To the many white evangelical voters who make up a big part of his base, President Trump might appear lately to be highlighting his bona fides as a champion of the Jewish people. In a rush of tweets in recent weeks, he has denounced four Democratic congresswomen of color as anti-Semitic and insufficiently supportive of Israel.
But the president's recent Twitter campaign to put Jews and Israel at the center of his attacks on Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) is being greeted very differently by the people he has been appearing to defend.
Trump’s initial call for the four to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” struck many Jews as transparently prejudiced in a way that is all too familiar to them as members of a tiny minority group who themselves have been told throughout history that they didn’t belong in the lands of their birth.
Then Trump added a new element to the mix, tweeting that the four lawmakers — all of whom are citizens and three of whom were born in the United States — “should apologize to America (and Israel), for the horrible (hateful) things they have said.” He added: “The ‘Squad’ is a very Racist group.” On Tuesday, he called Omar an “America hating anti-Semite.”
At that point, the reaction of American Jews to Trump’s remarks grew much more complicated.
Many condemned Trump, saying he is using Jews as a political football to score points. “To be Jews and to have that associated with hating others, when that’s totally counter to Judaism, is deeply troubling. My identity is being enlisted in service of hating other people,” said Rabbi Michael Holzman, leader of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, who preached on the topic and organized a group discussion last Friday.
But the lawmakers’ comments were already the subject of painful debate among Jews, and some believed that Trump’s attacks were justified. Others perceive an attempt by the president to divide Jews by intensifying disagreements surrounding the women’s comments.
Those include whether criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism are the same thing, whether the right-wing anti-Semitism — which many feel Trump has ignored — is more dangerous than the left-wing movement critical of Israel, and whether the focus should be on Trump’s racism rather than the women’s remarks.
“Trump is doing something incredibly, obviously divisive and, from my point of view, terrible for the country and certainly terrible for the American Jewish community in that he’s seizing on politics to try to divide Jewish people from one another,” said Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, which supports a two-state solution in Israel. “And I think it’s smart politics from his perspective, and I think he’ll keep doing it.”
Some political operatives have a hard time seeing how focusing on such a generally liberal and tiny percentage of the electorate — Jews are 2 percent of the U.S. population — could help Trump.
“He can’t make substantial gains among Jewish Americans because he is so at odds with what they care about, from social justice to economic justice to fundamental tolerance,” said Robert Shrum, a Democratic consultant. “It’s not strategically smart, let alone genius.”
Shrum said Trump’s approach is “not so much about Israel as it is about Islam. He’s appealing to a certain kind of Islamophobia,” Shrum said, because Omar and Tlaib are Muslim.
Polls show American Jewish views about Muslims are typical of Americans as a whole, with both groups expressing similarly neutral views toward Muslims on average. But Koplow and others say support for Israel is still very much a motivating issue, especially among the older cohort and the politically conservative Orthodox.
Jews also play an outsize role in U.S. political life, Koplow noted, including as organizers and fundraisers. Some wonder whether Trump is also trying to inject Israel into the 2020 presidential campaign at a time when a liberal campaign for a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel has become a topic of discussion in Congress. (The House voted overwhelmingly this week to condemn the movement. Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar voted against the condemnation. Pressley supported it.)
Some comments and policy positions offered by Omar and Tlaib — and, to a lesser extent, Ocasio-Cortez — related to Israel, the Holocaust and other Jewish topics have been widely debated among Jews. However, Jewish opposition to the comments is not necessarily tied to support for Trump.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a group focused on advocacy around anti-Semitism, criticized Trump for telling the U.S. lawmakers to “go back.” But Hier went on to complain about what he perceives as the congresswomen’s left-wing anti-Semitism, noting that if they hadn’t stirred controversy with their comments, Trump “wouldn’t have had anything to say."
Unlike Koplow, Hier believes Trump was focusing his tweets entirely on his base, which includes many conservative Christians and some Orthodox Jews, rather than attempting to influence Jewish opinion.
Polls show nearly 7 in 10 Jewish registered voters say they are Democrats or lean Democratic in recent years, partisan leanings that have been steady for over two decades. American Jewish attachment to Israel varies depending on age and religious conservatism. Overall, a 2013 Pew poll found 30 percent of U.S. Jews said they were emotionally very attached to Israel and 39 percent said somewhat attached.
Evangelicals, who make up about 25 percent of the U.S. population and heavily support Trump, were a logical target for Trump’s tweets. Evangelicals revere Israel for its role in the biblical story, and in recent decades many have come to equate being pro-Israeli government with being supportive of Jews generally.
Pew Research in May reported that 15 percent of American evangelicals believe the U.S. government under Trump is favoring Israel too much in its conflict with the Palestinians, while 42 percent of American Jews said that. American Jews hold extremely diverse views on what it means to be anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.
Bertil Wolf, a retired doctor from Boston’s North Shore area who used to head the regional Jewish Federation, said he disagrees with the support of Omar and Tlaib over boycotts of Israel. Yet he supports their claims that Israel mistreats Palestinians by suppressing their freedom, he said.
"There are certainly a great deal of Israel policies I do not agree with, but I don’t believe the political criticisms of Israel — in its handling of problems with Palestinians — is in fact anti-Semitism,” Wolf said.
Wolf said he believed Trump was intentionally trying to stir division — but politically conservative Jews he knows believe Trump is not up to the job of being president. Wolf also believes Trump can’t be considered a credible defender of Jewish interests.
However, Hier said Trump does have credibility on the issue because he has been a stalwart friend of Israel in the eyes of many Orthodox Jews who point to the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem under Trump as a high point. Hier also said Trump is on solid footing because some of the comments made by members of the group nicknamed “The Squad” are so bad.
Hier and others who raise concerns about anti-Semitism on the left have focused on a handful of comments by three of the women. No one interviewed cited specific issues about Pressley.
Omar in February came under fire for a tweet saying Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she said, referencing $100 bills. The entire Democratic Party leadership voted to condemn her within days for anti-Semitic behavior, and Omar issued a statement saying she “unequivocally apologized.”
In May, Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, was interviewed about the creation of the state of Israel, and her relatives who she said lost jobs and land around that time.
“All of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post the Holocaust, post the tragedy and horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time,” Tlaib said. “And I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right?”
Thinking about that, she said, gave her a “calming feeling."
Many Republicans and the president widely repeated Tlaib’s phrase “calming feeling” about the era of the Holocaust without including in their comments her depiction of Jews across the world as horrifically persecuted. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on GOP leaders to apologize for what Pelosi said was a distortion of Tlaib’s words.
Historians of the era also criticized Tlaib for depicting Palestinians as welcoming and trying to create a “safe haven” for Jews. The former British mandate was racked by violence, and the then-grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, was allied with Nazis.
Last month, Ocasio-Cortez called U.S. detention facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border “concentration camps,” triggering wide condemnation as well as praise from some Jewish figures who said thinking about parallels was a way of honoring the expression “never again."
She has continued to use the term, saying she selected it deliberately.
Holzman, leader of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, said those who participated in the Shabbat discussion he organized last week were confused and frustrated.
People believe that anti-Semitism is being used politically, he said, even as Trump supporters aren’t addressing the real issue of hate against Jews — including among themselves.
“Everyone,” he said, agreed Omar’s use of the term “Benjamins” was anti-Semitic, and her remarks bothered people. “But what bothered people more was seeing anti-Semitism — which is an attack on a minority group — being used to attack another minority group.”
Even among the most politically and socially conservative Jews there are divisions about Trump's remarks.
The Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park is home to many ultra-Orthodox Jews — the strongest Jewish support Trump has. There, the most urgent issue to many is protecting Israel, which they view as the ultimate safeguard against anti-Semitism, said Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the Masbia Soup Kitchen.
“There are people who think, as long as you help Israel, you’re addressing the big question of anti-Semitism,” said Rapaport, adding that he does not personally support Trump. “Jews learned not to be so picky about who does favors for them because they don’t get too many.”
And yet as the Twitter war heated up, the leading body of U.S. Orthodox rabbis issued a statement that faulted both sides: Omar and Tlaib for comments some read as questioning the loyalty of American Jews who back Israel; and the president and his supporters for the “go back” comments. “We see these pronouncements as dangerous to the core values of our faith and the foundations of American society,” the Rabbinical Council of America said.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece included the wrong first name for Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the Masbia Soup Kitchen.