(January 20, 2021 / JNS) For the past number of years, I have been conducting research on the attitudes of Jewish Americans towards Israel. The detailed results have been published and discussed, but there is one constant undercurrent that emerged in all the data collected: Liberal Jewish Americans (and that represents most) are concerned with, fearful of, and, to extreme degrees, loath Donald Trump. They doubt his sincerity, they question his stability and they see him as a source of hatred and incitement, even towards the Jewish community; yes, despite his being dubbed “the most pro-Israel president in history.”
After the events of what is now known as the U.S. Capitol riots, I again examined transcripts of various focus groups I conducted and reviewed correspondence with different Jewish American activists I had communicated with while doing my research. One underlying sentiment that I can see them all expressing now, and many would say they are right, is “we told you so.”
They said that under pressure the man could not be trusted. That his judgment is immature and juvenile. That he would incite people that are extremists and haters to act wildly. That he would abandon friends who helped him and that he would stop at nothing to stay in power. That they see a man whose language and behavior runs counter to all measures of derech eretz (proper behavior). They said that Donald Trump was unpredictable and uncontrollable. And they would all almost gleefully albeit still somewhat woefully look at many Israelis and now say, “we were right all along.”
But the enigma Jewish Americans represent to Israelis and the dilemmas created by the relationship of the community with Trump is deepened by the fact that this problematic personality, one whom almost everyone agreed was “different,” one who may have had a very flawed personal character and skewed moral stance, this strange individual actually promoted policies that were quite supportive of the Jewish state, although many liberal Jews would argue even that. What resulted was many more politically conservative Jews, and many Israelis and Israeli leaders, embracing not only the policies but also, unfortunately, and perhaps unwisely in retrospect, the person with the troubling personality.
Herein lies problem No. 1. The “we told you so” crowd, the mostly on-the-left Jewish Americans who reviled Trump, saw many Israelis and Israeli leaders express unbridled and adoring support for the man they considered an unrepentant symbol of divisiveness. Recognition of the Golan Heights and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem were actions met by Israelis not with a diplomatically proper “thank you, we appreciate your support,” but with a fawning and almost obsequious bear hug that focused less on policy and more on the flawed person who took credit for it.
These Israelis appeared to be supportive of Trump the person, something that so many Jewish Americans could not accept. So, while Americans will remember Trump as a man who was twice impeached and left office in ignominy, they will be able to look to Israel to find train stations named for him and villages created in his name.
Then we have the more serious and more consequential problem number two. Our data (as well as the data of other studies) consistently show that Jewish Americans are genuinely concerned about anti-Semitism. However, this concern is almost exclusively with anti-Semitism from the right, the type of anti-Semitism that Trump opponents blame him for fostering and nurturing.
The dangerous and real anti-Semitism of the left, associated with groups that often have a “social justice” cover, the anti-Semitism that is expressed as Israel-hatred and Israelophobia, is often ignored, underplayed and even excused. This very real danger that exists from certain circles within the left is likely to continue to be overlooked, in large part because of Trump’s legacy.
Because of the revulsion so many understandably feel for what happened at the Capitol and at the rally that preceded the attack, it will be more difficult to credibly raise concerns about the left when what is perceived as the right is cast as being responsible for what will undoubtedly be indelible images for some time to come. Never mind the notion that the 75 million Trump voters are all unrepentant racists and extremists is unsupported and utter nonsense.
And never mind the reality that so many demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd were dangerous and even anti-Semitic, a negative psychological label will, like the bells of Pavlov’s dogs, be firmly conditioned and set in place for people and issues perceived to come from the “right.”
For Israelis who remember the dark days following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, this is a déjà vu moment: the collective blaming, the polarization, the delegitimization of whole sectors of society because of the behavior of a single fringe individual seen as representing the ideology of many others.
Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, was the fringe representation of what was labeled an illegitimate ideology of incitement and hate, and his behavior colored how people saw nationalist Jews, especially those from the religious Zionist movement of which he was a part. Trump now gets to be the representation of a fringe movement of lawless anarchists who distrust government and distrust today’s America.
And just as Amir damaged the image of those who, like him, wore a kippah on their heads, so will the image of Trump’s Jewish and Israeli supporters be tinged with the distaste that so many Americans, and Jewish Americans, now have for him.
We know from Jewish history that when new leaders who “did not know Joseph” rise, Joseph’s people may be in trouble, and not necessarily because the new Pharaoh is evil in any way, but only because there are some different policies that weren’t considered or sufficiently prepared for. Too many Israelis and Israeli leaders may not have adequately considered what would happen not if, but when, a new Pharaoh takes the oath of office in the United States.
That is the problem with supporting the person and not the agenda. That was the problem with the worship-like adoration of Trump, the person. And that is the problem with promoting the agenda that pro-Israel activists who were identified with the “most pro-Israel president in history” may now have to face.
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in political psychology and an adjunct professor of psychology at Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has conducted studies on lone-wolf terrorism, the Jewish American community and on the behavioral aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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