American Jews who vote for Democrats in 2020 would be showing “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” said U.S. President Donald Trump last week. He was immediately accused of dredging up the anti-Semitic “dual-loyalty” trope, but, of course, was doing nothing of the sort.
The dual-loyalty charge has a long history.
Anti-Semitic nineteenth-century antagonists of Jewish Emancipation argued, for instance, that Austrian Jews were more loyal to worldwide Jewry than to the nation of Austria. When push came to shove, the argument went, Austrian Jews would betray their adopted homeland and remain loyal to their “ancient racial nation.” A shadowy “International Jewish conspiracy” would supersede their Austrian citizenship and cause them to subvert Austrian national interests.
This type of accusation gave rise to nationalist-driven anti-Semitism across Europe as well as in the United States. Even in liberal France, the charge of dual loyalty was deployed against French-Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 in the infamous travesty of his trial and conviction for treason.
So widespread was this theory in the next century that it was deployed against Jews by both Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler. In America, automotive tycoon Henry Ford, aviator Charles Lindbergh and radio preacher Charles Coughlin trafficked in it.
When Israeli statehood loomed in the late 1940s, many commentators and members of President Harry Truman’s government argued that the creation of an actual Jewish state would undermine the American loyalty of Jewish Americans.
Most recently, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) caused an uproar when she said that Israel’s supporters want their legislators to “offer allegiance” to a foreign country.
President Trump, on the other hand, meant no such thing. His meaning was evident, but just to make sure he clarified his remarks the next day. He wasn’t suggesting that Jewish Democratic voters would be showing “disloyalty” to America, but that they would be acting disloyal to their fellow Jews and to the Jewish state.
Remarkably, this is perhaps the first time in history that a leader of a Western nation has suggested that Jews ought to have some loyalty to the Jewish state and to their co-religionists.
The president is justifiably proud of his relationship to Israel and of the variety of decisions he has made for its benefit. These include moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, annulling the nuclear deal with Iran,and cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
Israeli Jews certainly appreciate him; his popularity numbers over there are breathtaking. But of course, those Jews won’t be voting in America’s 2020 presidential election, while American Jews typically favor Democratic presidential candidates by landslide margins of 75 percent or more.
But the response of the liberal press and Democratic leaders was shrill. Even the ADL condemned the president’s remarks, without explaining exactly why. Apparently, the mere use of the terms “Jew” and “disloyal” in the same sentence or paragraph triggers outrage.
An underlying fear of both Israel and Democrats, as well as some Republicans, is that the historically bipartisan U.S.-Israel alliance could be endangered by Trump’s rhetoric. He is certainly doing everything he can to cultivate the idea of Israel as a partisan issue—with Trump and fellow Republicans as the good guys. And his lambasting of progressive Democrats on the issue is clearly painting his Democratic opposition as the bad guys.
But partisanship over Israel’s alliance with America is hardly Trump’s creation. His predecessor, Barack Obama, caused several rifts with Israel during his eight years in office.
Obama clearly harbored great hostility towards Israel’s government, and caused a partisan divide when he steam-rolled through the Iran nuclear pact over Israel’s objections. In the waning days of his presidency, he directed his secretary of state, John Kerry, to not veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria. Kerry then blistered Israel’s government with a speech defending the move. Kerry’s words were celebrated throughout the Democratic leadership and its liberal media allies.
So, by the time of Trump’s inauguration there was already a good deal of Obama-triggered partisanship on support for Israel and its policies. Trump is leveraging this apparent partisan divide, but it is his inheritance, not his creation.
The recent introduction of genuinely anti-Semitic Democratic legislators to the House, and the failure of the Democratic House leadership to squarely condemn their anti-Semitism, are certainly not Trump’s fault. The continued presence of the Jew-hating, Israel-bashing Omar on the House Foreign Relations Committee shows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s contribution to a loss of bipartisanship on Israel—not Trump’s.
Ken Cohen is editor of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.