Conservative Jews Made a Terrible Bargain With Trump and the Right Over Israel

Conservative Jews Made a Terrible Bargain With Trump and the Right Over Israel

Conservative Jews Made a Terrible Bargain With Trump and the Right Over Israel

American Jewish leaders have spent so long genuflecting before the Christian right that even the most blatant anti-Semitism finds them unable to stand up or speak out.

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A cozy dinner at Mar-a-Largo between Donald Trump, and two Hitler admirers, Ye (formerly Kanye West) and Nick Fuentes, coupled with the massive increase of anti-Semitic tweets in recent weeks, (driven in part by Elon Musk’s invitations to formerly banned neo-Nazis like Andrew Anglin to rejoin the site), have sent anti-Semitism back onto America’s front pages. Many American Jews are understandably in a panic over the apparent return of a particularly gruesome version of the traditional “socialism of fools” into mainstream discourse. This recent outburst of attention comes, however, after decades when American Jewish organizations chose to underplay this constant problem among right-wingers in exchange for their rock-solid support for Israel. Today, we are finally witnessing the cost of that cynical calculation

There are two primary aspects to contemporary right-wing anti-Semitism. Millions of evangelical Christians come to their enthusiasm for Israel—and especially its settlement building in the occupied West Bank—via the doctrine of “Premillennial Dispensationalism.” Originally proposed by William Eugene Blackstone (1841–1935), a real estate entrepreneur and best-selling author of religious texts, its popularity exploded in the 1970s and ’80s thanks in part to apocalyptic best-selling books by Hal Lindsey and Tim La Haye. The New York Times judged the former’s (co-authored) 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, to be the single best-selling book of the decade, with more than 28 million copies sold. It also spawned a prime-time television program with an estimated audience of 17,000,000, and LaHaye saw the creation of Israel as the “fuse of Armageddon.” Unfortunately, Jews, being unbelievers, would be “destroyed by the anti-Christ in the time of the seven years of tribulation; a potential dictator waiting in the wings somewhere in Europe who will make Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin look like choirboys.” Together with his wife, Beverly, LaHaye founded a series of powerful political organizations, including Concerned Christians of America, along with the influential think tank Center for National Policy as well as writing (or cowriting) fully 85 books designed to prepare Christians for Armageddon.

Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 at LaHaye’s suggestion. Soon, he sat atop an empire boasting a television show aired on 373 local stations, a church with 17,000 members and a support staff of over a thousand. In 1980, Falwell published Armageddon and the Coming War with Russia, which featured a mushroom cloud on its cover and argued that the Bible had predicted an imminent “nuclear holocaust” inspired by Israel. At this point, Christ would return in glory, and as the book concludes: “WHAT A DAY THAT WILL BE!”

Though Falwell pretended otherwise before secular and Jewish audiences, he was an enthusiastic Premillennialist. “The Jews are returning to their land of unbelief,” he warned. “They are spiritually blind and desperately in need of their Messiah and Savior.” He predicted, rather matter of factly, that when the Antichrist arrives, “of course, he’ll be Jewish,”

Falwell also occasionally gave voice to anti-Semitic attitudes of an earthlier sort. Speaking to a 1979 “I Love America” rally in Richmond, Va., Falwell said, “I know a few of you here today don’t like Jews, and I know why. He can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose.” These comments paled, however, in comparison to the “Elders of Zion” sort of conspiracy theories voiced by Pat Robertson in his 1991 book, The New World Order, and later, the implicit praise for Hitler by John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel—the world’s largest “pro-Israel” organization—who described Hitler as a “hunter” sent by God to convince “the Jewish people…to come back to Israel.”

Coming Over the Hill

While many Jews found these sentiments discomfiting, Jewish neoconservative pundits and the leaders of pro-Israel organizations suggested ignoring them in light of the Christian Zionist commitment to Israel. Neoconservative “godfather” Irving Kristol, for instance, put the trade-off as follows: “Why should Jews care about the theology of a fundamentalist preacher when they do not for a moment believe that he speaks with any authority” on theological matters?… It is their theology, but it is our Israel.” Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz also offered a pass to Robertson’s Jewish conspiracy theories on the same grounds: that his pro-Israel politics “trumps the anti-Semitic pedigree of his ideas.” “Israel was, after all, the most important issue of Jewish concern,” and here Robertson, Podhoretz insisted, was “on the side of the angels.” As one AIPAC researcher said of the Christian Zionists at the time, “Sure, these guys give me the heebie-jeebies. But until I see Jesus coming over the hill, I’m in favor of all the friends Israel can get.”

Two important trends, however, have altered this calculation. First is the diminishing importance of Israel to American Jewish personal and collective identity as the Jewish state is increasingly seen by large numbers of American Jews as illiberal, theocratic, and committed to the permanent (and often brutal) occupation of the Palestinian people. Then there is the constant embrace of anti-Semitic tropes by mainstream Republican candidates in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascent as leader of the party.

Like his undeniable racism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc., Trump’s feelings about Jews were never any secret. As he campaigned for the presidency in 2016, Trump was not shy about sharing his own prejudices when speaking to Jewish audiences. “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he announced to Sheldon Adelson’s Republican Jewish Coalition. Speaking to another Adelson-funded organization, he opined, apparently thinking he was offering compliments: “You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all.” But Trump went on to predict, inaccurately, that Jews were “going to be my biggest supporters” because Democrats were proposing to raise taxes on the super wealthy, apparently unaware that the vast majority of Jews are not “super wealthy” and had been voting for the party that supported the poor and working class for more than 80 years by this time. During his presidency, of course, Trump famously praised the violent neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” and since has lectured American Jews to “get their act together” on behalf of Israel or face untold consequences, among countless other no less egregious utterances.

This sort of thing spread quickly among Republican campaigners, who apparently came to recognize dog-whistle anti-Semitism as an important component of what successful MAGA components were selling. Like their hero, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, they constantly stoked hatred toward the liberal Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whom conservatives treated as an all-purpose boogeyman, often with exaggerated features in the traditional anti-Semitic fantasy of the Jew as puppet master, sometimes alone, sometimes together with other Jews. During the final days of the 2016 campaign, Trump ran a commercial attacking Soros, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen—all of them Jews—claiming that they were seeking to control the world. During the 2018 midterm elections, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy warned on Twitter that Soros and his fellow Jewish billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer were trying “to BUY this election!” In 2022, Republican candidates were in on an “all Soros all the time” program. One single e-mail from the Georgia GOP in support of Herschel Walker’s senate candidacy, for instance, contained fully nine mentions of Soros in its plea for more money. (And I’ve not even mentioned Marjorie Taylor-Greene and her fear of “Jewish space lasers.”)

The most devoted of Trump-loving Jewish leaders were willing to go to the mat for Trump, despite all this. Last month, the most notorious of these, the famously racist president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, gave Trump its Theodor Herzl Gold Medallion, previously bestowed on the likes of Lord Balfour, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. Trump was also greeted, post–Ye and Fuentes—with repeated standing ovations at a meeting of the ultraorthodox President’s Conference of Torah Umesorah at Trump’s National Doral resort in Miami. He claimed, per usual, that he was “the best friend you ever had,” treated Israel as American Jews’ true country and failed to even attempt to account for the neo-Nazi love fest he had recently hosted down the road.

Eyes on the Ball

Outside of outliers like the racist ZOA and the extreme Orthodox, the leaders of most of the “major” American Jewish organizations, while relatively muted during Trump’s constant spewing of hate against Jews and others while in the White House, finally found their voice and condemned Trump’s willingness to host the Hitler-admiring Ye and Fuentes at dinner. Even now, however, condemnations of Trump—or of any prominent Republican—are rarely voiced without a side trip into the time-honored Middle East political tradition of “whataboutism.” Sometimes the complaint is just about a pro-Palestinian student demonstration on campus, or even a couple of self-described “proud Jews” and “supporters of Israel,” who as ice-cream entrepreneurs don’t want to see their product sold in settlements in the occupied territories.

It’s not as if genuine anti-Jewish animus is entirely absent on the left, albeit far less frequently and less violently than among Trump’s supporters in the alt-right. Yet, all too often, organized Jewish leaders weaponize the charge in order to politically weaponize the words of a critic of Israel’s behavior. One can see this dynamic at work with the concerted campaign against Francesca Albanese, the UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur, just as it has been consistently employed to target Minnesota Democrat Representative Ilhan Omar. In both cases, each woman used an infelicitous phrase to describe Jewish political power in the United States and then quickly apologized when their unintended implications were brought to their attention. (In Albanese’s case, her crime was the use of the term “Jewish lobby,” back in 2014. The term, while inaccurate today, had long been sufficiently kosher to be refer to AIPAC in the past. You can find a video posted on Twitter by Lara Friedman, who heads up the Foundation for Middle East Peace, being employed by a fellow named “Bibi Netanyahu” as he bragged to an Israeli television interviewer: “America won’t force us into anything… We have the senate, the Congress and very strong Jewish lobby on our side.”)

Explosive anti-Semitism and the Republicans Party’s embrace of it notwithstanding, America’s pro-Israel lobbyists keep their eye on the ball, and that ball remains in Israel. When, for instance, AIPAC’s newly formed political action committee endorsed fully 109 Republican supporters of Trump’s attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election, including some proponents of the alt-right’s anti-Semitic “replacement” theory, its president, Howard Kohr, was asked by a reporter if there was anything an American politician could do, if he or she supported Israel, to lose the group’s support, he could not think of a single thing. This is happening as American Jews remain bulwarks of the traditional liberal coalition, opposing Trump and the Republicans by a margin of roughly three-to-one.

As the proud grandson of a Vineland, N.J., kosher chicken farmer, I am tempted to employ metaphors of a certain sort of fowl “coming home to roost.” But the fact is the stench of this roosting bird—that of the legitimation of anti-Semitism in the Republican base—has been burning up social media and Republican advertisements for some time now without so much as a peep from pundits, pontifications, and, yes, presidents of major Jewish organizations who pretend to speak for its victims. Israel’s forthcoming extreme right-wing, theocratic, illiberal, and anti-Palestinian government promises both an endless stream of occupation-related outrages as well as repeated attempts to disenfranchise Palestinian Israelis. In addition, we will see attacks on Israel’s own democratic practices, together with spirited attempts to undermine the legitimacy of American Jewish religious dominations, save the ultraorthodox. A number of the smaller, scrappier Jewish organizations whose views, according to numerous polls, represent American Jewish political opinion far more accurately than AIPAC does, have made it clear that the days of “Israel right or wrong” are over. At the recent well-attended J Street convention in Washington, their representatives were roundly cheered when warning Israel about taking American Jewish support for granted. But despite the popularity of their views, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” camp does not begin to be able to match the power of the legacy organizations led by AIPAC. Will legacy Jewish organizations continue to fund and otherwise support politicians who spread hatred about Jews, Muslims, LGBT Americans, and others because they also support Israel? Going down this path, one fears will likely supply us with a new more modern—but also more accurate—application of the age-old insult of “Jewish self-hatred.”

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