How could a speech that centered on advocating support for Israel and opposition to anti-Semitism, and in particular, the BDS movement, be considered anti-Semitic incitement?
It can if the person who delivered was President Donald Trump, and his opponents are determined to not only impeach him, but also tie him to the very forces arrayed against Jews that he has actually opposed. This latest contretemps is not only typical of the sort of polarizing arguments that characterize public discourse in the age of Trump, but also how such rabid partisanship can distort and derail any effort to unite Americans against the rising tide of anti-Semitism that has been sweeping across the globe long before he entered the White House.
Those in attendance at the Israel-American Council’s National Summit in Southeast Florida applauded Trump during a typical stream of consciousness speech on Dec. 7, in which he not only touted his record on Israel but also blasted his Democratic opponents.
Yet Anti-Defamation League CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt accused the president of “trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes” by “questioning American Jews’ loyalty to Israel and asserting that Jewish voters only care about their wealth.” Others on the left claimed that he was “sending a dog whistle to alt-right.” Spokespersons for Jewish Democratic groups agreed.
Moreover, those who make such arguments claim that everyone, especially Jewish conservatives who don’t share outrage over Trump, are selling out the interests of their community and endangering Jewish lives in the name of partisanship or narrow advocacy for Israel.
What did Trump say that could justify such sweeping condemnations?
In referencing one of his opponents in the presidential race, the president said the following:
“You have to vote for me; you have no choice. You’re not going to vote for Pocahontas [Trump’s abusive nickname for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren], I can tell you that. You’re not going to vote for the wealth tax. Let’s take 100 percent of your wealth away. No, no. Even if you don’t like me—and some of you don’t, some of you I don’t like at all actually—and you’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’ll be out of business in about 15 minutes. A lot of you are in the real estate business. I know you very well, you’re brutal realtors.”
Anytime anyone links Jews to money, it’s a potential problem. That is a stereotype that has a troubling history when employed by anti-Semites to demonize Jews. Trump cannot assume that an audience of Jewish activists is entirely composed of wealthy people who want only to vote their financial interests. In fact, he should avoid such stereotypes not merely for appearance’s sake, but because it’s possible that his words could be interpreted as validating hateful ideas about Jews.
In this case, context counts. Saying that he is “trafficking” in such tropes assumes his purpose is to do just that. But as anyone who has paid the least attention to Trump knows that his remarks about Jews or any other topic are not rooted in hate, but in his desire to appear politically incorrect and unwilling to obey the normal roles of political discourse. He assumes that any group of businesspeople or professionals would oppose a measure, such as Warren’s wealth tax, which would hurt their personal finances, as well as wreck an economy that is booming on his watch. To claim that Jews should be opposed to such a thing is not something a president ought to say. But since it was in the context of a speech denouncing anti-Semitism, and supporting Jewish rights and Zionism, to assume that his purpose was anti-Semitic is ludicrous.
Trump’s critics have even less of an argument when it comes to the other supposedly awful thing he said. In speaking of his record on Israel and the way he thinks it needs to influence Jewish voters, Trump said the following:
“We have to get the people of our country, of this country, to love Israel more, I have to tell you that. We have to do it. We have to get them to love Israel more. Because you have Jewish people that are great people—they don’t love Israel enough.”
This is like a previous statement made this past summer in which he questioned why American Jews were not more loyal to Israel and therefore appreciative of his administration. That was assumed by Trump haters to an invocation of the “dual-loyalty” slur against Jews. However, the point of such smears by open anti-Semites such as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who Trump called out for their anti-Semitism in the speech, is to claim that anyone who supports Israel is not sufficiently American.
What Trump is doing there is the exact opposite. Invoking, though likely unknowingly, the famous statement by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that support for Zionism is inextricably linked to love for America, the president was urging all Americans to back Israel. If he thinks that Jews should have a special reason to support the one Jewish state on the planet, he’s right. To claim that to say as much is anti-Semitic turns logic, history and common sense on its head.
In this context, it’s worth repeating journalist Salena Zito’s insight from 2015 when she noted that Trump’s critics take him “literally but not seriously,” while his supporters taken him “seriously but not literally.”
That divide still exists. But the perplexing thing about it is that so many people, including those tasked with the defense of the Jewish community like the leader of ADL, seem unable to place his statements in the context of policies that are so clearly aimed at being supportive of the Jewish community, including its fight against anti-Semitism.
The only explanation for this entire debate is not Trump’s actual words, but the political leanings of those who are listening to them. More to the point, as long as the ADL and others who masquerade as defenders of the Jews are making such arguments, unifying the country against actual hate remains pointless.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.