly history, as Brooks is well aware. And ironically, it’s the very thing Representative Ilhan Omar has been trafficking in.

Nor is it 100 percent clear that Trump wasn’t referring to himself. The day after accusing Jews of disloyalty, he retweeted the comments of Wayne Allyn Root, who said of Trump, “. . . like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God. . . . But American Jews don’t know him or like him.” We must await the next Trump explainer to smooth feathers and interpret this one (Brooks hasn’t been heard from), but it seems that whether you take it literally or figuratively, it’s unhinged. It would be different if Trump betrayed even a hint of self-deprecating humor, or so much as a wink, when he says or repeats these things. Instead, his bottomless craving for adulation/worship bursts forth — like Tourette’s.

Some of my conservative friends think Trump’s close embrace of Israel is an unmixed good. They reason that the embassy move to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan Heights, and the withdrawal from the Iran deal outweigh all other considerations.

I don’t agree. Leaving aside Trump’s acquiescence to support from anti-Semites, his Israel policies are not necessarily good for Israel in the long term. Israel was starting to become a partisan matter before Trump’s arrival, but he has supercharged it. And just as many Democrats and independents have become more supportive of free trade in response to Trump’s protectionism, there is a danger that some may become hostile to Israel just because Trump has made it a political marker. Benjamin Netanyahu deserves blame here too. By tying himself so firmly to Trump, he is straining the bipartisan support that Israel has cultivated for 70 years.

The “squad” are really bad on Israel and anti-Semitism, shamefully so. But they are outliers in the Democratic party. All but 16 members of the Democratic Caucus in the House voted to condemn the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez support. Even one member of the squad, Ayanna Presley, voted against it. Forty-one Democrats just completed an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel.

Trump’s efforts to make Omar and Tlaib the face of the Democratic party undermine efforts by the Democratic leadership to minimize their influence. Every time Trump elevates them, especially when he does so in ways that can be perceived as racist, he inclines Democrats who might have kept them at arm’s length to rally round them, thus propelling at least part of the American electorate into the neighborhood of anti-Israel extremism.

Trump’s prod to get Israel to exclude two duly elected members of the U.S. Congress from visiting was a two-fer. It cemented the image of Netanyahu as Trump’s obedient puppet, thus heightening negative partisanship, and worse, it encouraged Israel to betray its own democratic principles and traditions. Excluding Rashida Tlaib (however horrible her views and associations) was a blow to Israel’s standing as a brave, free nation and a propaganda victory for Tlaib.

Israel enjoys broad support in the U.S. for many reasons — historical, religious, strategic — but undergirding all of those is respect for a fellow democracy. If Israel is perceived as anything less, the damage will be far greater than anything the squad could manage.

© 2019

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