Many of Donald Trump’s Jewish supporters are willing to overlook his flaws and failings, partly because they think he is “good for Israel.” Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, backing Israel unreservedly at the United Nations and recognizing the Golan Heights as part of the Jewish state are more than enough to convince them that Trump is the “best friend Israel has ever had” in the White House.
But as Trump’s malignant rhetoric and controversial policies continue to divide America, Trump may actually be harming the Jewish state—not helping it.
That is because, with his sometimes racist remarks and his penchant for controversy, Trump is alienating millions of Americans. In and of itself, this has nothing to do with Israel. But Trump has quite deliberately dragged Israel into a battle in which it has no place.
When Trump attacked congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, for example, he also accused them of being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. They are, of course, but that doesn’t justify Trump’s racist smears against them.
The dangerous nature of Trump’s tactics has never been better illustrated than in his tweets last Thursday, effectively demanding that Israel ban Omar and Tlaib from entering the country. “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Trump said. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people. … They are a disgrace!” Following the confirmation of the ban, Trump weighed in again, saying, “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the faces of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
The storm of controversy that erupted—mostly from Democrats, but also including strong Israel supporters like Marco Rubio and even Israel’s strongest advocate in the United States, AIPAC—is terrifyingly ominous.
Trump has now decisively turned Israel into a partisan issue and effectively stomped on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s neck to do it. He made Israel look weak, alienated Democrats from the Jewish state, and completely identified Israel as both his personal puppet state and indelibly linked it, along with “all Jewish people,” in the minds of millions to his racist attacks on the congresswomen.
In the face of this, it is now clear that Trump is effectively making Israel—and indeed, all Jews—a moral issue in the United States, which they have never been before. He is turning philo- and anti-Semitism, Zionism and anti-Zionism into questions of patriotism and loyalty—something that ought to give even Trump’s most fervent Jewish supporters pause.
It’s true that we should recognize the good things Trump has done for Israel, though we should make it clear that Trump did them because they align with U.S. values, not because Israel needed a helping hand or an unfair advantage. But that does not mean that we should ignore the possible long-term effects of a total identification of Israel with Trump, his administration and the increasingly ugly movement that he represents.
The long-term damage that could be caused by tying Trump to Israel is almost incalculable, which is due to several factors.
One of the most important ones is so simple that it’s often completely overlooked: Most Americans don’t know very much about Israel.
If they did, there would be virtually no American support for the Palestinians, given their hate curriculum that teaches children to kill Jewish civilians, their constant rocket attacks on Israel or the fact that the Palestinian government pays salaries to terrorists who kill Jewish children—salaries higher than public employees receive.
The truth is that most Americans know there is a “conflict” in the area, and a dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, but not a great deal more than that.
As a result, most Americans are inclined to believe what they hear about Israel from public figures they consider credible or popular. Put simply, Americans tend to believe those who they see as similar to them in political outlook.
Usually, these considerations are defined by political preferences that have nothing to do with Israel or the Jews: civil rights, guns, abortion, student debt, racism or anti-racism, etc.
This is where Trump’s insertion of Israel and the Jews into his battle with Omar, Tlaib and others—and his attempts to tie Israel to his divisive and sometimes racist policies—becomes immensely dangerous.
When voters see people they sympathize with, particularly people of color, attacked by Trump in racist terms, they instantly become more open to those people and their positions on various issues, including Israel. And they are thus inclined to believe these people’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic claims.
Thus, by giving Omar and Tlaib credibility, by making them martyrs and saints, Trump is also giving credibility to their anti-Israel and anti-Semitic smears.
As a result, many Americans, particularly Americans of color, look at Omar and Tlaib and think that if Trump hates them, they can’t be all that bad—and maybe there is something to these things they say about Israel.
After all, if Trump likes Israel, there must be something terribly wrong with it. If Trump is racist, then everything he supports must also be racist, including Israel and some of the Jews there.
It is here—with those Americans who oppose Trump—that the most serious long-term danger can be found.
In part, this is because many of these people are minorities, and minorities are the future of the Democratic Party and likely America as well. Demographic trends are undeniable; Trump’s base will likely shrivel and eventually largely disappear in the coming decades. For this reason alone, Israel’s supporters need to reach out to minority groups, not alienate them by uncritically aligning with Trump and his hateful policies and rhetoric.
There is a real (and troubling) rise of anti-Zionism on the political left, but tying Israel to Trump is exactly the wrong way to go about fixing it. The right way is by countering the anti-Israel propaganda with the facts and explaining to Americans of all parties and colors why Israel is a natural ally, not an “occupier” or apartheid state.
The truth is that in the short term, accepting Trump’s attempts to tie himself to Israel is a logical and perhaps defensible move. In the long term, however, it is a catastrophic mistake.
The reason for this is that if the future majority of American citizens come to see Israel as racist due to its connection with Trump, then the future of both Israel and the Jewish community in America is seriously threatened. To support Israel will be to support Trumpism.
And like it or not, Trump will not be around forever. Israel and the Jewish community must think long and hard about how to ensure that the damage Trump has already done to Israel’s standing in the United States is repaired before an American voter who knows nothing of Israel, except that it was a paragon of Trumpism, comes to believe the lies being spewed about it.
The Jewish people have always thought in terms of centuries, if not millennia, and the State of Israel and its supporters must do the same. Trumpism represents a terrible temptation, given his alignment with the Netanyahu government on several major and very important issues. But Trump is also ripping America to pieces, and if Israel wants to survive into those centuries, it must seek alliances with all Americans, especially those who will someday be the nation’s future.
Benjamin Kerstein is a Tel Aviv-based writer and editor. David Meyers worked in the White House for President George W. Bush, and later, in the U.S. Senate.