The allegation that Jews are inherently “disloyal” is a basic building block of anti-Semitism. It has served Jew-baiters since the dawn of civilization, when Pharaoh worried in the Book of Exodus that his Hebrew slaves “may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”
Incitement against disloyal Jews fueled the first pogrom in Alexandria in the first century C.E. It has remained a potent mainstay of Jew-haters throughout 2,000 years of Jewish exile and persecution, taking center stage in the Dreyfus affair, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the lethal Nazi battle cry against a Jewish “knife in the back.”
When Jews are accused of “disloyalty”, their ancient genes, evolved over generations of suffering, send alarm bells ringing to warn of an impending calamity. When the disloyalty trope is voiced by the president of the United States, ostensibly the most powerful man alive, the shockwaves jolting American Jews are immeasurably stronger. Their anxiety reaches fever pitch, despite -- or possibly because -- it is the most vibrant and successful diaspora in Jewish history.
Which is why Donald Trump’s words to reporters in the White House on Tuesday night constitute such a watershed event. The U.S. president’s claim that Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal shook American Jewry to its very core and forged a new and distressing landscape. All of Trump’s suspect statements in the past about Jewish expertise in counting cash or their penchant for buying presidential candidates with money, along with his ongoing aid and succor to white supremacist movements laced with anti-Semitism, pale in comparison to his floating of an age-old smear about the ingrained treachery of rootless “cosmopolitan” Jewish minorities.
In the wake of the fierce reaction to his statement, Trump defended himself on Wednesday with a twitter-storm that poured even more fuel on the fire. He embraced the ecstatic depictions of a conservative commentator who dubiously asserted that Trump is regarded in Israel as king and even messiah. The U.S. President lauded Israeli Jews for their wisdom and berated their American cousins for their shortsighted rejection of his divine benevolence.
Trump showed that he is eager to leverage Israel in order to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and its Jewish supporters and donors. He obviously couldn’t care less about the future of bipartisan support, hitherto seen as a bedrock of the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States.
For a handful of Jewish votes and a fistful of their dollars, Trump is trying to poison relations between Jews and the party that best represents their values and ideals, a party that supported Israel when Republicans still viewed it as an impediment to America’s lucrative links to Arabian oil. Trump’s endeavor is bound not only to fail miserably and actually drive even more Jews into the arms of his detested rivals, but in the meantime, he will have injected even more poison into the already ailing ties between U.S. Jews and Israel.
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The incident, far graver than any of its precedents, exacerbates an already tense relationship between liberal Jews and their president, pushing it closer to the abyss. It sparks an ugly and divisive internal confrontation between the liberal Jewish majority, which is crying foul, and the conservative right-wing Jewish minority, which is defending Trump by brandishing his supposedly pro-Israel policies. Less than five years after U.S. media celebrated the “Golden Age” of the most successful, accepted and even admired Jewish community in 2,000 years of exile, U.S. Jews are in distress, fearful about their future, their hitherto safe and secure world unbalanced by a resentful and spiteful president.
By implication and by virtue of the unprecedented symbiosis between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu -- highlighted only this week when Jerusalem opted to appease the president by nixing the visit of Muslim lawmakers Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib -- Israel will also suffer the consequences of Trump’s unabashedly anti-Semitic outburst.
Thus, the existing rift between the two pillars of modern Jewish existence could widen into an unbridgeable rupture.
And, moreover, it will degenerate into open hostility and complete alienation if the White House recruits Netanyahu, for the second time in a week, this time as Trump’s defense attorney against his public indictment as a hater of Jews. With less than a month left before pivotal Israeli elections in which Trump is one of his prime assets, Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to reject such a request, even if it casts him as turning his back on his own people.
Some of Trump’s fans will offer a backhanded defense of the president and try to calm Jewish jitters by alluding to his known tendency to talk and do nonsense with nary an aforethought. It’s a claim that is hard to contradict on a day on which Trump cancels a visit to Denmark because its leader won’t discuss his ludicrously delusional offer to buy Greenland.
Although his words sparked an immediate dumpster fire among U.S. Jews in particular and liberals in general, the exact meaning of the logic- and syntax-challenged president’s words were initially unclear. Exactly who are the roughly 80% of American Jews who vote for Democrats being disloyal to? Some ventured that given the U.S. president’s tendency to see himself as the sun around which the entire universe revolves, it stands to reason that Trump was talking about Trump. The ingrate Jews are being disloyal by spurning a president who defends Israel against evil-mongers such as Tlaib and Omar.
Trump clarified his words on Wednesday, saying that he was referring to “disloyalty to Israel,” which will make no one breathe easier. Jews are showing a lack of knowledge and loyalty to Israel, by voting for a party that is supposedly beholden to Israel’s enemies, Trump asserts.
It is a claim laced with bitter irony, which Trump will undoubtedly find hard to grasp: When a U.S. president castigates Jews for being disloyal to Israel, he is effectively absolving them of the “dual loyalty” charge, the U.S. derivative of the classic “disloyalty” libel, which last surfaced prominently in the wake of the apprehension of the Israeli spy in U.S. Navy headquarters, Jonathan Pollard.
Trump, whether by virtue of long-held prejudices he brought with him to the White House or later suggestions whispered in his ear, apparently accepted the anti-Semitic trope shared by both right and left that Jews owe their supreme loyalty to Israel and vote accordingly. Trump believed, or was led to believe, that if he displayed largesse towards the Jewish state and concurrently “proved” Democrat hostility, he would be generously rewarded by legions of appreciative Jews flocking to his side.
In Trump’s eyes, gestures such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan were supposed to overshadow and eclipse the liberal worldview of U.S. Jews, which has made them into harsh opponents of his policies on immigration, minorities, abortions, freedom of the press, the rule of law and ethics in government, to name but a few.
Hurling a blanket accusation of disloyalty is thus a reflection of Trump’s increasing frustration with U.S. Jews, who have failed to compensate him for his troubles. The promise that Jews would reward him turned out to be empty, and nothing infuriates Trump more than self-perception that he has been shown up as a patsy taken for a ride. And while his wrath currently seems to be exclusively focused on American Jews, it could be a harbinger of hidden rage to come against Israel -- especially if any of its lobbyists, representatives or leaders were the ones who persuaded the president that he would receive a generous Jewish bounty for his support.
Talmudic hairsplitting about the exact translation of Trump’s statements, however, won’t detract from the darkness of the hour. In the eyes of many if not most U.S. Jews, Trump has now evolved from a suspect accused of anti-Semitism into a felon convicted beyond any reasonable doubt. Their anger and frustration are compounded by the widespread perception that in their hour of need, the prime minister of Israel is siding with their defamer.
If Netanyahu does so, if he fails to extract himself from the deep pit that he dug himself and his country into, U.S. Jews will never forgive him. The verdict of Jewish history may be even harsher.