“Hates Jews,” the president repeated from a lectern at the White House on Monday. “It’s very simple.”
The tactic demonstrated how aggressively the president has courted Israel and its most fervent American supporters, as well as his willingness to use that base of support as a bulwark against accusations of intolerance. So, too, it highlighted divisions within the Jewish community between those who look skeptically on a newly vocal left-wing flank of the Democratic Party and those who see these voices as natural allies in the struggle against religious prejudice.
Wrapped up in the protest of Trump’s language is discontent about how non-Jewish commentators have appointed themselves guardians of Jewish interests in a moment of rising anti-Semitism.
“I was disturbed by the president’s weaponization of people’s indignation about anti-Semitism from some of these women to cloud the accusations of racism against him,” Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The charge of anti-Jewish animus was especially noteworthy because the quarrel’s basis — the dissent of the four freshman Democrats against an emergency border aid package and their criticism of Trump’s handling of immigration enforcement — bore no obvious relation to accusations of anti-Semitism that have dogged certain members of the liberal cadre. Omar apologized in February for comments suggesting that politicians were motivated by money to support Israel. She has also faced backlash for discussing the “allegiance” of Israel’s American proponents.
But the two issues — the fate of migrants detained at the southern border and the mounting incidents of anti-Semitism — have now been mixed together in a politically toxic brew.
When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, compared migrant detention centers to concentration camps, Trump’s allies in Congress accused her of minimizing the horrors of the Holocaust. Hundreds of historians have since signed an open letter defending the use of analogies to the Nazi genocide, though not all agree with the accuracy of the freshman lawmaker’s claim.
It was again the accusation of anti-Jewish bias that became prominent in Trump’s escalating war of words this week with the progressive women of color. In addition to verbally attacking Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, he appeared to target Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Omar and Tlaib are the first two Muslim women in Congress. Pressley is black, and Ocasio-Cortez has described herself as a “Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx.”
Trump initiated the feud when he tweeted on Sunday that the Democratic women, only one of whom was born outside the United States and all of whom are American citizens, should leave the country if they were unhappy because they “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.”
The comments were roundly condemned, with some in his own party chiding him while many others defended him against accusations of racism.
Trump, speaking at an unrelated White House event on Monday, said the women were the ones at fault. And the alleged wrong he chose to highlight, focusing in particular on Omar, was anti-Semitism. He also asserted that the women “hate our country,” in addition to Israel, and made the baseless claim that Omar sympathized with al-Qaeda. Trump previously called President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black commander in chief, a terrorist who was born in Africa.
Omar has been critical of the Israel lobby, at times using language widely seen as inflected with anti-Jewish conspiracy. Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, had advocated for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Jews and Arabs would jointly govern. Both women support the movement known as BDS, for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Modeled on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the campaign aims to leverage economic pressure on Israel to win Palestinian rights. It bitterly divides American Jews, notably on generational lines.
These positions have brought the freshman lawmakers into conflict with some Jewish members of Congress. One of their especially outspoken Republican critics, Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, did not take issue with the president’s remarks on Monday, instead writing on Twitter that the onus of “self reflection” was on those with a “blame America 1st mentality.”
The charge of anti-Semitism lobbed by Trump was echoed by other congressional Republicans, some of whom said they regretted the president’s style while making clear that they sided with him against the Democratic women.
Monday morning on “Fox & Friends,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) advised the president to “aim higher,” but suggested that the more grave transgressions were those committed by his colleagues on the other side of the Capitol.
“They’re anti-Semitic. They’re anti-America,” he said, also accusing the congresswomen of being communists.
Sen. Susan Collins, the self-styled moderate Republican from Maine, called Trump’s initial tweets “way over the line,” recommending that he “take that down.” But she began her statement on the matter by chiding the freshman congresswomen. Among the issues where she disagreed with them, she said, was “their anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
Trump relished the support from fellow Republicans. He quoted Graham in tweets on Monday, adding, “Need I say more?”
The Republican Jewish Coalition also promoted Graham’s statement, writing on Twitter, “He isn’t wrong.”
Meanwhile on Monday, speaking at a forum on combating anti-Semitism, Attorney General William P. Barr said a “body politic must have an immune system that resists anti-Semitism and other forms of racial hatred” and condemned “identity politics” for breeding hate.
Some American Jews have objected to the injection of concerns about anti-Semitism into partisan contest.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) drew on long-simmering resentment about the way accusations of anti-Semitism were being deployed when he responded to the president’s remarks.
“I have been pretty polite about this and so have other American Jews,” the lawmaker wrote. “But you really have to leave us out of your racist talking points.”
He protested, “Your racism is your thing and we are not your shield.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, struck a similar note when he observed on Twitter that Trump was harming “the Jewish community” by “using Israel to defend his blatant racism.”
“He doesn’t speak for any of us,” wrote Greenblatt, who has previously spoken out against Omar, calling statements from the freshman lawmaker plainly anti-Semitic and urging House leaders to pass a resolution clarifying that the chamber prized different values.
Still, others saw danger in dismissing complaints about anti-Semitism as self-serving politics. While he hardly thought Trump’s accusation absolved him of blame, Amos Bitzan, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said he worried about describing the invocation of anti-Semitism as a shield employed by racists.
“I don’t want people to say that everyone who levels the charge of anti-Semitism is racist, or on the far right,” Bitzan said, pointing to the example of Britain’s Labour Party, which has been roiled by complaints of anti-Semitism. The concerns, the historian said, have been dismissed as a conservative attack on the party’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
But Lipstadt, the Emory professor, said Trump was brazenly attempting to pit those most concerned about racism against those most concerned about anti-Semitism. Jews, she said, should be alarmed by the president’s rhetoric about foreign loyalty, and his suggestion that the congresswomen leave the country if they are unhappy.
“One of the tropes of anti-Semitism is that Jews don’t belong, that they’re more connected to each other than to the country in which they live,” she said, also noting that it was the denial of citizenship, under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, that paved the way for the Nazi extermination.
The “terrible irony” of the conflict over race and loyalty pitting Trump against the minority lawmakers, Lipstadt said, was that the president was “hoisting Omar on her own petard” — using a racist trope about loyalty similar to the one that she apologized for enlisting earlier this year against backers of Israel.
If the controversy were to have a positive outcome, the historian said, it would be Omar gaining greater insight into how the rhetoric of loyalty and belonging is deployed. By the same token, she said, Jews who were upset by the congresswoman’s comments about loyalty to a foreign country “should be equally outraged by this comment from the president.”
“Don’t weaponize your indignation and only see it on the other side of the political transom,” Lipstadt said.