The Irrelevant Pantomime of Trump’s 'pro-Israel' GOP Platform

Trump’s candidacy offers Jews insult and offense. But that won’t stop the GOP trying to push the Israel card, the perennial red herring of the U.S. Jewish vote, to curry favor with donors.

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Donald Trump speaking at the 2016 AIPAC conference in Washington on March 21, 2016.
Donald Trump speaking at the 2016 AIPAC conference in Washington on March 21, 2016. Credit: Evan Vucci, AP
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Why is this U.S. presidential election different from all other (recent) U.S. presidential elections? Because this time (almost) no one is talking about Jews turning Republican

The bizarre dance between Donald Trump and his white supremacist supporters -up to and including his use and defense of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes and symbols such as the infamous Star of David-Hillary Clinton tweet and his inexplicable delay in renouncing the support of ex-KKK Grand Wizard David Duke - has taken care of that. 

Sure, there are some diehards. The increasingly discreditable Rudy Giuliani came back from a trip to Israel insisting that “the members of the Israeli government at the highest levels” had told him they supported Trump for president, because, among other reasons, “they know” that if elected, Hillary Clinton is “going to start the two-state solution thing again, cave in to the Palestinians. They realize Donald Trump can say Islamic terrorism, can stand up to it. So there’s no question he would be better for the State of Israel than Hillary.”

The Netanyahu government was quick to deny this, as the rules of diplomacy insist it must. Given the respective reputations of both the former New York City mayor and the current prime minister of Israel, it’s anyone’s guess who is lying. (My guess: both.)

But it really doesn’t matter. With the possible, crucial exception of Sheldon Adelson,  Bibi’s views on the election, no matter how subtly signaled - a first, one must admit, were it the case, for Netanyahu - it’s going to be a terrible year for Jews voting Republican.

As for virtually every voter who does not identify as a white male Christian without a college education, Trump’s candidacy offers almost exclusively insult and offense to Jews.

Sure, there has been the typical pandering. Trump paid Jews the ultimate tribute from his standpoint, not only praising their negotiating prowess at one meeting,  but actually sticking to his teleprompter script at AIPAC;  something he could not even manage at the Republican convention. But one peak pandering that was misconceived from the start (despite Trump and Giuliani’s best efforts) is the policy on Israel. The GOP, as with so many issues, has been captured by right-wing extremists on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least when judged by the views of most Americans and most American Jews.

Contrary to the AIPAC-approved line, the Republican party’s platform no longer supporters a two-state solution, implicitly supporting Netanyahu’s unspoken and in America, extremely unpopular, vision of endless occupation and march in the direction of Jewish-ruled Bantustans for the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Trump cannot even keep this position straight: He sometimes argues that the U.S. must be “neutral” in the conflict, which is a code word for pressuring Israel to make concessions for peace.

Still, Israel is not what matters to most American Jewish voters who, themselves, do not matter much to the final outcome. As the success of the left-leaning J Street demonstrates, the media have long overestimated the important of a hawkish stance on Israel to Jewish voters, just as they have simultaneously overestimated the importance of the so-called “Jewish vote” itself. 

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Jews make less than two percent of American voters. Compared to Protestants (51.3 percent), Roman Catholics (23.9 percent) and “no religion” (16.1) they are statistically insignificant.   

Of this tiny percentage, a similarly small percentage, around 7 percent, put Israel at the top of their list of voting concerns. According to Pew’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, fewer than half of American Jews believe caring about Israel to be an “essential” part of their Jewish identities, while 44 percent believe it to be “important but not essential.” 

The trend among Jews is almost certainly towards a critical distance toward Israel. A quarter of Jews aged 18 to 29 polled believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel, a number that, thanks to the behavior of the current far-right Israeli coalition toward both Palestinian and non-Orthodox Jews, is likely to have accelerated already. When the media lazily equates a candidate’s appeal to Jews to the degree of their “pro-Israel” rhetoric, they are badly behind the times in terms of actual Jewish concerns and voting behavior.

Leaving their relative insignificance as a voting bloc aside, the Trump campaign can forget it: Jews are going to continue to cleave to the more liberal candidate in virtually every national and statewide race. (Local votes can be an exception and turn on more parochial concerns.) Ever since the late Milton Himmelfarb quipped that "Jews earn like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans,” Jewish neoconservatives have been predicting a political exodus from the benighted land of Democrats, with their pro-Palestinian constituencies toward the Israel-loving Republicans, enthralled by Israel via evangelicals awaiting the Rapture. 

Back in 1967 Himmelfarb writing, in Commentary wondered, “Are Jews Still Liberals?” Indeed, they were. We heard the same arguments following Nixon’s 1972 landslide in which the Jewish vote for the Democrats exceeded that of non-Jews by a factor of about 2-1, and again in 1981 when Ronald Reagan did a little bit better with Jews than Republicans do, but like Nixon, lost them in a landslide to a candidate who himself, lost the rest of America in a landslide.

The yearning went on and on. In 2008, former Commentary editor-in-chief Norman Podhoretz asked, in book-length form, Why Are Jews Liberals?  His answer was: They remained confused about their place in society as well as who the true American political friends of Israel were. If so, Donald Trump is helping to extend and deepen that liberal ‘confusion’ for another election cycle at least. 

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has proven more willing to kowtow to the views of the ‘pro-Israel’ community than Barack Obama. Her representatives even succeeded in keeping the word “occupation” out of the Democratic Platform, despite efforts by Sanders delegates to sound more even-handed. 

This disagreement, which excited many in the media, would likely have little impact on Jewish voters, few of whom ever heard about it and if they did - many would side with the Sanders team. 

The reason it mattered, sad to say, is that given the corruption built into the U.S. election system, Jewish funders--especially those informally directed by AIPAC--play close attention to this type of thing, and politicians must answer to them. Trump still has Sheldon Adelson, who has apparently satisfied himself that Trump has fallen in line on Israel just as Newt Gingrich did before receiving Adelson’s largesse four years ago. The casino magnate is good for about $100 million this time around and perhaps another billionaire or two may kick in as well.

But the Israel card is a red herring. Thanks in equal measure to their enduring liberalism, and that weird attraction of Donald Trump to anti-Semitic white supremacists and vice-versa, Hillary Clinton will have the Jews, and by a landslide.

For the Republicans, there’s always 2020.

Eric Alterman is CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, media columnist for The Nation, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Follow him on Twitter: @Eric_Alterman

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