It’s not clear how many Jewish people there are in the United States, in part because it’s not clear how one should properly define “Jewish.” The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin explored the complexity of the issue last year, estimating that the number of Jewish people in America probably ranged from 5.7 million to 7.2 million — or, under a more expansive definition, up to 12 million.
And on Tuesday, President Trump told reporters that any members of that group who vote for Democrats, which is most of them, either “lack knowledge” or are “disloyal.”
The context for Trump’s comment was a reporter’s question about Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who were barred from entering Israel earlier this month following comments critical of the nation — and following advocacy for the ban from Trump. Tlaib was eventually granted entry to see her elderly grandmother, but she declined to go because of restrictions Israel placed on a visit.
Trump has repeatedly and expansively described both Omar and Tlaib as anti-Semitic, leveraging controversial comments Omar made about American politicians who support Israel (for which she apologized) and, more broadly, the pair’s criticisms of the country. Trump’s habit, though, is not to present a case for why an opponent is bad but, instead, to paint with a massively broad brush.
“You should see the horrible things that Tlaib has said about Israel,” Trump said, without identifying any such things. “You should see the things that the four of them have said about Israel over the last couple of years,” he continued, referring also to Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). It would indeed be interesting to see what the four had said, since if they have all made anti-Semitic comments — as opposed to ones critical of Israel’s politics — they have not risen to public attention. (Trump has claimed to have a list of horrible things the four have done in the past but has never presented anything substantive.)
Specifically, Trump was asked about reducing aid to Israel as a result of Omar and Tlaib being barred from entry. Trump feigned shock.
“I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation. Where has the Democratic Party gone?” Trump said. “Where have they gone where they’re defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
There is remarkable irony here. Omar was criticized for a tweet which was interpreted as suggesting that American politicians had conflicting loyalties to the U.S. and Israel. “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress,” she wrote in a tweet following criticism for a similar comment she had made in a speech. This was the brunt of the anti-Semitism charge against her earlier this year.
Trump’s comments are an explicit invocation of the primacy of Israel over other domestic politics. How could any Jewish American be so “disloyal” as to vote Democratic, he says, prompting the obvious question: Disloyal to whom?
Where has the Democratic Party gone, he asks, that it defends elected members of its party over Israel? The answer, of course, is that the party exists to defend its members, even in cases that are more obviously problematic than the scenario that Trump is referring to with his expansive, overheated rhetoric. Trump expects the Democratic Party to put Israel’s concerns over its own in criticizing Omar’s positions? There’s the aforementioned irony, in case you hadn’t spotted it.
Disparaging Jewish American Democrats as lacking knowledge — as ignorant — means disparaging millions of people. In 2016, exit polling suggested that Jewish voters preferred Hillary Clinton over Trump by a nearly 50-point margin. Last year, the margin was closer to 60 points. But those are small sample sizes and therefore less precise than they might seem.
Instead, we can look at polling conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015. At that point, Pew found that nearly two-thirds of Jewish Americans identified as Democrats or as independents who generally vote Democratic. If we assume, say, 5 million adult citizens in that population, more than 3 million American Jews fall into Trump’s lacking knowledge/disloyal group.
Over time, that affiliation has been consistent, as Pew data show — even in the Trump era.
That group of Jewish Americans who vote Democratic may include his own daughter. Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism when marrying her husband, Jared Kushner. She is a registered Republican but hasn’t always been; she was ineligible to vote during the 2016 Republican primaries because she was a political independent. A political independent, we will note, who donated to numerous Democrats. A political independent whose father has referred to as a Democrat in the White House, however jokingly.
The Republican Jewish Coalition quickly jumped in to support Trump’s comment.
“President Trump is right,” the group wrote in a tweet, “it shows a great deal of disloyalty to oneself to defend a party that protects/emboldens people that hate you for your religion.”
The coalition’s tweet gets at Trump’s goal: conflating Omar’s comments with Tlaib’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of Israel’s policies. Conflating that with anti-Semitism. Then conflating those representatives with the Democratic Party broadly. We go quickly from the views of two freshman members of Congress to a sweeping indictment of the party that is presented as necessarily disqualifying for anyone Jewish.
When Omar suggested earlier this year that political support of Israel was predicated on campaign contributions, she apologized. In 2015, Trump, then a candidate, spoke to the RJC and made a similar comment.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he said then. “You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”
The RJC tweeted after Trump’s speech, too.