Every Jew I know — whether Democrat or Republican — was horrified to read the tweets issued by President Trump on Sunday morning. Somehow finding a new low to sink to, Trump suggested that Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, all women of color, should “go back” to where they “originally” came from. (Three of them, of course, came from the same place where Trump did: the United States.)
And then it got worse: He connected his racist rant to Israel.
“When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President,” he raged at 6:45 Monday morning. “I can tell you that they have made Israel feel abandoned by the U.S.” (He has since mentioned Israel in the context of his targets’ alleged hatred for it eight more times.)
The claim that Israel feels abandoned is, of course, nonsense; the people of Israel haven’t the faintest idea who Ilhan Omar is. But roping Israel into his rant wasn’t random; it was Trump’s intended endgame from the get-go, and just the latest reminder for Jews that our concerns — and our existence — have been reduced to a rhetorical tool in a larger political battle.
Trump, who has a knack for ferreting out other people’s vulnerabilities and pressing on them, spotted what must have looked like an unmissable opportunity in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent feud with the four congresswomen, known as “the Squad.” And he kept at it: First, he tried to enlist Pelosi in the ugly suggestion that the four congresswomen “go back”: “I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” Then, when Democrats (including Pelosi herself) predictably rallied behind Trump’s targets, he made that part of his attack: “So sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country.”
And then, the final turn of the screw: “They are anti-Israel.”
The screed had three acts: Attack the progressives, try to undermine Pelosi’s painstaking work to distance the Democratic Party from the progressive squad (with their dismal approval ratings among some white voters in swing districts), then smear the whole party as socialists and anti-Israel. Or, as Trump himself summarized it Monday evening: “The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them. That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!”
Trump’s decision to attach Israel to his racist language was just the latest example of Jews, or the Jewish state, being used as a political football, a common enough occurrence these days. Just like the sprawling debate over whether it was kosher to call detention centers “concentration camps” took on a momentum that had nothing to do with Jews, these tweets about how “the Squad” all allegedly hate Israel were not for Jews, 80 percent of whom voted for Democrats in the midterm elections. They are rather about us.
Like much of Trump’s rhetoric, this new message had a dual function. The invocation of Israel was no doubt an appeal to evangelicals, for whom the idea that Israel is under attack by socialists is catnip. But it was also a troll of progressives, designed to incur a collective groan and unleash some anti-Semitic or at least anti-Israel invective from the left in response. (Thankfully, it failed.)
Feeding the base while “owning the libs” has always been Trump’s campaign strategy. But dragging Jews or the Jewish state into it is terrible for Jews, like Trump’s other casually anti-Semitic comments. We don’t want or need to be defended with racism. Jews don’t want the Jewish state to be wrapped up in a racist screed — even if Trump is aiming his invective at people whose views about Israel don’t reflect those of the Jewish community at large.
The thing is, Trump is right about some specific details: There are tensions between Pelosi and the Squad. And there are differences between progressives and liberals on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Indeed, this is what makes the Democratic Party great: Its members don’t fall into line behind their leader. They debate. They disagree. It’s what makes the Democratic Party so, well, American.
But with the Republican Party folding to Trump at every turn, this kind of robust debate apparently confounds the president. And yet, by rendering the Democrats’ fissures in caricature, by overstepping so egregiously and offensively, Trump’s move failed.
This does not mean that all is well in the Democrats’ house. Before Trump united Democrats in opposition to his racism, the debate between Pelosi and those to her left was descending into nasty potshots and baseless insinuations of racism. Trump’s tweets are a chance for Democrats to refocus and resist the urge to become the cartoon he sketched out.
This is especially the case when it comes to Israel. The U.S. Jewish community is already knee-deep in a debate about how to navigate our relationship with Israel. The state used to be an anchoring force for American Jews, but Israel’s descent into ethnonationalism under Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule and Trump’s blessing has left many of us with burning questions. As the natural home for America’s Jews, the Democratic Party is also the natural place for a tough conversation about human rights abuses by a U.S. ally. But just as Trump evoked Israel to create a fight not for Jews but about Jews, Democrats, too, face the danger of allowing the Israel debate to exclude Jews, or Jewish American well-being.
At a news conference Monday night, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) told viewers not to take the bait of Trump’s slurs, and to stay focused on solving the big problems. It’s excellent advice from one of Congress’s hardest workers. And it’s good advice about Israel, too.