“No, no, no. It’s only in your head,” said President Donald Trump last Wednesday when reporters asked him if his disloyalty comments were anti-Semitic. “It’s only anti-Semitic in your head.”
Most analyses of his statements, however, tell a different story. After the president called Democratic-voting Jews disloyal, commentators and journalists across multiple media platforms were quick to point out the anti-Semitism embedded in Trump’s accusations. Allegations of disloyalty or dual loyalty have been aimed at Jewish people for centuries, according to a report put out by the Anti-Defamation League in 2018. The accusation implies that “Jews should be suspected of being disloyal neighbors or citizens because their true allegiance is to their coreligionists around the world or to a secret and immoral Jewish agenda,” the report says.
Examples of this distrustful attitude can even be traced to biblical times. In Exodus 1:10, the new Egyptian Pharaoh who arose after the death of Joseph began to enslave the Jewish people for fear that, in the event of a war, the Jews would betray Egypt in favor of their enemies. Later, as Lev Golinkin writes in the Los Angeles Times, accusations against Jews as betrayers of Christ—and, therefore, all mankind—were widespread. These same sentiments of disloyalty led to “the torture and expulsion of Jews from Spain” during the Inquisition in 1492, he writes. The 1894 poorly-evidenced conviction of French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus for allegedly sharing military secrets with Germany has remained a quintessential example of this particular brand of anti-Semitism. In the 1920s, Henry Ford disseminated fears of Jewish disloyalty when he published the “International Jew” pamphlets, which lead to the proliferation of the already widespread lies about the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” “The Protocols,” a fabricated anti-Semitic text first manufactured in Russia in 1903, purportedly describes the minutes from a meeting for Jewish leaders, during which they discussed plans for global domination through control of the media and economy.
More recently, the establishment of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel have altered the charges, now accusing Jews of being more devoted to the Jewish state than to the countries in which they reside. Hints of this assumption emerged earlier this year when both Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Ilhan Omar (MN) made comments in person and via Twitter that many interpreted as accusations of American Jews’ dual loyalty. Tlaib tweeted that congresspeople who voted for anti-BDS legislation in January “forgot what country they represent,” and Omar questioned “the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country” at a town hall meeting about Israel and anti-Semitism in Washington, DC, according to Jewish Insider.
While the accusation of Jewish disloyalty is widespread, one element keeps changing: Who are Jews allegedly being disloyal to? While some assertions, such as “The Protocols,” declare Jews more loyal to their religious counterparts across the globe, others, such as the Dreyfus Affair, simply declare Jewish people disloyal to their country of residence or citizenship and its ideology or values. For example, according to Golinkin, Jews in Russia were accused of supporting anti-Communist efforts, while in fascist Europe, Jews were accused of promoting Communist ideals.
Trump’s statements pose an interesting paradox in the long and unfortunate history of the disloyalty slur. When asked to clarify who Jewish people were being disloyal to with their Democratic votes, he said they’re “being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.” Instead of condemning the American Jewish community for having a greater loyalty to Israel than America, Trump criticized Democrat-voting Jews for being disloyal to the country for which they are often denounced for supporting.
This perplexing invocation of the infamous slander adds a layer of offense and danger to the cries of disloyalty against the Jews. By stating that Jewish Democratic voters are disloyal to Israel, Trump is reinforcing both sides of the dual loyalty libel. In one breath, he is marking American Jews both as generally untrustworthy and as showing greater allegiance to Israel than America.
Feelings of anti-Semitism that emerge from these statements today are not “all in our heads,” but stem from the physical manifestations of this harmful rhetoric that we see on the rise today. The Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, the perpetrator of which believes that Jewish people are planning a “white genocide,” and the shooting at the Chabad in Poway are merely two examples of violent outbursts of anti-Semitism inspired by this bombast. Although Trump singled out Democratic-voting Jews, as Bari Weiss points out in The New York Times, one can’t help but wonder how his words will be heard by white supremacist extremists across the country. Will they “parse these Talmudic distinctions about who was, in fact, the subject of the disloyalty in that Tuesday sentence?” she writes. “Or will they hear—as they have always heard…the word ‘Jew’?”