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Why Donald Trump Doesn’t See American Jews as Americans
I wasn’t planning to write a newsletter today. But then Donald Trump offered his thoughts about American Jews. He can’t resist. Neither can I.
But first a reminder that we won’t be holding a Zoom call this Friday, December 24 nor next Friday, December 31. Our next call, for paid subscribers only, will be on Wednesday—not the usual Friday—January 5. Our guest will be a remarkable man, Hanan Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi from the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, who after spending years isolated from his Palestinian neighbors came to know them—and was transformed. With Palestinian partners, he now runs Roots/Shorashim/Judur, The Palestinian Israeli Grassroots Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation and supports a confederation that allows free movement and residence anywhere in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza for both Palestinians and Israeli Jews.
Subscribe and you’ll also get access to last Friday’s debate over whether Israel is a settler-colonial state, and previous conversations with Noam Chomsky, Omar Barghouti, Francis Fukuyama, Ben Rhodes, and many others.
Back to Trump. In an interview last week with Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, the former president highlighted, yet again, a couple of under-recognized truths. First, the Washington antisemitism debate contains an immense double standard. Ilhan Omar is still being pilloried for saying in 2019 that AIPAC’s influence in Washington is “all about the Benjamins” and thus feeding antisemitic stereotypes about Jews and money. And yet Omar’s statement—for which she was rebuked by her own party’s leaders and for which she quickly apologized—pales in comparison to Trump’s comments last week. In the interview with Ravid, Trump declared “it used to be that Israel had absolute power over Congress.” Absolute power—how’s that for a statement about Jewish control? In criticizing The New York Times’ coverage of Israel, he also referenced the “Jewish people who run The New York Times, the Sulzberger family”—thus implying that the Sulzbergers’ Jewishness should dictate the newspaper’s coverage of the Jewish state. Trump has said these kinds of things before. He’s made it clear that he views American Jews as power-hungry, conspiracy-minded and money-obsessed. The difference between him and Omar is that he wants American Jews to use their wealth and wiles to dictate US policy toward Israel. For Trump, the problem isn’t that supposedly Israel once had “absolute power over Congress.” It’s that Israel doesn’t anymore. Which is why Trump’s crude remarks don’t elicit as much outrage in pro-Israel circles as Omar’s far milder ones. Because pro-Israel politicians and establishment American Jewish leaders are more tolerant of antisemitism when it doubles as support for Israel. Which, as I wrote last week, is the most prevalent kind of antisemitism in the US today.
The second truth that Trump revealed is that he doesn’t see American Jews as truly American. The fact that so many American Jews voted for Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Trump told Ravid, shows “that the Jewish people in the United States either don’t like Israel or don’t care about Israel.” The implication is that American Jews should vote based on what’s best for Israel not what’s best for the United States. This tendency to see American Jews as Israelis—or to suggest that they should think of themselves as Israelis—is a recurring Trump fixation. At the White House Chanukah party in 2018, he told an American Jewish audience that Mike Pence and his wife “love your country,” meaning Israel. In a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2019, he called Benjamin Netanyahu “your prime minister.” That same year he declared that “any Jewish people that votes for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty”—disloyalty to Israel, the country to which Trump thinks American Jews owe their allegiance.
Why does Trump keep saying this? Because he sees the United States as a white Christian country. And he sees anyone who isn’t white and Christian as a kind of interloper. He spent his pre-presidential years insisting that Obama—a Black man with a Kenyan father and a Muslim name—wasn’t really American. While running for president in November 2015, he falsely claimed to have seen “a heavy Arab population” in New Jersey “cheering as the buildings came down” on September 11, 2001. Six months later he falsely insisted that “there’s no real assimilation” even among “second- and third-generation” American Muslims. Trump’s implication was clear: Arab and Muslim Americans—no longer how long they’ve lived in the United States—aren’t loyal Americans.
It’s not just Arabs and Muslims. In 2016, Trump leveled the same accusation of disloyalty at Gonzalo Curiel, the Mexican American judge assigned to hear the fraud case against Trump University. It didn’t matter to Trump that Curiel was born in Indiana. Trump said he couldn’t be impartial because “he’s a Mexican,” a permanent foreigner. Then in 2019, Trump told the members of the Squad—three of whom were born in the United States—to “go back” to the countries they were from. As if being Black, Palestinian, or Puerto Rican made them residents of another country.
Because Trump is a blood and soil nationalist—someone who sees national identity as based, fundamentally, on racial, religious and ethnic identity—he doesn’t consider people from outside America’s dominant tribe to be fully American. It angers him that many Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks, and Jews are trying to forge an American identity based instead on civic nationalism—a nationalism open to anyone who lives in America’s borders and abides by its laws—because that more inclusive national ethos threatens white Christian dominance.
Why does Trump want American Jews to be loyal to Israel? Because if American Jews are loyal to a foreign country, we forfeit our right to help define this one. And it’s that effort at national redefinition—led by people excluded from the tribal, racist nationalism he champions—that Trump fears most.
In Jewish Currents, Alex Kane breaks down the struggle inside Democratic Socialists of America over expelling Representative Jamaal Bowman.
For the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s podcast, “Occupied Thoughts,” Fadi Quran, Lara Friedman, and I reflect on the year that’s past and the year ahead.
I recently read Orit Bashkin’s deeply researched book, The New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq, which includes this grimly ironic tidbit. In 1949—just before the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel—Iraqi police exposed an underground Zionist network and sent roughly one hundred Iraqi Jews to a prison just west of Baghdad. The prison’s name: Abu Ghraib.
A story of solidarity and hope from the South Hebron hills (thanks to subscribers Jumana Husseini and Chaim Shimshovitz for bringing it to my attention).
Have a great holiday.
See on Wednesday, January 5,