What Netanyahu and Israel Owe American Jews
By Mark Feinberg
Most eyes will be on how President Donald Trump threads the needle during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit on Wednesday. How can Trump advance the Holy Grail of a peace agreement—requiring pressure on Israel to pause West Bank settlement expansion—while distancing himself from Obama policies and showing himself a “true” friend of Israel?
My eyes, however, will be on Netanyahu.
Netanyahu leads the only Jewish nation in the last 2000 years, created to be a refuge for Jews after the Holocaust. As such, Netanyahu has a responsibility to confront anti-Semitism worldwide. And that includes an increasingly vocal anti-Semitism in the U.S.
Netanyahu’s situation is tricky. The U.S. has been Israel’s biggest supporter, providing vetoes in the United Nations, high levels of military and security cooperation, and the largest foreign aid package in the world—$3-4 billion per year, (agreed to for a decade by the supposedly anti-Israel Obama administration). And Netanyahu will not want to risk undermining the overwhelming support for Israel that Trump has demonstrated so far.
But the moral imperative for Netanyahu is clear. Trump, his family and his advisors have at best ignored increasingly virulent anti-Semitism and racism during the campaign and after the election. At worst, they have encouraged it.
The most egregious and blatant instance of Trumpland anti-Semitism was Trump’s last campaign ad: The narration consisted of a conspiracy-theory rant about international elites plotting against the common people that repeated age-old anti-Semitic tropes. After showing a picture of Hillary Clinton (she partners “with these people who don’t have your good in mind”), pictures of three prominent Jews associated with high finance accompanied the rant: liberal George Soros, the Fed’s Janet Yellen and Goldman Sach’s Lloyd Blankfein. Released in the very last days before the election, there was little time for the horror of this to sink in among the public. The nature and timing of the ad would seem to be a joint product of two of Trump’s top campaign strategists and grudge-holders: Roger Ailes, Nixon’s ad man and then Fox News chief who was humiliated and fired due to multiple sexual harassment allegations, and Steve Bannon, loser in a high-stakes Goldman Sachs executive power-struggle that led to his resignation.
More broadly, Trump consistently refused to acknowledge—or even stand up to—the widespread anti-Semitism and racism that cranked up during and after the campaign. Bannon, his central strategist, claimed the mantle of leadership of the alt-right as the editor of Breitbart—and many of the alt-right agreed. Large swaths of Breitbart readers and alt-right folks are white supremacists, including Klu Klux Klan and Nazi supporters. Neither Trump nor Bannon have made serious efforts to separate themselves from these deplorables; in fact, this may be Trump’s core base.
During the campaign, anti-Semites began using a symbol on social media (triple parentheses) to identify and target journalists of Jewish descent. A tidal wave of anti-Semitic social media messages, phone calls and threats poured in: The Anti-Defamation League counted over 19,000 anti-Semitic tweets alone to over 900 journalists, with 83 percent of them targeting just 10 writers. Many of the tweets came from overlapping groups of Trump, white nationalist and alt-right supporters. Melania Trump, when asked about the way that hordes of anti-Semites had been harassing a reporter after she had posted a complaint about the reporter’s story, said that the reporter had “provoked” it. Trump himself said of that particular problem, “I don’t have a message to the fans…There is nothing more dishonest than the media.”
How tweets and images from white supremacists and Nazis got funneled into Trump’s Twitter feed is anyone’s guess. His famous Clinton attack-tweet that recycled an anti-Semitic image complete with Jewish star and dollar bills is hard to forget. And Trump’s guiding “America First” slogan itself has historically anti-Semitic overtones. During the campaign, ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt asked Trump to drop the theme but was ignored.
Campaign ads, slogans and social media attacks began to have real-world consequences after Trump’s surprise win. Racists felt emboldened, and hate crimes (the majority of which have been against Jews in recent years) soared across the country. Swastikas appeared on school lockers. Strangers screamed threats to Latino women on the street. And in the Ronald Reagan building in Washington, DC, white supremacists responded to an anti-Semitic speech by alt-right leader Richard Spencer with cheers and Nazi salutes.
When asked about the rise in hate incidents since the election in a 60 Minutes interview, Trump pretended to be surprised. When it was explained, he did not seem particularly upset and had to be urged more than once to use the televised interview as an opportunity to address the haters: Finally, he could only manage two words: “Stop it,” he said mildly to the perpetrators of hate crimes. (Compare that to the passionate “Lock her up” chants Trump led for months, or the two minutes of jeering he encouraged rally-goers to spew at working journalists.
Trump came to realize that he couldn’t challenge the racism and anti-Semitism in his base. He tried to pivot in the general election and flirted with Latino political leaders, hinting he would soften his stance on deportation to attract more Latino votes. But when Sarah Palin and others criticized that pivot, Trump backed down. He learned that, once incited, racists cannot be easily pacified.
Trump’s defenders have almost always focused on personal anti-Semitism: The ace-in-the-hole is that his daughter Ivanka converted and married the observant Jew Jared Kushner. Kushner went so far as to leverage his family’s Holocaust history to personally defend Trump as a lover of Jews in a column he wrote in his own New York Observer. (Strangely, though, Trump and defenders do not often mention that his son Eric married a Jewish woman; it may be that acknowledging too many Jews in the family would be bad politics.)
One of the strange things about Trump’s success is his ability to align otherwise antagonistic bedfellows. The real question is not whether Trump is personally anti-Semitic, but how Kushner and other Jews can sit in the same room as Trump’s Breitbart and other facilitators of hate and anti-Semitism. Why did Jewish family members allow Trump to use America First as his governing theme? Why didn’t they insist he do the right thing and apologize for anti-Semitic and Nazi sourced social media posts, or apologize for omitting Jews from the Holocaust statement? The answer provides keen insight into Netanyahu’s dilemma.
Start with the fact that Kushner and Ivanka went to visit the grave of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe the night before the election, apparently to pray to the last great rabbi for help in next day’s election. The highest goal of the Rebbe, and of most Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, is to hasten the coming of the (Jewish) Messiah, one element of which entails moving to the Promised Land.
Not surprisingly, then, more politically conservative and more religiously observant Jews tend to be single-issue voters, focusing on which candidate is the strongest (and uncritical) supporter of Israeli policies. Whether it is in Israel or the U.S., they are relatively comfortable with walls, separation and insular communities. In contrast, more liberal and less-observant Jews typically care about full and permanent integration into American life, and are generally more critical of right-wing Israeli policies towards Palestinians. They view pluralism and tolerance as critical features of a democratic state, whether here or in Israel.
A large majority of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews did vote for Trump, and a similar majority of less observant and more secular Jews voted for Clinton. Although there are supporters of each side at each end of the religious spectrum, it seems that the religious center, like the American middle class, is eroding. This is where Netanyahu needs to step in.
Just as Israel has relied on American Jews for support, we need to rely on a strong Israel for support in the face of anti-Semitism. Israel should not simply be a refuge for persecuted Jews, but a leader promoting tolerance and acceptance of Jews—and all others—around the world. When anti-Semitism climbed in France, Netanyahu famously told French Jews to move to Israel. That is not the answer for us.
Will Netanyahu demand that Trump speak out forcefully for tolerance and respect for Jews wherever they live? Will he demand Trump not only welcome Jews into his family, but welcome the founding Judeo-Christian values of respect and love of the neighbor and stranger back into our politics? Or will Netanyahu come to stroke Trump’s ego, see what more he can he can extract (war with Iran, perhaps?), and throw the blue Jews to Trump’s wolves?