(September 21, 2018 / JNS) According to various reports, including a published paper by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump “has not hidden its frustration” that its “pro-Israel steps … have not been met with appropriate recognition and gratitude from many American Jews.”
That the notoriously thin-skinned president would be sore about the fact that most American Jews aren’t cheering his policies, especially the long sought move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is hardly surprising. Trump looks at his position through a uniquely personal prism. He views positively those who praise him—even if they happen to be foreign dictators of hostile nations—and is willing to heap as much abuse as can be contained in a tweet or a line in a speech on anyone who criticizes him.
So the fact that the American Jewish community has largely ignored a series of decisions that are arguably the most favorable to Israel of any American president in the country’s 70-year-history is bound to rankle Trump. But while Israelis and American Jewry can seek to break down barriers and educate the two communities about each other, there is no cure for partisanship.
This may be disappointing to Trump, who may have actually labored under the delusion that Jewish Democrats would acclaim his reversal of the policies of President Barack Obama, as well as those of previous presidents. It’s also frustrating for most Israelis, who judge Trump by the same standard they’ve applied to every previous American president, which is to say, whether he consistently backs them or, like Obama, had a more even-handed approach to the Jewish state’s conflict with the Palestinians and other antagonists like Iran.
Of course, Jewish Democrats aren’t upset about the idea that Trump will take their unwillingness to cheer his policies personally. In fact, that’s exactly what they’d like him to do. Most of the arguments we’re hearing from them center on the idea that he is a threat to democracy. Substantial critiques of the embassy move or other measures that are intended to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for their support for terrorism and refusal to seriously negotiate peace are clearly secondary.
Of course, some on the left did oppose the embassy move and regard as his clear tilt towards Israel’s positions as unhelpful to peace and damaging to Israel’s long-term security and well-being, even if those positions are out of step with the views of the clear majority of Israeli voters.
But there’s also little doubt that a substantial portion of American Jewry is wholeheartedly supportive of the “resistance” to Trump and regard him as beyond the pale, rendering agreement on issues such as Israel irrelevant.
While Trump is certainly different from any previous president and has, in substantial ways, coarsened American political discourse in aspects that are deeply troubling, the notion that the disconnect between his administration and most Jewish voters is primarily about his character is not backed up by the facts. Jewish opposition to Trump may be more passionate and personal than that directed at previous Republican presidents. But the record does simply not back up the idea that Jews would have rewarded his predecessors had they acted as he did.
The level of Jewish support for the past several presidents has always been primarily a function of party label, not policies towards Israel.
A look at the last few Republican presidents shows that the pro-Israel stands of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did not win them many Jewish votes.
Reagan may have set a modern record in 1980 for a Republican in terms of the percentage of Jewish votes with 39 percent. But that still put him behind President Jimmy Carter, even if the latter never forgave the Jewish community for this result. But by 1984, when Reagan won re-election in a landslide, the Jewish vote for the GOP was back down to 31 percent.
George W. Bush was widely criticized for being too pro-Israel, but when he ran for re-election in 2004, he still only received 24 percent of the Jewish vote, with Democrats objecting vociferously to Republican efforts to draw attention to his policies.
By contrast, Barack Obama was the least popular president among Israelis because of his criticisms of their government and willingness to appease Iran. But the overwhelming majority of American Jews never wavered in their support for him, as well as for the 2015 nuclear deal.
The only real variable in the Jewish vote has been when a Republican is viewed as hostile to Israel, as was the case with President George H.W. Bush. He got 35 percent of the Jewish vote in 1988, but only 11 percent in 1992 since his hostility to Israel caused more than half of those Jews who normally vote Republican to dump him. That’s because—in contrast to Democrats who tend to view domestic issues as their priority—most Jewish Republicans really do regard Israel as a litmus test.
While many in both parties pay lip service to the concept of a bipartisan pro-Israel coalition, that has never motivated Democrats to back a Republican because of his stands on the Jewish state or to punish a president from their own party who strayed from that consensus. In an age of hyper-partisanship, the majority of Jews who are Democrats are always going to oppose even the most gentlemanly pro-Israel Republican, as they have Trump.
So as much as Trump may regard American Jews as ungrateful—and most of them, in turn, want him to know how much they hate him—this situation is merely an exaggerated version of the same political equation that’s been in place for decades. Though the president may not be able to view it this way, it’s not as personal as both he and his critics think it is.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.