The first recorded Jewish resident of North America arrived in 1585. His name was Joachim Gans, and he was a metallurgist from Prague, recruited by Sir Walter Raleigh to accompany would-be colonists to what would become Virginia. But the Roanoke colony was short-lived, and Gans soon departed, leaving behind a few lumps of copper and a goldsmith’s crucible for future archaeologists to discover.
For centuries after Gans’s arrival, the Jewish presence in the New World was small but consistent. Small Jewish communities sprang up in the colonies throughout the Eastern Seaboard, principally consisting of Sephardic Jews migrating from Brazil, Spain and Portugal. The first formal Jewish school in the colonies was established in 1755, according to the American Jewish Archives. As the historian Leonard Dinnerstein put it, these small communities were “dots in a Protestant landscape.” But they were here, before the country was a country; the oldest synagogue in North America that still stands is the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I., built 13 years before the United States declared its independence. In its modest sanctuary, neoclassical columns hold up a mezzanine adorned with large, arched windows, which wash the pulpit in light.
Nearly 300 years after the construction of the Touro Synagogue, the president of the United States, in between heckling Denmark and venting his ire at the “Fake News LameStream Media,” took time this week to make extremely clear that American Jews owe their allegiance to another country. On Tuesday, President Trump announced that the three-quarters of American Jews who routinely vote for the Democratic Party either have “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” The next morning, the president approvingly quoted an appearance on the right-wing One America News Network by Newsmax radio host and virulently racist conspiracy theorist Wayne Allyn Root.
“The Jewish people in Israel love him like he’s the King of Israel,” the president tweeted about himself, quoting Root. “They love him like he is the second coming of God … but American Jews don’t know him or like him. They don’t even know what they’re doing or saying anymore.”
A few hours later, pressed to clarify his initial comments about American Jews’ “disloyalty,” Trump clarified: “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel.”
The United States has the second-largest Jewish population in the world; nearly 40 percent of the entire world’s Jewish population is concentrated in the country Trump leads. Millions of Jews left Europe around the turn of the 20th century, hoping to escape pogroms and legal discrimination. Others, like my grandparents, escaped the Holocaust and came later; still more arrived when the Soviet Union began relaxing restrictions on emigration.
Over the past century, a thriving Jewish American culture has arisen, rife with internal contradictions, with creativity, swelling with the sheer possibility of life freed from institutional discrimination. From the Yiddish theaters that played to Lower East Side audiences a century ago to the speculative Jewish fiction of Michael Chabon, American Jewish identity is its own, singular creation, firmly rooted in the pocked asphalt of Brooklyn and Queens and in every city and town where Jews have prayed and sung and written.
We are not temporarily dislocated Israelis, and despite what Trump’s Jew-turned-evangelical-Christian friend says about the president’s theological status, our God has only ever come once. Suggesting that our loyalty and our vote should be determined only by the geopolitics of another country, thousands of miles away, requires the erasure of centuries of American Jewish life, from the Jews who won the right to vote with the promulgation of the Bill of Rights onward, with no destination in mind but the “golden land” America was supposed to be.
Trump’s fixation on an impossibly minute sector of the U.S. electorate — Jews make up slightly less than 2 percent of the U.S. population — seems puzzling, at first. The community writ large has proved remarkably resistant to his outreach; 7 in 10 Jewish Americans vote for the Democratic Party, and that figure shows no signs of shifting.
But the series of bizarre statements Trump made about Jews this week do a lot to clarify why the president appears to be pressing for the Jewish vote. Assailing a minuscule, politically left-wing ethnic group under the guise of right-wing outreach makes a lot more sense when you realize it was never really about, or for, American Jews at all. Trump’s appeals both reflect and attempt to reach a different population entirely, one much more likely to talk about the second coming of God or anoint a King in Israel: evangelical Christians.
Christian Zionism — specifically, the millenarian eschatology that has gained significant popularity on the evangelical right in recent decades — is a potent force in U.S. domestic and foreign policy. The strongest supporters of an uncritical, anti-Palestinian foreign policy are white evangelical Christians — the most politically mobilized segment of the president’s base. Their support for Israel is grounded in the Book of Revelation, which dictates that Israel must be “restored” to the Jews before the Jews convert en masse, redeeming themselves for having once rejected Jesus. This redemption comes in fire, and at the cost of complete erasure of any distinct Jewish identity; it is a hallmark of the end of history, a time of tribulation that will exterminate the faithless.
The bipartisan sacrality of Israel in American discourse, in which even the mildest criticism of the state is treated as a third-rail issue, has far less to do with the delicate sensibilities of a tiny (if loud) Jewish minority than with this strain of Christian theology. This has been true since the efflorescence of Christian Zionist preaching on the religious right in the 1980s, dispensed by figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But Trump has once more displayed his gift at saying the quiet part aloud. It takes a bold man to pull back the curtain on evangelical, Bible-based foreign policy and declare himself King of Israel.
Among the many adherents of the Christian Zionist worldview, which seeks to steer Jews as pawns toward a future mass conversion, is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo, a fervent evangelical, has openly discussed his longing for the Rapture; speaking to a reporter from the Christian Broadcasting Network in March, he said it was possible that Trump had been sent by God to protect Israel from the Iranian threat, adding that he believed “the Lord is at work here.” That interview took place in Jerusalem, where Trump had just relocated the American embassy. The move was celebrated most vigorously among evangelicals; after all, Jerusalem is a key location in the particular prophecy to which they hew. Tel Aviv, where the embassy previously stood, was founded in 1909 — far too late to make an appearance in Revelation. Israelis have somewhat bemusedly taken advantage of Christian beneficence, regardless of its ultimate goals, for decades, and the current Israeli government, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could hardly be closer to the U.S. government without becoming a 51st state.
This state of affairs, along with the hard-right turn of the Israeli government under Netanyahu, has driven a deep rift in the American Jewish community, as young leftist Jews in organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace express profound disenchantment with Israel — and right-wing Jews lob accusations of self-hatred and, yes, disloyalty at critics. (The Republican Jewish Committee, for example, uncritically echoed Trump’s comments about Democratic-voting Jews this week in a series of tweets.) Perhaps the most galling aspect of the whole current rhetorical car wreck is that in Christian-centric, eschatological discourse around Israel, such intracommunity nuances among Jews are immaterial.
Within the context of Christian Zionism, American Jews are relatively irrelevant, byproducts of a history whose end is the movement’s ultimate goal. As such, it makes sense to lambaste our intransigence — we are inconvenient, insisting on our own distinct identity, refusing to be blank-faced pawns maneuvered toward the Rapture. Our loyalty to America is both incidental and surely facetious; if all of history, if the very word of God itself, has dictated that we must converge in Israel to be converted to the love of Christ, what right do we have to stand in the way? How dare we fight against the inexorable will of their God? In being “disloyal” to Israel by voting in accordance with the principles of our own faith — Reform and Conservative Jews in particular often meld social justice and religious expression — rather than one that wishes to erase it, we show ourselves to be the stiff-necked people we have always been. American Jews are what Jews always have been to a certain strain of Christians who see us only as biblical abstractions, tools to be utilized and discarded as their God commands: inconvenient, stubborn, willful, selfishly insisting that we exist. But we do exist. And we will go on existing, arguing with each other all the way, as we have for centuries in this strange golden land we call home.