But despite the ad-libbed nature of both events, the message the White House wanted to send heading into the 2020 election as it seeks to build support among Jewish conservatives and maintain the strong backing of evangelicals was clear: Trump is using support for Israel as the defining characteristic of fighting anti-Semitism.
“With one voice, we vow to crush the monstrous evil of anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it appears,” Trump said. “We have a lot of people in government working very, very hard on that, and we appreciate their work. It’s not easy.”
Several members of the audience wore red yarmulkes stamped “TRUMP,” which the president noted with delight.
Trump hosted a second Hanukkah reception at the White House later Wednesday, drawing an odd-bedfellows collection of Jewish friends and advisers for the two events that included sports owner Bob Kraft, legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and developer Charles Kushner, whose son Jared is Trump’s close adviser and son-in-law.
“I’m very proud that the Jewish faith is a cherished part of our family,” Trump said. “Very proud of it.”
Trump hopes to expand his support among conservative Jews in his 2020 reelection effort, although national polls do not suggest that Republicans are gaining much ground with Jewish voters. He points to his support for Israel and focuses on steps he has taken to reverse policies enacted by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Polling during the 2018 election year from Gallup found that 26 percent of all U.S. Jews approved of Trump while 71 percent disapproved. A 2019 survey by the American Jewish Committee found 26 percent of Jews had a favorable view of Trump while 71 percent were unfavorable.
In 2016, the national network exit poll found 71 percent of Jewish voters supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton while 23 percent supported Trump, which is slightly wider than Obama’s 69-30 percent margin over Mitt Romney in 2012. In the 2018 midterm elections, 79 percent of Jewish voters supported Democratic candidates for the House, while 17 percent backed Republicans.
Orthodox Jews account for about 1 in 10 U.S. Jews, and their political views contrast sharply with other denominational subgroups. A 2013 Pew Research survey found 57 percent of Orthodox Jews identify as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party, while 64 percent of Conservative Jews lean Democratic, rising to 77 percent among Reform Jews and those who don’t report a denomination.
In a briefing for reporters Thursday, a Trump campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign strategy, said that a “Jewish Voices For Trump” coalition effort will be launched early next year, along with groups aimed at evangelicals and Catholics.
“The real test of Jewish voting intentions is not contained in our survey. It would be in the state of Florida,” said David Harris, chief executive of the AJC, a nonpartisan advocacy organization.
Florida is the largest state among the five to seven swing states considered the keys to an electoral college victory, and the one with the largest Jewish population.
“Clearly the president believes that he can make a strong case to those Jewish voters, I think largely by trying to depict the Democratic Party through the faces of people like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib,” Harris said, referring to freshman Democratic congresswomen from Minnesota and Michigan, respectively, whose remarks about Israel have angered Democratic colleagues as well as Republicans.
Trump referred to what he called “far-left members of Congress” in an address Saturday at the conservative Israeli American Council in Florida, which had a heavily partisan flavor despite being an official presidential event.
The president was greeted with chants of “Four More Years,” and the audience booed both Trump’s mention of Democratic members of Congress and the news media.
“You’ve got to be very careful. Make no mistake: Radical lawmakers who support the BDS movement are advancing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda,” Trump said, referring to the efforts to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel over human rights claims.
“ . . . It’s rhetorically and morally unacceptable. One lawmaker even wrote that Israel has hypnotized the world, and said, ‘Support for Israel is all about the Benjamins,’ ” Trump said, referring to Omar’s suggestion, in a tweet, that Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle.
House Democrats rebuked Omar for “anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters,”and she apologized.
Trump’s own history of invoking Jewish stereotypes went unmentioned at the event. In August, Trump said Jews who vote for Democrats are showing “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
Critics said the president’s remarks promoted anti-Semitic stereotypes about the loyalty of American Jews, but Trump doubled down a day later.
“In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel, and only weak people would say anything other than that,” he said then.
Jared Kushner cited a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes and other incidents in the United States in an essay Wednesday in the New York Times promoting the executive order. He referred to what he called discriminatory treatment of Jewish or pro-Israel students whose views do not align with liberal campus orthodoxy.
“It has become fashionable among Jew haters to characterize any discriminatory behavior — no matter how loathsome — not as criticism of Jews, but of Israel. This is a lie,” Kushner wrote. “Especially on college campuses, where discrimination, harassment and intimidation of Jewish students has become commonplace and is routinely, but wrongly, justified.”
Kushner cited statistics from an Anti-Defamation League report that was published with a cover photo of white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville in 2017 — an event that marked a low point for Trump.
Some of the marchers during the deadly rally chanted “Jews will not replace us” but Trump struggled to denounce the marchers. Trump, whose winning coalition in 2016 was heavily white and socially conservative, said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protest.
At each of the Jewish-related events in recent days, Trump listed actions he has taken in support of Israel that are broadly supported by conservative American Jews.
His list included relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem despite Palestinian claims to the city, withdrawing from the international nuclear deal with Iran and granting U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. All are opposed by mainstream American Jewish organizations and many Democrats in Congress.
His declaration that he is the most pro-Israel American president ever also plays well with many conservative evangelical Christian voters, who will be crucial to Trump’s reelection.
“I believe President Trump is the most pro-faith president in history,” evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress said when Trump invited him to speak at the White House event Wednesday.
“Mr. President, you know, Jewish and Christian believers alike believe what God said to Abraham in Genesis 12 — that God would bless those who bless Israel and He would curse those who curse Israel,” he said.
The executive order flows from legislative proposals that have stalled despite bipartisan support. Liberal Jewish groups are nonetheless skeptical, arguing that the order can be used to silence political speech the administration doesn’t like.
The order extends federal civil rights protections to Jews as an identified ethnic group and not just a religious one. It allows the government to consider discrimination against the group as a violation of a key civil rights law, meaning schools could lose federal funding if they fail to combat discrimination against Jewish students.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the center-left Jewish group J Street, said the order “appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel.”
Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, said in an interview that “the president did the right thing.”
Jewish college kids harassed or threatened by activists whose beef is with Israel should be protected by the federal government, Rosen said.
“Why should any student on a college campus go to school tomorrow morning in fear?” Rosen said.
His organization does not endorse candidates, and Rosen demurred on the question of whether Trump is using things such as the executive order to appeal to Jewish voters.
“We support some actions and don’t support others he does,” Rosen said.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.