1. When does making Israel a political football cross the line?
The short answer is: Right now.
Donald Trump’s latest barrage of tweets, suggesting that progressive non-white members of Congress should “go back” to their countries and then justifying the racist tweet by claiming these lawmakers “hate Israel” has taken the issue of Israel as a partisan cause to the point of no return. The idea that supporting Israel is a bipartisan issue shared by Democrats and Republicans, excluding extreme margins on both sides, has long been abandoned by Republicans. Republicans eager to cash in on policy differences between Obama and Netanyahu, and an Israeli government willing to overlook long-term stability in favor of the immediate gratification offered by Trump and his administration, have put an end to the golden days of Democrats and Republicans joining together to supportIsrael. Progressive Democrats, for that matter, didn’t help much by mainstreaming an Israel-skeptic approach in the party.
Trump, by using support for Israel as an excuse for racist comments, or as a shield aimed at deflecting critics calling out the hateful content of his tweets, has marked a new phase in the politicization of Israel in American partisan discourse. If criticism of Israel by members of Congress (including harsh, baseless and at times hateful criticism of the Jewish state) is used as justification for racism, it can and will be used in the future whenever Trump feels under attack. Israel, as of Sunday night when Trump shot out his first tweet on the topic, is no longer a policy issue. It is now a codeword for evoking political feelings among supporters, just like abortions and guns. This may help Trump with some Jewish and many evangelical voters, but it will also cause irrevocable damage to Jewish Americans and to the future of Israeli-American relations.
2. Why are American Jews so alarmed by Trump’s comments?
For the Jewish community, having a president who so casually makes racist comments is bad. Doing it more than once, be it with comments about “very fine people on both sides” after Charlottesville, or jokes about Jews and money delivered to a Jewish audience, or the latest tweets suggesting brown and black Congresswomen don’t belong in America, is definitely worse. But more dangerous for the Jewish community, is framing racist comments as a response to the promotion of anti-Israel ideas. By doing so, by suggesting that his racially loaded tweets are somehow justified because those he was targeting had expressed criticism of Israel, Trump has put the American Jewish community in an impossible situation. Following this line would force American Jews into choosing between either supporting Israel, and with that implicitly accepting Trump’s attack on the four members of Congress, or speaking out against Trump and being accused of abandoning Israel. Clearly, this is not a choice most American Jews feel they have to make. For the large majority of Jews in the U.S., there is no contradiction between backing Israel and opposing racism. Trump sees it in a different way and the more he keeps on pointing at support for Israel as his excuse for race baiting, the more difficult it will become for Jews to avoid the dichotomy.
3. And it’s also bad for Israel
Israel has the most to lose from this false equation. If supporting Israel means adopting an offensive approach toward minority communities, Israel has lost its battle over the future of its relations with America. A younger generation of Democrats, centrists and perhaps even Republicans might grow up seeing support for Israel as synonymous with racism. Sure, for the next few years, Israel has nothing to worry about. Trump, whether he stays around for another two or six years, is committed to backing Netanyahu and has set in motion policies aligned with the Likud-led government priorities. Even after Trump, Israel’s interests will be taken care of in Washington. Democrats, for now, are staunchly on the side of Israel. Most adhere to a Chuck Schumer/Nancy Pelosi line which views Israel as an important ally and friend, even when disagreements over policies exist. And those more likely to criticize Israel, from Bernie Sanders to Pete Buttigieg, still accept the basic notion that the security and safety of the Jewish state are in America’s interests.
But what will happen decades from now, when these figures step down and when the Democratic voter body is dominated by constituents who grew up believing they need to choose between fighting racism and supporting Israel? It’s easy to see how Israel’s base of support could crumble and how the fundamental American lean toward supporting Israel fades away.
4. It’s up to Republicans to save the day
Democrats have sounded off against Trump’s comments, and Jewish leaders spoke out in response to the president’s decision to drag Israel into the debate, but eventually it will be up to Republicans to determine if Trump’s interpretation of being pro-israel becomes the party line.
It’s too early to say which direction the GOP will take. But Senator Lindsey Graham is very publicly backing Trump, stating that the four members attacked by the president are “a bunch of communists” and anti-Semites. “They talk about the Israeli state as if they’re a bunch of thugs, not victims of the entire region,” Graham added. On the other end, Senator Susan Collins said Trump’s comments were “way over the line” and that he should delete them from his twitter account.
Somewhere in between these two extremes rests the GOP mainstream, which is yet to form a consensus around the issue.
5. Notable MIAs from the debate
Benjamin Netanyahu, Ron Dermer.
(Photo Credit: Simon Edelman/usa.gov)