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1. When does antisemitism become a political liability?
Tired of discussing the nexus between politics and antisemitism? Well, aren’t we all.
But what do you know? We have to do it again.
Donald Trump, the former president who is running for the Republican Party’s nomination once again, chose to spend the Tuesday before Thanksgiving having dinner with two antisemites at his Mar-a-Lago residence: Rapper Ye, previously known as Kanye West, who has devoted much of the past month to spewing antisemitic rants and then doubling down on them, and Nick Fuentes, a card-carrying white nationalist, known for his antisemitic views and his denial of the Holocaust.
The former president stated that Kanye West asked for the meeting in order to get some business advice from Trump and that West “showed up with three people, two of which I didn’t know.” In other words, we’re to believe that Fuentes suddenly landed at the dinner table of one of the most protected people in America, and no one even knew who he was. Trump called West “a seriously troubled man who just happens to be black… and who has always been good to me” and made a point of stating that West “expressed no antisemitism” in the meeting. Trump’s fans may find it plausible that the former president knew nothing of his guests and their views, but these excuses don’t hold water for any reasonable spectator.
Back in the day, the political calculation would have been clear: Holding antisemitic views, or embracing antisemites, comes with a political price tag. Richard Nixon may have been the last one to get away with it, perhaps because his views on Jews were not revealed until after his presidency. Now, with antisemitism becoming nothing more than another political football, the political pros and cons aren’t as clear.
What does Donald Trump have to lose by hosting Jew-haters from the far-right margins?
It could cost him some Jewish votes in the 2024 presidential race. Among the 25-30 percent of American Jews who vote Republican, there are likely some who feel that by hosting Nick (“Trump told me he liked me”) Fuentes, Trump crossed a line and they can no longer support him. But given the small size of the Jewish Republican electorate and its geographic distribution, the impact would be minimal.
Perhaps more significant is the potential loss of Jewish donors. The Republican Jewish Coalition, whose board is home to many deep-pocketed GOP donors, spoke out against the meeting, a move that could perhaps spell future trouble for Trump with some of these donors.
A word of caution: It’s easy to stand up to Trump now, two years from the elections, but it will be much more challenging if he wins the nomination and Republican Jewish donors are faced with a choice between helping their party’s candidate, antisemitism and all, or risking another election loss.
The most significant impact will be felt if the GOP has a competitive primary race. In this case, Jewish voters and donors could make the switch to another viable candidate who is not tainted with claims of antisemitism (such as Ron DeSantis, who enjoyed success in heavily Jewish districts in the latest midterms). Trump’s rivals from within the party will use the Kanye West-Nick Fuentes dinner incident to argue that the former president is not worthy of being their party’s standard-bearer. Some of them, including outgoing Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, have already done so.
2. Israelis? They have no problem
Surprising as it may sound to some, one group from which Donald Trump should expect no pushback for his sit-down with West and Fuentes is Israeli leaders. No official from the Jewish state has spoken out, and it is highly unlikely that when Benjamin Netanyahu re-enters the prime minister’s office in coming weeks, he’ll chose to take issue with Trump’s coddling of antisemitic figures.
And while we’re at it: Will the pro-Israel lobby put up millions to defeat Trump in 2024? Of course they won’t. If there’s any lesson from the 2022 midterms, it is that AIPAC only cares about support for Israel as defined in the narrowest way possible; anything else, from insurrectionism to radicalism, is deemed irrelevant.
3. Running for office while indicted–the Israeli lesson
Having dinner with Jew-haters isn’t Donald Trump’s biggest problem right now.
Last week’s announcement by Attorney General Merrick Garland appointing Jack Smith as special counsel overseeing the investigations into Trump’s holding presidential documents at Mar-a-Lago and his involvement in the January 6 events could mark a much bigger headache for the former president. The decision indicates the seriousness of these legal cases and could eventually lead to one or two indictments against Trump.
Can he run for the highest office while under federal indictment?
Time to look to his old friend Netanyahu, who has been through all of this already and can share his unique perspective.
While the legal systems and criminal procedures in Israel and the United States are very different, there is one lesson Netanyahu can teach Trump, if and when he is indicted: Hang in there. In an imaginary phone conversation between the two leaders, Netanyahu could explain that the worst thing a leader can do, when faced with legal problems, is to accept responsibility and bow out. Look what happened to Ehud Olmert, Israel’s forgotten prime minister who resigned amidst a series of criminal investigations and was eventually convicted for taking bribes and obstructing justice during his earlier stints as both a cabinet minister and the mayor of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has proved that fighting back on all fronts—legal and public—pays off. Your voters, he could remind Trump, will remain loyal and will believe your side, so just stand strong. True, it won’t stop the legal battle, but trials go on for years, and there’s no reason to quit politics in the middle of the process.
Netanyahu might end the imaginary conversation with his winning argument: Look at me—I’m speaking to you from the prime minister’s office.
4. Israel’s new coalition and American Jews’ moment of truth
Assuming no last-minute snags, Netanyahu will be able to present his new government in the coming days. It will be, as expected, a coalition made up of the center-right Likud, two ultra-Orthodox parties, and two far-right parties led by Bezalel Smotrich and by former Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Up to this point, American Jewish organizations and activists have enjoyed a period of deniability in which they could argue that there’s no need to jump the gun and react to the results of Israeli elections until a new government is formed.
This grace period is about to end and will require the community to respond to Israel’s shift to the right.
5. Mapping potential conflict points
Here are some of the policies and initiatives of the upcoming Israeli government that could cause friction with American Jewry:
– Amending the Law of Return: a move advocated by religious members of the new coalition would eliminate the “grandchild clause” from Israel’s Law of Return, which currently accepts immigrants even if only one of their grandparents was Jewish. If adopted, this amendment would deem an estimated two million Jewish Americans ineligible for aliyah to Israel.
– Conversions: Ben-Gvir and other coalition members would like to overrule an Israeli Supreme Court decision that recognizes Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism, a move that would impact primarily Jewish Americans.
– Religious pluralism: Expect the new government to try its hardest to limit actions of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel, mostly by cutting them off from governmental funding sources, but also by blocking attempts to regulate egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
– LGBTQ rights: These, too, are on the chopping block. It is an issue many liberal Jewish American individuals and organizations will fight for fiercely.
– Relations with the Palestinians: The new government, with Netanyahu leading the way and Ben-Gvir in charge of homeland security, is expected to adopt a hardline approach toward the Palestinians, to advance pro-settler policies and to distance itself from an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The majority of American Jews, polls have consistently shown throughout the years, oppose all such moves.
Opening Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Modern-Day Debate via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)