Opinion

No Reasonable Right-wing Jew Can Now Say Trump Is Keeping Israel Safe

As the White House goes AWOL on the threat from Syria and Iran, Jewish Republicans’ attempt to justify their 'Trump is Israel’s best friend' mantra is just defensive and desperate nonsense

US President Donald Trump speaks during a National African American History Month reception in the White House. February 13, 2018.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP

I am sorry I missed the Republican Jewish Coalition’s National Leadership meeting in Los Vegas last week. From the reports I’ve read – it was a hoot. 

A small group of wealthy Jews spent their time in shameless groveling and sycophancy, declaring their allegiance to a Donald Trump that they don’t trust and a Sheldon Adelson whose money they desperately need. 

Their reported proclamations of loyalty to the President sounded strained, desperate, and defensive, as if they were trying to convince not only others but also themselves of the President’s commitment to Jewish interests and values. 

The wreckage of an Israeli jet brought down by Syrian anti-aircraft defenses on fire near Harduf, northern Israel. Feb. 10, 2018
Yehunda Pinto/AP

And in a wonderfully ironic twist of fate, the RJC’s supposed clincher – that Donald Trump is the best president for Israel ever – was undermined if not utterly decimated by outside events that occurred at the very time that the meeting was taking place, on Israel's northern border.

There aren’t all that many Jewish Republicans to begin with, and fewer than 25% of American Jews voted for Trump. Nonetheless, some Jews – and Orthodox Jews in particular – are attracted by the conservative social values of the Republican Party and its declarations of support for the State of Israel. 

In addition, Jewish plutocrats – like plutocrats of every religious and ethnic stripe – are drawn to the tax-cutting, pro-business policies of the party. And there are also politically-engaged, conservative Jews who see the Republican Party as the carrier of classical liberalism. And they embrace it because of its professed commitment to fiscal prudence, free markets, global engagement, and moral decency. 

Given the very modest numbers of Republican Jewish voters, the focus of the RJC has been on the wealthy businesspeople who can donate to Republican PACs and candidates and thereby multiply Jewish influence on Republican campaigns. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner and rightwing supporter of Israel, is the senior statesman of the RJC and one of its major donors. Its chairman is Norman Coleman, former Senator, former lobbyist for Saudi Arabia, and former chair of the Congressional Leadership Fund Super PAC. 

Much time at the meeting was spent lauding Adelson, even though he was unable to attend. With Democrats mobilizing energetically for the upcoming 2018 Congressional elections, RJC leaders are hoping that Adelson will contribute early and often to endangered Republican candidates, boosting the party and the RJC’s status.   

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answers a journalist's question during a news conference in Kuwait City, Kuwait, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018.
Jon Gambrell/AP

The big problem for the RJC, of course, is that Jews – even rich, Republican Jews – don’t much like Donald Trump.

The true conservatives among them are appalled by his fiscal profligacy, his extreme rhetoric, and his attacks on constitutional norms. They know that Jews thrive in stable, middle class societies.

But when the FBI, the Justice Department, and America’s free and independent press are continually subjected to threats and ridicule by the president of the United States, the stability upon which Jews depend for their well-being can no longer be assured.

As Glueck noted in her McClatchy article, Republican Jews of every sort were especially appalled by Trump’s waffling after the incident in Charlottesville. Six months later, the President’s "good people on both sides" comments continue to infuriate. Even the most virulent Obama and Hillary haters know that neither of these Democrats would ever utter such a sentiment. Nazis are Nazis, after all, and it is madness to say that "both sides" were to blame.    

It is true that after Charlottesville, the RJC issued a mild rebuke of the President. It is also true that many prominent RJC supporters chose to show their distaste for Trump by not attending the meeting. And some, speaking off-the-record, pointed out that President Trump’s style is "not a good fit" for Jewish Republicans. 

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, in Amman, Jordan. Feb. 14, 2018.
Raad Adayleh/AP

Nonetheless, the RJC basically functions as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, and there was never any possibility that it would distance itself from Trump or chart an independent course. Like the Republicans in Congress, it has decided that despite the reservations of even its own well-off donors, no action by Trump will be too reckless, too imprudent, or too extreme to shake its ties to the Republican mother ship.  For the RJC, Trump is its destiny. 

In the words of Norm Coleman, recalling perhaps the enthusiasm he once mustered for Saudi Arabia, Jewish Republicans are "thrilled" with the Trump administration after its first year.

And what is the major reason for their being "thrilled," despite the President’s fanaticism, the endless missteps, the affronts to Jewish values, the deepening racial divide, and the indifference to the rights and safety of women? The answer: Israel. Coleman and virtually every other RJC leader and member explained their support for Trump by emphasizing the U.S.-Israel relationship.

This claim is not totally without foundation. President Trump repaired strained ties with Israel, appearing to warmly embrace the Jewish state. And he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - a step that I supported.

But the problem is that this was mostly a charm offensive and not a substantive one. And if proof were needed, it arrived right in the middle of the RJC meeting, when Syrian forces, allied with Iran, brought down an Israeli fighter jet over Syria, and Iran sent a drone into Israeli airspace.  Israel responded aggressively with strikes against Syrian targets until a phone call from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin forced Israel to end its attacks. 

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry are seen during their news conference in Cairo, Egypt February 12, 2018.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

And what are the lessons here? That Putin is calling the shots in Syria, filling the vacuum created by American withdrawal. That Putin sided with Assad and the Iranians against Israel, while Trump said nothing and did nothing.  That an American spokesperson did no more than offer the obvious statement that Israel has a right to protect herself. That Putin is likely to support an Iranian presence in Syria in the future while limiting Israel’s freedom of action there.

That, as Ronen Bergman pointed out in the New York Times, the Americans and President Trump have no policy on Syria and the Middle East, no idea of what they hope to accomplish, and no understanding of Israel’s strategic needs in the north. 

And so my question for the RJC leadership is: How can you reasonably claim that President Trump is keeping Israel safe and defending her strategic interests? 

As a Jewish liberal, I welcome debate with serious Jewish conservatives who care about Jewish tradition, worry about Israel’s security, are committed to integrity in private and public life, and think hard about America’s role in protecting Israel and maintaining a just international order. 

My problem with the RJC is that it is not committed to any of these things.  What we saw in Los Vegas is that it is committed only to Donald Trump.  

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie