Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is paying a visit to Washington today — an event that typically triggers angst in the American Jewish community as it confronts its internal conflicts over Israel.
This time, though, the figure at the center of the community’s vexations is not Netanyahu, but President Trump.
Trump has already managed to unite wide swaths of American Jews against him — exposing a divide with other Jewish leaders and organizations that have supported or refrained from criticizing his domestic policies. His executive orders on immigration and refugees sparked unprecedented protests, including the arrests of about 20 rabbis after they blocked streets near Trump Tower. The conflict emerged even before he assumed office: In December, eight liberal Jewish groups refused to attend a Hanukkah party the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations hosted at Trump’s newly opened Washington hotel. The boycotters included the Union for Reform Judaism, the country’s largest Jewish denomination. The URJ’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, called holding the event at a Trump-owned venue “at odds … with many policies and values of Jewish life and community.”
At first, it might appear that the pro- and anti-Trump camps break down along partisan lines on Israel. But increasingly, Israel isn’t the key to understanding Trump’s relationship with the Jewish community. Instead, that’s best understood through Trump’s illiberal nationalism and his attendant denigration of the “political correctness” of social-justice advocates, whom he and his supporters portray as undermining America’s greatness. Trump’s policies go well beyond standard Republican fare which liberal Jews have long opposed such as cutting taxes or entitlements, blocking lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights or restricting reproductive freedoms. The intensified Jewish resistance to Trump is fueled by the nationalistic fervor that drove the alt-right’s support for him and is now undergirding his policies. For Jews, these policies cut to the heart of “never again,” as his “America First” slogan rings of what they thought was America’s anti-Semitic past, and the Islamophobia behind his immigration and refugee executive orders revive painful memories of the Jewish immigrant experience — motivating them to defend the Muslims who are being portrayed as subhuman infiltrators.
Trump is playing a role in a changing conception of what it means to be a Jew in the United States, said Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and an expert on American Jewry. The 20th-century construct of the American Jew as a “social-justice advocate” who is “skeptical about nationalism” is now, under Trump, running into conflict with one that is “muscular, nationalist and pro-Israel,” Kurtzer said.
Trump and his supporters often point to the Jews around him — especially his daughter, Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, and her husband, presidential confidante Jared Kushner — as evidence of his love for Jews. But Jewish angst over Trump has persisted anyway. Only one presidential action managed to unite Jews across the spectrum in opposition: The White House’s official commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day omitted any mention of Jews or anti-Semitism, erasing the fact that the Nazi regime’s central goal was exterminating Jews. That unity, though, was the exception rather than the rule.
The angst dates back to Trump’s campaign and its recurring themes that alarmed Jewish leaders. Last March, Trump told supporters at campaign rallies to raise their right hands and recite a pledge to vote for him. Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Times of Israel the “fascist gesture” resembling “the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute is about as offensive, obnoxious and disgusting as anything I thought I would ever witness in the United States of America.” Trump dismissed the criticism as “ridiculous,” saying of his rallies, “we’re having such a great time.” A few weeks later, reportedly aided by Kushner, Trump delivered a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, even as Jewish leaders, including AIPAC supporters, denounced his “naked appeals to bigotry,” “derogatory epithets that no moral society should tolerate,” and “failure to distance himself from white supremacists and avowed racists.”
Trump and his surrogates would go on to dismiss other ADL charges of anti-Semitism — including his retweet of an image of a six-pointed star and stacks of cash, his campaign speech accusing Hillary Clinton of meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” and his widely criticized final campaign ad, which again invoked anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish control of a global financial structure — as “ridiculous,” “fabricating connections to anti-Semitism,” and “completely false and uncalled for.”
Trump has surrounded himself with arch-conservative Jews, such as David Friedman, his nominee to be ambassador to Israel, as well as the right-wing white evangelicals who were the cheerleaders for Trump’s rightward shift on Israel. His most ardent supporters also include the alt-right — white supremacists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, and other far-right nationalists — many of whom are virulently anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. These otherwise disparate elements of the Trump coalition come together under his nationalism and, crucially, a shared antipathy toward American liberals.
Friedman’s appointment, as Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg has noted, represents “a sort of coming-of-age moment for an emerging stream of Orthodox Judaism that hasn’t previously stepped onto the national stage.” That stream’s distinguishing feature, writes Goldberg, is its “militantly conservative Republican politics and its hostility to liberalism.” Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, recently named to be Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, have been his wingmen, defending him from criticism by groups such as the ADL.
The right flank of the Jewish community has defended or said nothing about his actions on immigration and refugees — again, a sign that his brand of nationalism, not his stance on Israel, is what is pitting different parts of the Jewish community against each other. After the editor in chief of the liberal Jewish Daily Forward wrote that Jewish organizations that supported Trump’s “offensive, unnecessary and damaging travel and immigration ban” have “lost all moral standing,” the Zionist Organization of America shot back in a letter to the editor laced with references to the Torah and rabbinical law. The executive orders “maintaining strong borders and preventing immigration of those who endanger us,” the letter maintained, “is moral and necessary.” The letter even accused the leading Jewish refugee resettlement agency, HIAS — which was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in the 19th century to aid Jews fleeing pogroms — of “receiving millions of dollars of government grants” to resettle “poorly vetted refugees.” HIAS has become a leading Jewish critic of Trump’s policies, hosting a pro-refugee rally as part of National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees last weekend and suing the president to block the refugee ban.
ZOA has emerged as a leading Jewish Trump defender; after House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) called Steven K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and a key architect of his immigration and refugee policies, a white supremacist, the ZOA’s president, Mort Klein, accused her of slander.
Trumpist illiberal nationalism wraps its criticism of liberal Jews in Islamophobia. A piece published on Breitbart — the site led by Bannon until he became Trump’s campaign chief in August — after the ADL’s condemnation of Trump’s proposed Muslim ban accused the ADL of allowing “Jew hatred” to come to America. “[M]ost American Jews still believe the absurd proposition that liberalism and the Democrat Party are the very extensions of Judaism itself,” it read. But “if that was true, Orthodox Jews, being the most knowledgeable about Judaism, would be the most liberal, which of course, they are not. They are the most conservative.” The site has also defended Bannon himself from the ADL’s criticism, accusing it of engaging in a “defamatory campaign” against Bannon and the site. Friedman has acted similarly, calling supporters of J Street, the political advocacy group that promotes a two-state solution, “worse than kapos,” the prisoners who aided the Nazis in concentration camps.
J Street is undeterred; the group has both opposed Friedman’s nomination and condemned Trump’s refugee executive order as “evoking the dark period when America fell far short of its promise by turning its back on Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.” Despite what it sees as wide Jewish support for its positions, though, the group’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami worries that within the GOP, “all forms of moderation have essentially been silenced. The people who had been reasonable are petrified of expressing a reasonable thought.”
Trump’s Jewish defenders, said Ben-Ami, “seem to be ready to make common cause with people who have clearly got anti-Semitic tendencies because it allows them to pursue their far-right policy and political agenda regarding Israel.” (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)
The ADL, too, continues to be a leading Trump critic despite Friedman’s accusation, on the eve of the election, that it fabricated anti-Semitism claims “to scare Jewish people into voting for Hillary Clinton” and “advance liberal policies.” Trump, Friedman predicted, would have a “very good relationship” with some Jewish organizations. But, he added ominously, “I don’t think the ADL is one of them.” Since Trump took office, the ADL has been at the forefront of opposing Trump’s refugee policy, launching public education campaigns and advocacy efforts in Congress.
Trump’s use of Jewish allies such as Friedman is “definitely worrying and concerning especially considering the fact that Trump has already demonstrated his ability to bring far-right ideas and messages into the mainstream,” said Ethan Miller, a 25-year-old activist with If Not Now, a grass-roots group of young Jewish activists that has protested Bannon’s White House role and the travel ban.
His fellow activist Sarah Lerman-Sinkoff, also 25, said that young Jews have been alarmed by the anti-Semitism that came into the open in connection with Trump’s campaign, and that the group trains its activists to recognize anti-Semitism on both the right and the left. “Bannon’s politics of xenophobia and white nationalism” has a parallel in Israel’s far-right politics, she said: “Those guys are cut from the same cloth.”
Leaders of liberal Jewish groups say they won’t let up on Trump, because he “hasn’t done nearly enough to call out bigotry, anti-Semitism and hate,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Trump, Pesner added, “needs to get in front of a TV camera and a microphone and be loud and clear” in his denunciation. Given the recent history, though, it seems more likely that Trump’s surrogates might spend the time denouncing liberal Jews.