Analysis

Israel’s Rash Embrace of Trump Accelerates the Jewish Schism

Netanyahu’s silence on Trump’s white nationalism tells American Jews that Israel stands with their enemies

Demonstrators hold signs and shout during a rally outside of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 14 , 2017.
Demonstrators hold signs and shout during a rally outside of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 14 , 2017. Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

The erosion of American Jewish solidarity with Israel didn’t start with Donald Trump. The identification of the Jewish community with the Jewish state reached a zenith in the 1967 Six-Day War and has been going downhill ever since, in spurts and bursts. While Israel continued to enjoy the support of an overwhelming majority of American Jews, divisions about peace, the occupation, religious pluralism and Israel’s increasingly right-wing character grew steadily. When the presidency of Barack Obama pitted his adoring Jewish supporters against a right-wing Jewish establishment and an Israeli prime minister that reviled him, many people thought the rupture couldn’t get worse. But that was before anyone imagined that Trump could be elected president. 

Trump is different. His tenure could be a quantum leap, from strife to schism. Jewish liberals and doves may have detested George Bush and conservatives and right-wingers may have despised Barack Obama, but no U.S. president in the modern era has sparked such widespread fear and loathing in the American Jewish community as Trump. For many Jews, Trump is the worst thing that has happened to America in their lifetimes. Their fear, hostility and revulsion are so strong that they encompass not only Trump but anyone who seems to comfort and support him, to give him aid and succor, to be blind to his awfulness, which seems so obvious to his detractors. That includes Trump’s Jewish friends and supporters in the U.S. as well as the State of Israel, which has embraced him.

Israel’s tepid reaction to the neo-Nazi show of force and violence in Charlottesville is a case in point. It casts Israel as a country that continues to curry favor with Trump despite his flirtation with anti-Semitic scum. It portrays Netanyahu as a leader willing to sacrifice American Jews in exchange for continued support for his policies and for the occupation. It sullies Israel's image, perhaps irrevocably, among the 70 percent of American Jews who preferred Hillary Clinton even before it turned out that Trump would be a worse president than anyone could have imagined.

As if it didn’t have enough excusing and explaining to do, Israel’s support for Trump renders it complicit by association as well. When it comes on top of 50 years of occupation, the Orthodox monopoly in Israel that rejects and humiliates Reform and Conservative Jewry and the deterioration of democratic norms in Israel in recent years, Israel’s identification with Trump proves its guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The disgust that many Jews are feeling towards Trump is spilling over now into whatever remained of their goodwill towards Israel as well. If Trump is a perpetrator, then Israel is a collaborator. As time goes by, the two will fuse completely.

A left-wing government in Israel might also have steered clear of confronting the U.S. president head on, but its actions could be easily excused as realpolitik. The support shown by Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition, on the other hand, seems to confirm their detractors’ worst accusations and their sympathizers' secret suspicions. Trump is seen as an authoritarian, ultra-nationalist rabble-rouser who preys on people's fears, incites against Muslims and immigrants and is disdainful of democracy and the rule of law. Netanyahu and his cohorts are increasingly seen as the exact same thing. 

Even the suspicion that Trump is an anti-Semite to one degree or another has rubbed off on Netanyahu. Israel has been shamefully reticent to call out Trump on the anti-Semitism that permeated his election campaign, on his Holocaust-denying refusal to mention Jews as the main victims of Nazi extermination or on his recent effort to whitewash the racist neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. In fact, the animosity shown by Netanyahu along with right-wing and Orthodox Jews in Israel towards liberal, cosmopolitan, universalist Jews - who are perennially funded, it seems, by either George Soros or the New Israel Fund - is strikingly similar to the kind of anti-Jewish bile spouted by Jew-haters around the world, from David Duke to Viktor Orban.

The delineation between the two opposing Jewish camps has never seemed clearer. On one side we have Netanyahu, many of his colleagues, the pro-settler lobby, an unfortunate proportion of Orthodox Jews, supporters of Jewish settlements, Obama-and/or Muslim-hating Israelis along with hyper-hawks and ultranationalists such as Sheldon Adelson. On the other side there are Israeli doves along with American Jewish liberals, Reform and Conservative Jews and other Trump-haters. And increasingly it seems that never the twain shall meet.

Israel’s willingness to embrace Trump above and beyond the call of duty is alienating large chunks of the American Jewish community. Those that supported Israel wholeheartedly are beginning to question themselves, those who had been harboring doubts all along have reached a guilty verdict and those who are sitting on the wall certainly won’t come down in Israel’s favor now or anytime in the future.

Emotions run high in times of conflict. When people fear for their country or for their wellbeing or for the safety of their love ones, there is scant room for moderation and nuance. In the era of Trump, the main question on the minds of his critics is the one Joshua asked when he met God’s emissary: Are you with us or with our enemies? By standing so firmly and so recklessly with Trump, Israel is telling American Jews exactly where it stands: With their enemy.