Analysis

Meet Donald Trump’s Least ‘Disloyal’ Jews

Before Trump, the last thing a U.S. president working to win over American Jewry would do is embrace a Messianic Jew, but not anymore. Trump’s presidency has ushered in a new era for ‘Jews for Jesus’

US President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks to the press while departing the White House in Washington, DC, on August 23, 2019, for the G7 Summit in France.
AFP

The backlash in the American Jewish community was explosive after President Donald Trump praised and extensively quoted Wayne Allyn Root, described in the media as a conservative pundit and conspiracy theorist. The same day, Root appeared on “Fox and Friends” and dubbed Trump the “king of Israel.”

“President Trump is the greatest president for Jews … in the history of the world and the Jewish people in Israel love him like he’s the king of Israel,” Root said. “They love him like he is the second coming of God. But American Jews don’t know him or like him. They don’t even know what they’re doing or saying anymore. It makes no sense!”

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Root was defending Trump after the furious reaction to the president’s assertion that “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat – I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”

Mentioned but glossed over in favor of detailing Root’s numerous conspiracy theories was the fact that he was speaking as a Jew. “I’m a Republican Jew who loves and appreciates President Donald Trump,” he wrote in a column following the controversial tweet. On his Newsmax television show, he cited his Jewish bona fides: “I’m from two Jewish parents, four Jewish grandparents ... [I’m] Jewish as you get.” He said that a DNA test had determined that “I am 100% Jewish....or 99.9% Jewish, they couldn’t identify the other .1%.”

But in fact, Root is a Messianic Jew, or, as he has described himself in the past, “a Jew turned evangelical Christian.”

Wayne Allyn Root (left) and former Republican congressman Bob Barr talk to their supporters for the Libertarian Presidential nomination, May 2008.
Will Powers / AP

Before the Trump administration, the last thing a U.S. president working to win over the Jewish community would do is cite the views of a Messianic Jew, particularly one using the phrase “second coming of God” (since Jews do not believe that there was a first coming in the form of Jesus). Every Jewish denomination has rejected the assertion that ethnic Jews who accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and the son of God remain Jewish. Many regard the concept of Messianic Judaism as a manipulative method of proselytizing and converting Jews to Christianity. The battle over whether Messianic Jews – also known as “Jews for Jesus” – should be permitted to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return has been waged for decades in Israeli courts.

“Supporting one’s positions relating to Jews and Israel from those whose theology is a threat to Jewish integrity and theology is obviously highly problematic,” says Rabbi David Rosen, director of international interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee. “Those who describe themselves as Messianic Jews or Hebrew Christians are purposely seeking to confuse the clear difference between Judaism and Christianity. They are to a large degree, part of a eschatological agenda of the End of Days, one that sees Jews either being converted to Christianity or being annihilated. And that is hardly a savory prospect for Jews.”

But Trump and his White House, which is more enthusiastically supported by and closely bound to evangelical Christian organizations than any preceding administration, hasn’t hesitated to include and embrace Messianic Jews, who are part of that evangelical community. While there is no data on the specific voting patterns of Messianic Jews, anecdotal evidence that they hew to the same political views as their evangelical fellow travellers points to the fact that they are among the most “loyal” Jews Trump can find.

The connections began to form early on. At a campaign event in his office at the Trump Tower in September 2015, Trump met with 40 evangelical pastors and televangelist broadcasters. A video was released of all 40 of the clergy blessing him, laying their hands on his shoulders and arms as he held onto a Bible. Among them was Messianic Rabbi Kirt Schneider.

In the video, Schneider places his hand on Trump’s face, fingers spread, and declares, “The only two nations that have ever been in a relationship with God are Israel and the United States of America.”

Donald Trump meets with 40 evangelical pastors and televangelist broadcasters at Trump Tower in 2015

After giving a priestly blessing in Hebrew, Schneider said, “Father, if you gave Solomon the wisdom to govern his people, if you exalt this man to the highest office in this land, Father, we pray for wisdom that you be glorified … in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

The event was part of an effort to convince the wider evangelical Christian community to support a thrice-divorced former casino owner like Trump – not the typical profile of a politician that would appeal to their demographic. The effort ultimately paid off. After vowing to support the evangelical leaders’ agenda and making Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, his running mate, Trump became the Republican candidate to receive the highest percentage of evangelical votes.

Jay Sekulow speaks at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., October 23, 2015.
Steve Helber / AP

The closest Messianic Jew to Trump is undeniably Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s personal attorneys for more than two years and a familiar face on cable television vigorously defending the president.

Sekulow, who wrote a personal account of his spiritual path on the Jews for Jesus website in 2005 (“How a Jewish Lawyer From Brooklyn Came to Believe in Jesus”), came to Trump as a celebrity legal warrior for conservative Christian causes. The Messianic Jew is affiliated with Jews for Jesus and has served on its national board and as its general counsel. He argued and won a landmark case on behalf of the group before the Supreme Court in 1987. He is currently the chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian activist organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.

Commenting on Sekulow’s rise to prominence at Trump’s side, conservative columnist Jonathan Tobin wrote in Haaretz, “though heresy is an outdated concept outside of the ultra-Orthodox world, Messianics are still considered beyond the pale and a threat, winning gullible converts with false advertising and misleading theology. Coming to terms with Sekulow means being willing to accept that pro-Israel Messianics and their evangelical allies are politically if not religiously kosher.”

Another landmark moment for Messianic Jews took place after 11 worshippers were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year. At a political rally in Michigan ahead of the midterm elections, and two days after the gunman declared all Jews should die and opened fire at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue – the worst attack on Jews in US history – Vice President Mike Pence invited a rabbi onstage to say a prayer for the victims. That rabbi turned out to be Loren Jacobs, a prominent figure in the Messianic Christian movement and the leader of the Shema Israel congregation. At the event, he invoked “Jesus the Messiah.”

“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God and Father of my Lord and Savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and Father too,” Jacobs said as part of his prayer.

Messianic Jewish leaders were quick to predict and capitalize on what they saw as a new era of political empowerment and acceptance with Trump in the White House. In April of 2016, less than four months after Trump’s inauguration, the Alliance for Israel Advocacy was founded as an arm of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. Its stated goal: to lobby against the two-state solution, and promote a single Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

Paul Liberman, the group’s executive director, declared at its founding that “A two-state solution is contrary to the Bible,” and that Palestinians “are sojourners” in a country “promised to the Jewish people.”

Since its founding, the group has worked to promote legislation in Congress that would see the U.S. participate in offering Palestinians financial incentives to emigrate. In an interview with the website The Intercept, Liberman said the group hoped to help “change the demography of the West Bank towards an eventual annexation.”

Liberman told The Intercept that as part of his efforts to get a bill formally introduced in Congress, he had “met with key administration figures, including Tom Rose, a close adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; Jason Greenblatt, the president’s chief adviser on issues pertaining to Israel; and Victoria Coates, an official with the National Security Council, among others.”

And this past April, the Christian website Israel Today reported that the Messianic Jewish Alliance and its advocacy arm were included in a Christian pro-Israel event hosted at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in South Florida. The article quoted the organization’s executive director Joel Chernoff as saying, “To my surprise, there was great interest in who we were and even awareness of our efforts with a One State Solution and Opportunity Grant Bill we are introducing to Congress.” According to Israel TodayChernoff also said, “promises were made to ‘walk’ the OSS into the President [Trump] to make sure he understands it and has it at the ready for his soon-to-be-revealed Peace Plan.”

There is no evidence of any connection between this ongoing campaign by Messianic Jews and the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has revived the idea of encouraging and even financing the emigration of Palestinians. But regardless of whether the current Israeli government defines Trump loyalists like Root and Liberman as Jewish, at least politically, they are on the same page.

When it comes to Messianic Jews, the Israeli and American Jewish right wing seem to have come to the same conclusion as the columnist Tobin when he contemplated the idea of Jay Sekulow being one of Israel’s most prominent advocates.

Tobin wrote that breaking the “Messianic taboo” was “not only a political necessity but entirely sensible. Messianics may continue to make most Jews uncomfortable. But in a world where anti-Semitism and BDS are on the rise, Israel can’t pick its friends.”