Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump made Tuesday his stunning charge that the about 80% of American Jews who vote Democrat are "disloyal," his assertion has been analyzed, discussed and parsed more thoroughly than any page of Talmud or portion of the Torah.
Trump's precise – and rather ungrammatical – quote, speaking in the Oval Office during an official meeting with Romania's president, was: "I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat – it either shows total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."
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Jewish organizations were quick to condemn the president's statement, which also inspired the trending hashtag on social media #DisloyaltytoTrump. It came at the end of a tirade against Trump's favorite nemeses of the moment, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, in which he delivered one of his favorite talking points, tying the whole of the Democratic Party to their position on Israel and the Jewish faith to support for the Israeli government.
With his choice of words, Trump upset Jews by even raising the specter of "disloyalty" – a long-standing pillar of anti-Semitic ideology and smears. But it was utterly unclear precisely to whom he was accusing Jews of being disloyal. Were they guilty of disloyalty to the United States? Disloyalty to Trump personally? Disloyalty to Israel? Disloyalty to the Jewish people? To themselves as Jews?
For Trump’s die-hard Jewish supporters on the right, the answer was instantly clear – the president was saying that allegiance to a party that embraced views like those held by Tlaib and Omar represented disloyalty to themselves as Jews and to the Jewish people. Trump loyalists, it seems, had no objection to a non-Jewish American president casting judgement on who is a bad and disloyal Jew and who is a good and faithful Jew – given that they essentially agree with his assessment.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, heavily funded by Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson, weighed in with the opinion that "President Trump is right, it shows a great deal of disloyalty to oneself to defend a party that protects/emboldens people that hate you for your religion."
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Israeli-American pundit and would-be Israeli politician Caroline Glick concurred, saying that "Trump wasn't calling American Jews disloyal to America but to their interests as Jews. And he's right."
As Glick and the RJC correctly interpreted Trump's statement, the U.S. president was essentially turning the traditional charge of "dual loyalty" against American Jews on its ear.
Normally Jews are accused by anti-Semites of betraying their country of citizenship, charged with being traitors for prioritizing their Jewish interests over their commitment to their native land. In the modern era, those tribal interests involve their allegiance to the Jewish state of Israel over that of their own nation, a charge which Tlaib and Omar have been accused of making.
But Trump, as his supporters see it, has been chastising Jews for being disloyal to their Jewish – not their American – Identities. As The Forward's opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon tweeted, "Here is the President of the United States with a classic anti-Semitic dual loyalty trope, suggesting Jews owe loyalty to Israel over America."
American Jewish historian Sara Hirschorn noted that "this is seemingly the first time in 400 years of American Jewish history where dual loyalty is actually demanded of the Jews."
So if Trump was invoking an anti-Semitic trope but while criticizing Jews for failing, not succeeding, to live up to the paradigm, is it still anti-Semitism? Yes, says Joshua Shanes, a Jewish Studies professor at the College of Charleston. "It is anti-Semitic for a non-Jew to accuse Jews of being bad Jews for their religious or political choices, whether for rejecting Christ or his second coming at 1600 Pennsylvania," Shanes declared emphatically.
The bottom line, Shanes believes, is that using "the highest bully pulpit in the land, accusing 80% of American Jews of 'great disloyalty' – gets Jews killed. When the vast majority of an ethnic group is accused by the president of being willfully ignorant or else willful traitors, that is dangerous anti-Semitism."
Ultimately, after a long evening of discussion around dinner tables and social media throughout Tuesday evening, on Wednesday morning it was Trump himself who pointed the way to the correct interpretation of his statement.
In his daily morning tweetstorm, Trump offered praise of Wayne Allan Root, a Jewish-born evangelical Christian and a conservative pundit, who had just appeared on the president’s favorite television show, "Fox & Friends," and quoted what Root had said at length: "President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world… and the Jewish people in Israel love him like he's the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God… But American Jews don’t know him or like him."
If endorsing this quote means that the president shares its underlying assumptions, we can conclude that Trump has internalized the worship of Israel's evangelical Christian supporters and Israeli citizens and officials who have repeatedly declared him Israel's savior and compared him to Persian King Cyrus, asserting that Trump is carrying out "God's will" and not merely pursuing policies in the Middle East that advance American interests.
Later on Wedensday Trump told reporters that by voting for a Democrat, "you're being disloyal to Jewish people and you're being very disloyal to Israel."
If Trump indeed, views himself as the "King of Israel," the issue of whom he is accusing the overwhelming number of American Jews of being disloyal to is moot. Such a perspective makes no differentiation or distinction between loyalty to the Jewish people, to Israel, to the United States, or its current President. What it does is characterize Democratic Jews who oppose Trump into ungrateful traitors, but apostates, too.