U.S. President Donald Trump is increasingly turning Israel into part of his 2020 reelection campaign, citing the Jewish state several times in his attacks this week on four Democratic legislators who are women of color.
Leading Jewish-American groups tried to distance themselves from the attacks, accusing Trump of using Israel for political purposes. Israeli officials, meanwhile, tried to ignore the controversy and to stay out of the heated U.S. debate.
At the same time, on Monday Trump’s Department of Justice organized a summit on combating anti-Semitism, attended by senior administration officials such as Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Issues such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the U.S. “campus battles” regarding Israel were at the forefront of the event. Critics pointed out that these issues were mentioned more frequently than far-right anti-Semitism — despite the fact that the two most prominent anti-Semitic attacks of the past year (Pittsburgh and Poway) were both committed by far-right extremists.
Several prominent, mainstream U.S.-Jewish groups did not attend Monday’s summit. Among them was The Anti-Defamation League, which is the leading organization devoted to tracking and fighting anti-Semitism, attended but did not have a formal speaking role — an unusual omission from a government event dedicated to the issue.
The organization’s spokesperson told Haaretz that “for decades, ADL has worked with the Department of Justice in fighting hate crimes and extremism of all kinds, including anti-Semitism. This is a collaboration we are sure will continue for years to come.”
Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, an Israeli academic who is affiliated with the right-wing Kohelet Policy Forum and legal efforts in support of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, was one of the speakers at the summit. His remarks focused on the fight against BDS, and he does not believe the event was political in nature.
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“The conference was an important opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism, and legal and enforcement issues related to it,” Kontorovich tells Haaretz. “Many forms and manifestations of anti-Semitism were discussed, including but not limited to campaigns to discriminate against Israelis in economic dealings.”
According to Kontorovich, “The notion that the conference was the product of some particular Trump administration agenda is baseless and dishonest. In recent years, the German and Canadian parliaments have concluded that BDS is anti-Semitic, as have French and Spanish courts and many U.S. state governments. For the Justice Department to hold an open forum looking into these issues is thus normal, professional activity.”
Watch, don’t speak
Critics of the administration claim that the event’s aim was to conflate left-wing criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, while minimizing the significance of anti-Semitism coming from far-right groups in the United States.
Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (a left-wing nonprofit devoted to promoting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), retweeted an article from right-wing website The Washington Free Beacon to stress that point. The article started with the following paragraph: “The Trump administration is working on multiple fronts to investigate and combat a rising tide of anti-Semitism in America that top officials warned is spreading across the country via a network of far left, anti-Israel activists, who seek to mainstream hatred against Jews at the nation’s college campuses and elsewhere.”
Friedman, a former State Department official, tweeted that “white supremacists are literally shooting up synagogues,” yet the Trump administration officials who spoke at the summit “want folks to believe the REAL threat is from people who challenge Israeli government and Trump Administration policy on Jerusalem.”
She was referring to DeVos’ speech, during which the education secretary mentioned Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
A story about the conference on Yahoo News was published under the headline “Anti-Semitism event at Justice Department turns into pro-Israel rally,” noting that “Trump went largely unmentioned at the event. ... Instead, speaker after speaker took aim at pro-Palestinian college activists, including those who support” BDS.
A senior official from one mainstream Jewish group told Haaretz Tuesday that several Jewish organizations received invitations to send representatives to “sit in the crowd and listen” to the panels, but not to speak or offer their own analysis.
“It’s important for the administration to hold a discussion on anti-Semitism, but this seemed more like a political event than a genuine discussion of anti-Semitism,” the official said. “Anti-Semitism is a real problem on the far-left — in America and in other countries. Our organization works hard against BDS, but you can’t have a serious discussion on anti-Semitism if that’s basically the only form of anti-Semitism you’re talking about.”
Kontorovich tells Haaretz that “the far left is reverse-projecting their agenda on this conference: They seek to immunize anti-Semitism from criticism as long as it comes with opposition to settlements.”
Yet the suspicion among the administration’s critics is that the summit, just like Trump’s tweets against the four Democratic congresswomen (Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), was aimed at focusing the anti-Semitism discussion exclusively on the left-wing opposition to Trump — something that could help his reelection campaign next year.
The key demographic
Ever since early 2019, Trump has been trying to define the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic. The current controversy may seem new, but Trump used the exact same playbook in February after Omar caused an uproar after accusing AIPAC — the strongest lobby group supporting Israel in the United States — of “buying” political influence.
Trump said Omar “should be ashamed of herself” and that her statement was “terrible.” After making several other statements against the freshman Minnesota congresswoman, Trump proceeded to widen his attack by declaring that the entire Democratic Party is “anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.”
While his criticism of Omar wasn’t unique — she was also denounced by mainstream Jewish organizations and senior members of her own party — Trump’s attack on the entire Democratic Party drew strong pushback from the Jewish community. After all, most U.S. Jews vote for the Democratic Party, and Democrats won close to 80 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2018 midterms.
Another reason why his wider accusations against the Democrats failed to gain traction is that there are many more elected Jews within the Democratic Party than within Trump’s own party. There are over 30 Jewish Democrats currently serving in the House or Senate, compared to only two Jewish Republicans (both of whom sit in the House of Representatives).
“Attacking Omar over her AIPAC comments was a no-brainer for Trump,” a Democratic congressional aide tells Haaretz. “But when he went further and claimed that the entire Democratic Party hates Israel and hates Jews, it was ridiculous. That’s an argument no one is going to buy.”
The same aide admitted, however, that Trump’s renewed efforts to focus attention on Omar and her three colleagues in “The Squad” could be more successful. “If he focuses just on how two or three lawmakers speak about Israel and the pro-Israel community, he could get the message through. If he goes on to claim that all Democrats hate Israel, he’s not going to convince anyone except his own die-hard fans,” the aide says.
On Tuesday, the Democrats stood united against Trump’s racist tweets by passing a House resolution denouncing the president. Four Republicans also backed their resolution. No one can predict whether Trump’s response to this will be to “double down” on the use of racist language, although it is interesting to note that a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll published Wednesday found that support for him among Republicans increased slightly following his racially charged attacks.
The poll showed his net approval among members of the Republican Party rising by 5 percentage points, to 72 percent, compared to the previous week. His overall approval rating stayed the same (41 percent) because of a drop in support among independents.
It’s clear, though, that no matter what he does next, Trump will continue to try to use Israel, and anti-Semitism, as wedge issues with which to attack his opponents.
Earlier this year, the president promoted a new organization called Jexodus (now called Exodus Movement), which aims to convince Jewish voters to turn their backs on the Democrats — partly by highlighting statements made by Omar and other members of “The Squad” regarding Israel. Yet the prospect of a major movement of Jewish voters toward Trump seems highly unlikely. In fact, between the 2016 election — in which the vast majority of Jewish voters supported his rival, Hillary Clinton — and the 2018 midterms, the Jewish vote only moved further into the Democratic column.
Yet Trump’s focus on Israel in his attacks on the Democrats, and the way his administration is trying to frame the discussion on anti-Semitism, could help him with a larger and more important constituency than American Jews: evangelical Christians.
Just last week, he sent five senior administration officials to speak before the annual conference of Christians United for Israel, the largest gathering of evangelical supporters of Israel to take place in Washington.
During their time in D.C., members of the organization met with their representatives in Congress, and one of their main priorities was pushing back against anti-Israeli activism on U.S. campuses — the same issue that dominated the anti-Semitism summit this week. (CUFI actually shared several links to Monday’s Justice Department event on its social media accounts.)
Trump’s efforts might not have a significant impact on how the Jewish vote eventually breaks down next year. But if they help him retain his high level of support among evangelicals, many of whom view support for Israel as a top political priority, that could be more than enough as he heads into the 2020 election.