The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, frustrated by unpopularity with Jews, thrusts Israel into his culture war

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

Over the years, President Trump’s rhetoric about Jewish Americans has resembled the Jewish American rhetoric he has decried from other politicians. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump decided long ago that it would be smart politics for him to yoke his administration to Israel and to try to brand the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic.

He set about executing a pro-Israel checklist: moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as part of sovereign Israel, and taking a hard line against Iran. And he promoted himself as the greatest president — a deity even — for Jewish people.

Yet Trump has become flummoxed that Jewish Americans are not in turn lining up to support his reelection, according to people familiar with his thinking, and he has lashed out in predictable fashion.

“If you vote for a Democrat, you’re very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people,” Trump said Wednesday on the South Lawn of the White House. He was amplifying a statement he made in the Oval Office a day earlier: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”

Trump’s use of the word “disloyalty” drew immediate criticism from Jewish groups, whose leaders said it echoed anti-Semitic tropes about where American Jews’ loyalty lies. The president insisted his comments were not anti-Semitic.

Regardless, this turn in the president’s rhetoric about Jews magnifies his transactional approach to politics and his miscalculation that his hawkish interpretation of support for Israel should automatically translate into electoral support from Jewish Americans.

It also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivations of many Jews, who are not a monolithic voting bloc but rather prioritize a wide range of issues — not only Israel, but also education, the economy and the environment, as well as civility and morality.

“He is reflecting a concept of Jewish Americans as single-issue voters around Israel, which we’re not; that we’re uniformly hawkish on these issues, which we’re not,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group. “In reality, what matters most to us are the exact values that the president is spending his term trashing. We care about equality and justice, and we embrace the notion that this is a nation of immigrants and opportunity for all.”

Trump says that Jewish people who vote for Democrats are ‘very disloyal to Israel,’ denies his remarks are anti-Semitic

Looking to his 2020 reelection bid, Trump is thrusting Israel into the culture wars he has waged as president. He is trying to make support for Israel a litmus test — along with immigration and guns — and calling Democrats anti-Semitic to fire up his base.

Daniel Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, said Trump’s expectation that Jewish people vote for him because of his record on Israel is “breathtakingly cynical.”

“In his typical buffoonish way, he thinks that by [pushing] out these instructions, essentially, to American Jews to get in line and become his supporters he’s going to be successful,” Shapiro said. “It’s all shaped by his narcissism. It’s all shaped by his transactional nature. It’s all shaped by his insatiable need for praise and confirmation of his greatness and appreciation for the gifts he’s bestowed on whoever it is he’s courting. And it’s not going to fly with this community.”

Trump’s transactional expectations for Jewish voting patterns reflect how he views other voting blocs. He routinely defends himself against charges that he is racist by citing the relatively low unemployment rate for African Americans on his watch, as well as the criminal justice legislation he signed last year, as if those are the only issues of concern to black voters.

Trump has claimed a “Jexodus” movement of Jews from historically backing Democrats to supporting Republicans. But polling shows this may be more fantasy than reality.

A toxic rift opens between Democrats and Israel after the nation refuses entry to two members of Congress

In the 2016 election, 71 percent of Jewish voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton and 23 percent for Trump, according to exit polling. Gallup tracking poll data in 2018 showed that just 26 percent of Jewish Americans approved of Trump’s performance as president while 71 percent disapproved, making Jews the least likely of any of the religious groups studied to support Trump.

Trump has been told over and over again that he is “the most pro-Israel president ever,” according to a former senior administration official, delivering on a wish list that includes recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — but the official said Trump is angry that he has not received more plaudits from Jewish Americans. Trump contrasts his unpopularity with Jews to the overwhelming support he enjoys from evangelical Christians.

This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the president’s mind-set, argued that Trump’s rhetoric of late is “a manifestation of frustration of not getting the recognition and the praise and the support that he feels like he deserves as a result of what he’s done.”

Trump placed an early bet on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and they forged a close alliance, but Netanyahu faces a difficult reelection bid next month, and a loss would be devastating to Trump. Furthermore, Trump’s push for a Middle East peace deal has stalled, and the Palestinians have rejected the U.S. proposal.

Still, Trump tweeted a quote early Wednesday from Wayne Allyn Root, a noted conspiracy theorist and conservative radio host in Nevada, who praised Trump on Newsmax and lamented that a majority of Jews vote for Democrats.

“President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America . . . The Jewish people in Israel love him like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God,” Trump quoted Root as saying.

Jews do not believe in a second coming.

Trump quotes conspiracy theorist claiming Israelis ‘love him like he is the second coming of God’

Trump has used statements from Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) criticizing Israel and its treatment of Palestinians to label them “anti-Semites.” And he has called them “the face of the Democratic Party.”

The Trump campaign’s chief operating officer, Michael Glassner, issued a strongly worded statement Wednesday accusing Democrats of supporting those who want “to wipe Israel from the map.”

“As a Jew myself, I strongly believe that President Trump is right to highlight that there is only one party — the Democrats — excusing and permitting such anti-Jewish venom to be spewed so freely,” Glassner said. “In stark contrast, there is no bigger ally to the Jewish community at home and around the world than President Trump.”

At Trump’s urging, the Israeli government last week blocked the two congresswomen from visiting the country, citing their support for a boycott movement against Israel. The Israelis then relented in response to a request from Tlaib to visit her grandmother, who lives in the occupied West Bank, but the congresswoman ultimately decided not to make the trip because she would have been required by Israel to pledge not to promote boycotts.

Tlaib says she will not go to Israel after the country initially rejected her request for a visit, then reversed course

Democratic leaders have publicly supported the congresswomen, even as they have sought to distance the party from some of their sentiments. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at this spring’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that his party supported Israel and that it was “absolutely vital” to continue doing so.

“Those who seek to use Israel as a means of scoring political points do a disservice to both Israel and the United States,” Schumer said, in a veiled reference to Trump. “Our politics may be more polarized than ever, but it is incumbent upon all of us who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship to keep it bipartisan.”

After Trump’s “disloyalty” comments this week, Schumer said in a statement Wednesday: “When President Trump uses a trope that has been used against the Jewish people for centuries with dire consequences, he is encouraging — wittingly or unwittingly — anti-Semites throughout the country and the world.”

On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates also denounced Trump’s comments.

“Come on, man. That’s like a dog whistle. ‘Loyalty.’ Come on,” former vice president Joe Biden told a crowd in Newton, Iowa.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey shared his understanding of Jewish values. “There’s an idea in Judaism about kindness and decency and mercy,” he told reporters in Altoona, Iowa. He added, “One of the greatest Jewish ideals is to welcome the stranger. One of the great Jewish writings comes from Micah. That is, you know, ‘Do justice. And love mercy.’ These ideals are not being evidenced by the president of the United States.”

Chelsea Janes and David Weigel in Iowa and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.