Opinion

Who Really Pushed Trump on Jerusalem: The Christians or the Jews?

It seems obvious to liberal U.S. Jews that Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital to curry favor with their biggest bogeymen: Major Jewish Republican donors and his faithful evangelical base. Obvious, but wrong

Faith leaders place their hands on the shoulders of U.S. President Donald Trump as he takes part in a prayer for those affected by Hurricane Harvey. White House, Washington D.C. September 1, 2017
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files

Even before President Donald Trump issued his statement last week recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, critics of the move damned it as motivated only by politics.

The list of those being arraigned for influencing Trump and disregarding the views of the foreign policy establishment, America’s European and Arab allies and Israeli opponents of the Netanyahu government, isn’t long.

To really understand the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22, 2017.
RONEN ZVULUN/AFP

Front and center are major Jewish donors to the Republican Party like billionaire casino owner and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson and evangelical Christians. They stand accused of pushing the president to overturn a stand that stood for decades and thereby encouraging violence and endangering the chances for peace.

Liberal Jewish critics of Trump are infuriated not just because of the alleged derailing of a peace process (that was already dead in the water), but also because they see the influence of people like Adelson as a misrepresentation of mainstream American Jewish opinion.

They also view the tolerance of the evangelical push for Israel as a dangerous flirtation that ignores the true motives of these allies and compromises the ability of American Jews to stand up to conservative Christians on social issues.

The problem for those who despise Trump is that their opinion of his intellect and judgment is so slight that they rarely bother to ponder whether his choices are the product of anything more than the most superficial and venal factors.

Protesters against Trump's Jerusalem decision chant slogans against America and Israel as they wave Turkish and Palestinian flags on December 10, 2017 during a demonstration in Istanbul
AFP PHOTO / YASIN AKGUL

For all of his manifest flaws, Trump’s decision was far more a product of his distrust of experts, and a willingness to break with the past on virtually any issue, than of a desire to curry favor with donors or his base. While Trump is no deep thinker about policy, it is an error to believe his views are solely a matter of momentary political advantages or currying favor with friends. As he has consistently shown, being popular is not a priority for this president.

Liberal Jews like to demonize Adelson perhaps even more than the evangelicals, but it’s likely that he looms larger in their thoughts than in those of the president. Trump is far less dependent on big givers than any of his predecessors, Republican or Democrat, both because of his own wealth and the ad hoc manner with which he conducted his campaign, which was more like a concert tour than a sophisticated 21st century political operation.

At the heart of Trump’s mindset is his profound antagonism to the Washington establishment on just about any issue. His instincts can often get him into trouble, but on the Middle East, they have steered him in the right direction.

His refusal to listen to the usual suspects directing U.S. strategy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the conventional wisdom they spout, stems from a belief that it is vital that the U.S. avoid repeating the mistakes made by Clinton, Bush and Obama.

A Palestinian youth flashes the V-sign for "victory" during Friday prayers in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City on December 8, 2017
AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI

Recognizing reality about Jerusalem and putting more pressure on the Palestinians, rather than Israel, may make no sense to the establishment. But it makes sense to most conservatives and to Trump, and he didn’t have to bribed with donations or votes to lead him to that conclusion.

The statement on Jerusalem may be a case of Trump ticking off one of the campaign promises Steve Bannon listed on his whiteboard. But it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is now counting on Jewish conservatives or the pro-Israel community to enlist in Trump’s base as part of a quid pro quo transaction.

Yet the debate about Jerusalem has also illustrated a schism within the Jewish community about evangelicals that tells us more about Jewish politics than Christian intentions.

There are evangelicals whose views about the Middle East are primarily motivated by supersessionist theology and bringing on the rapture. But the comfort level of Jewish conservatives with an alliance with right-wing Christian groups is no betrayal of Jewish interests.

US President Donald Trump speaks alongside Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, December 7, 2017
AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

Evangelical affection for Israel is genuine and rooted far more in their belief in the binding authority of the bible than in eschatological scenarios in which a war might bring on Armageddon. Moreover, the notion that Jews should spurn Christian support because of what they might happen after a rapture Jews believe won’t happen, is illogical.

Evangelicals were far more ardent in their advocacy on Jerusalem than Jewish groups. But while there is nothing Trump could possibly do to win over liberal Jews, most mainstream Jewish groups welcomed his decision.

While some, like the Reform movement, voiced "concern" about Trump’s decision, the support it got from most of the organized Jewish world (including those representing Conservative Judaism, which normally agrees with Reform on Israel), was because they still regard Jerusalem as a consensus issue rather than one, like West Bank settlements, that is a source of division.

Nor are they overly worried about evangelical influence on Trump, since they rightly understand that an alliance with conservative Christians on Israel doesn’t preclude them from voicing differences on domestic issues.

Debates about the impact Trump’s move will have on a conflict that is no more likely to be solved by his approach than that of his predecessors, and whether Jews should work with evangelicals, will continue. But left-wing assumptions about what made the president do it shows how little they understand the way this administration and the mercurial personality at its head, operates.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin