In April 2007, Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Tommy Thompson sparked a storm when he told a group of Reform Jews, "I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know, that's part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that." Startled by the widespread backlash, Thompson tried to apologize: “I meant it as a compliment,” he said.
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Perhaps that is how Donald Trump viewed his blatant Jewish stereotyping at the Republican Jewish Coalition forum for presidential candidates on Thursday. “Is there anyone in this room who doesn't negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I've ever spoken,” he said, raising eyebrows - but being a negotiator, in Trump’s eyes, is the ultimate calling.
“You're not going to support me because I don't want your money,” he added, eliciting titters, but in Trump’s book that’s just prudent. Not long ago, in a GOP debate, Trump said that he himself only gives money to politicians in order to receive something in return. “When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. With Hillary Clinton, I said, ‘Be at my wedding,’ and she came to my wedding. You know why? She didn’t have a choice, because I gave,” Trump said in August.
So there were mitigating circumstances to Trump’s supposedly anti-Semitic comments. The post-Abe Foxman Anti-Defamation League actually – and rather curiously – issued a statement “exonerating” Trump of accusations of anti-Semitism. Perhaps it’s the kind of “insider jokes” that coarse New York Jews may have made in Trump’s boardrooms and he didn’t have the good sense to keep them to himself. In any case, his remarks about Jews are completely innocuous compared to depicting Mexicans as drug dealers, murderers and rapists or portraying Muslims as perpetual suspects who need to be registered and monitored.
Describing Jews as wily moneymen may be Trump’s way of saying he really likes us.
Trump’s Republican Jewish listeners, in any case, did not react. Their silence may be ascribed to tolerance, politeness, lethargy or even sophistication, if you prefer. A few minutes later, however, some of them were openly booing Trump. The real estate mogul’s listeners weren’t disturbed by the kind of Jewish stereotyping that former ADL director Abe Foxman routinely blasted as “pernicious” and which he still describes as an “anti-Semitic canard." They kept their calm even though Trump was slighting them personally, as if a room full of Republicans was necessarily comprised of acute businessmen on the market to buy a politician.
No, what got their gander up was that Trump refused to pay homage – or perhaps lip service is more appropriate – to their pie in the sky fantasy of “Jerusalem the eternal undivided capital of Israel.” That was when they booed, not when Trump was typecasting American Jews. Which is doubly ironic, because over the course of the last few weeks most people, American Jews and Israelis alike, have woken up from the daydream of a “united” Jerusalem. Reacting to the wave of unabated knifing attacks, even the Republican demi-god Benjamin Netanyahu sought to erect security barriers in the middle of Israel’s “eternal undivided capital” but was held in check by coalition colleagues to his right. But his refusal to perpetuate this “undivided” Jerusalem mythology was more provocative in their eyes than Trump’s hopefully clueless resuscitation of an anti-Semitic trope that traces its roots 2,000 years to Judas taking 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus.
Would the same thing have happened if Trump had spoken at a left-wing forum? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Republican right wingers have developed selective vision and selective hearing: their main, perhaps only focus is on Israel, or rather Netanyahu’s version of Israel, and the regional and international issues that influence Israel. Unlike leftists, right-wing Jews rarely bother themselves with gun control, abortions, immigration or church and state. Some of them actually hold positions that are diametrically opposed to mainstream GOP attitudes to the social issues of the day, but these are sacrificed for the greater good of greater Israel.
By the by, they may have lost some of the sensitivity to any whiff of anti-Semitism that Jews have acquired over generations of Diaspora existence. Perhaps their efforts to equate anti-Israeli positions and boycott moves with classic anti-Semitism have been so successful, that old-fashioned Jew-baiting seems anachronistic and innocuous to them. Perhaps they can’t detect it any more.
Left-wingers are a far more diverse bunch. Their antennas for racial slights and ethnic insults are still finely tuned. Even those who care deeply for Israel are also preoccupied with saving whales, fighting for minorities, cherishing the environment and embracing a host of other worthwhile issues. It’s one of the reasons why the Jewish right wing is advancing and conquering and annexing the Jewish world, in both Israel and in America, while the pro-Israel left wing, with a few notable exceptions, seems to be in constant retreat.
It gets even more exasperating when you consider the fact that none of the pledges and promises and platitudes that elicited such sustained applause at the Republican forum on Thursday are going to be kept, no matter who wins the elections. Will Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush really “shred” the Iran nuclear deal in their first day in office, as they promised on Thursday? Why, are they crazy? Does anyone really believe that any one of them will decide to launch their presidency with a move that would spark an immediate international uproar and possibly plunge the Middle East into a new and dangerous confrontation? Of course not, but the Jews are ready and willing to lap it up, so why not?
The same is true of that hackneyed cliché of a promise of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Ronald Reagan didn’t move the Embassy. George W. Bush didn’t move the embassy. And there are good reasons for that. No matter what campaign promises the candidates make, when any one of them will walk into the Oval Office, his advisers will advise him of the steep price the U.S. may have to pay in the Arab and Muslim world for the largely symbolic transfer of the embassy offices. This is not in the country’s best interests, the president will be told, and he or she will inevitably relent. They will sign the same semiannual waiver that their predecessors have signed since Congress legislated to move the Embassy twenty years ago and Obama approved once again only this week. At best, they will smile sheepishly at their Jewish supporters.
The candidates who make right-wing Jews happy with their empty undertakings are either cynical or naive: those who believe them are either gullible or delusional. In any case, in today’s Republican party, it’s a rite of passage that must be observed and those who refuse it, like Trump, are booed off the stage. If you slight the Jewish people, all is forgiven, but if you mess with our collective Jerusalem syndrome, it’s over. You’re toast.