Jewish right-wingers will not be swayed. No matter how chaotic Donald Trump’s foreign policy or how incoherent his worldview, they insist on seeing in the president a love for Israel and an affection for Jews for which no evidence exists.
Or hardly any. It is true that he moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, a symbolic but significant step deserving of praise. And it true too that he has ordered a stiff defense of Israel at the United Nations.
But these actions, praiseworthy but limited, cannot explain his cult-like grip on his Jewish right-wing supporters, both here and in Israel.
The man who has mesmerized his non-Jewish "base" has done the same for most Jewish Israelis and about a quarter of American Jews. And he has done so despite a spotty record on relations with Jews and a terrible record on maintaining Israel’s strategic position in the world.
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There are, it seems to me, at least four immediate reasons why Donald Trump has been a disaster for Israel and the Jews.
The current government shutdown, referred to in the press as the "Ann Coulter shutdown," is the best evidence of this phenomenon. Initially reluctant to close down the government, Trump changed his mind after Coulter called him "gutless" on the far-right Breitbart website. Supposedly furious, Trump nonetheless proceeded to do exactly what Coulter demanded.
Coulter is a vicious, profane, conservative troll, and there are many reasons why the President of the United States should not look upon her as the primary arbiter of Republican values. And prominent among them is her long history of making anti-Jewish and anti-Israel comments.
During the 2016 campaign, for example, angry that a Republican debate was focusing on Israel issues, she tweeted, "How many f----ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?" And in an interview last week, Coulter said that if Trump did not build the wall there would be no reason to vote for him, other than "(t)o make sure, I don’t know, Ivanka and Jared can make money. That seems to be the main point of the presidency at this point."
Nice. And this is the woman that President Trump sees as best able to interpret the wishes of the Republican base.
The events of the past week - especially the decision on the Syrian withdrawal and the government shutdown - have been subjected to endless analysis, with commentators desperately attempting to discover some underlying rationale for the President’s actions. But none of the explanations is convincing, and what we are left with is a dangerous mess.
The truth seems to be that much of what the President does makes no sense. For me, the most insightful comment, as reported by John Cassidy in The New Yorker, was offered by Leon Panetta, the former Defense Secretary and CIA Director, who said to CNN that Trump "enjoys chaos because he thinks chaos produces attention for him."
In other words, there are no reasons for Trump’s actions. Facing criminal investigations and crises of every sort, our President foments chaos to change the subject from yesterday’s bad news and to make himself the story and the center of attention. And his disregard for expert advice is no oversight. One consults with advisors and allies when the intention is to bring order out of chaos; one acts alone when the intention is to do the opposite.
These are the responses of an impulsive, unbalanced man, patently unfit for his job. And for Israel, a powerful country but still a very vulnerable ally in a bad neighborhood, chaos and uncertainty have replaced the stability, security assurances, and military cooperation that the alliance with America has always delivered.
As his resignation letter noted, James Mattis left his job as Secretary of Defense precisely because he saw how an unstable president was treating America’s allies, and he realized that Trump’s behavior was both profoundly wrong and dangerous for all concerned.
Three: The President remains a hostage to Vladimir Putin, for reasons still unknown, posing dangers to Israel that grow by the day.
The staggering Helsinki press conference of last July stands as a day of infamy in U.S. diplomatic history. On that day, Trump demonstrated that his American patriotism takes second place to his allegiance to Putin. The reason may be that he is an isolationist President with a nativist agenda, or it may be that Putin has a hold over him stemming from past business dealings. In any case, it is a stunning, unprecedented development that has encouraged hostile moves by Russia against the Ukraine, the Baltic states, and the European Union.
And Israel. Many Israeli commentators profess to be unworried, noting that Bibi has worked hard to cultivate Putin. But like every autocrat, Putin is unreliable, and unmoved by considerations of history, justice, or compassion. He has already demonstrated a quirky, grumpy inconsistency on Israel’s concerns; he has blamed Israel for the Syrian downing of a Russian plane, limited Israel’s attacks on Iranian positions in Syria, and frequently put off Bibi’s requests for meetings.
When Trump announced his intentions in Syria, Putin was quick to express his approval. The reason, obviously, is that Trump’s hasty and ill-advised withdrawal will leave Russia as the unchallenged great power in Syria. And despite Israel’s low-key response, this development is anything but good news. America at its worst is a far more reliable ally than Russia at its best. And the last thing that Israel wants is to be at the mercy of the wily, calculating, unpredictable Vladimir Putin.
Four: Donald Trump has been wildly erratic in his approach to Iran.
The battle against the Iranian threat has been the central theme of Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister, and Bibi has gloated endlessly about winning the full support of President Trump in his struggle. But that support has been partial at best, as Trump’s recent actions have demonstrated once again.
America’s presence in Syria was small. But it served as a brake on Iranian intentions to establish a permanent base in Syria, with Russian approval or complicity. The removal of American troops invites hostile moves by the Iranians deeper into Syrian territory, with the Russian response uncertain.
Let us imagine that Israel wakes up one morning to find Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds forces on the Golan border, along with a warning from Russia to refrain from air strikes. Then what? Can Donald Trump be counted on to stand up to Putin on Israel’s behalf?
We should remember as well that Trump pulled out of the Iran deal and imposed sanctions on Iran but brought no one along with him. The European Union, Russia, China, India, and Japan all still support the deal.
And this too: The result of American sanctions might be Iranian surrender, but might also be a return by Iran to nuclear enrichment. If that happens, will Donald Trump, the apostle of isolationism, even contemplate military action against Iran? Absolutely not. And it is highly unlikely that Israel alone has the military capability to eliminate Iran’s nuclear facilities. So again, then what?
The lessons of all this?
America has a madman president, who may or may not finish out his term, may or may not resign from office, may or may not face impeachment proceedings, and may or may not lead his country into a kleptocratic hell and financial meltdown in the meantime.
What is most relevant for Israel is that this is a president who feels no responsibility for the world - not in Europe, not in the Middle East, not anywhere. If events in the Middle East take a dangerous turn and Israel is threatened, the Jewish state can perhaps count on American sympathy, but little more.
None of this means that Israel should turn her back on Trump. Trump may be a madman, but he is still president.
But it does mean that Netanyahu should pull back from his sycophantic embrace of the Trump brand. This embrace has begun to sicken Democrats of all persuasions, and even Republicans who now realize that the Trump era may be moving to an ignominious end.
Instead, Israel should be engaging in quiet outreach to the mainstream leaders of both parties, who believe in American leadership in the world and in supporting American allies, Israel included.
As for the Jewish right-wingers in Israel and America who pledged their troth to Trump: Give it up. You were wrong. Trump has not saved us from our enemies. He has emboldened those enemies - and he has put Israel at great risk.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie