Donald Trump’s presidency is often portrayed as a break from or even a repudiation of conservative Republican dogma. But in most cases, it is merely an extreme expression of what was already there—albeit with an extra helping of egomania and ignorance.
This is nowhere truer than on matters relating to Jews and Israel. Trump has coddled Israel’s most recidivist elements and asked for nothing in return. He has consistently allowed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to immiserate and humiliate Palestinians and to erase any vestiges of the peace process. In the past, some Republicans at least pretended to care about peace in the region. Today, not so much.
The ideological transformation of the Republican Party into a Likud cheerleading squad was the joint project of neoconservative intellectuals and evangelical Christians, with a few right-wing pro-Israel donors happy to foot the bill. The neocons pretended to speak for American Jews but took positions at odds with those actually held by most American Jews. They found funders in Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch, Paul Singer, and others, and foot soldiers in the evangelical churches and in groups like John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel. Sure, the conservative Christian groups were sometimes peopled with anti-Semites, whose geopolitical analysis tended to blame Jewish billionaire cabals for all the world’s ills. And while not so enthused about everyday Jews, many were willing to set aside those concerns because of their admiration for Israeli military might, racism toward Arabs, and a widely held belief that God gave Israel to the Jews as part of His plan for the end of days.
Ever since 1967, the writers and editors at Commentary magazine, the Torah of neocon belligerence, have been trying to talk Jews out of their liberalism. It began with an article by Milton Himmelfarb, an American Jewish Committee researcher, and the baton was soon picked up by his brother-in-law, Irving Kristol. (Commentary has always been a family-run business. Kristol and his widow, Commentary contributor Gertrude Himmelfarb, are the parents of right-wing operator turned never-Trumper William Kristol. Former editor Norman Podhoretz—who was invited to write for the magazine in 1951, owing to a letter he wrote calling Israeli Jews “unattractive,” “gratuitously surly and boorish,” “arrogant,” and ”anxious”—is the husband of Commentary writer Midge Decter, the father of current editor John Podhoretz, and the father-in-law of Commentary contributor and Guatemala genocide enabler Elliott Abrams.)
The neocons believed that a little bit of evangelical anti-Semitism in exchange for bedrock support for Israel was a bargain worth making, but America’s Jews consistently replied, “Feh.” You can measure their frustration by the progression of Irving Kristol’s articles on the subject, beginning in 1984 with “The Political Dilemma of American Jews” and ending with “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” 15 years later. For the past four decades, neocon pundits and provocateurs based at Commentary, The New Republic under Marty Peretz, and the now-defunct Weekly Standard under William Kristol have smeared liberal Jewish writers as self-hating—and therefore disloyal—merely for giving voice to the views of mainstream Jews regarding Israel and the Palestinians.
Irritated by American Jews’ stalwart commitment to liberalism, Milton Himmelfarb is said to have quipped in 1973 that Jews “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” But of course, American Jews vote like what they are—the country’s best-educated religious group, according to Gallup—and mostly live in metro areas in the Northeast. Jews are more than twice as likely as other Americans to have completed college, and their postgraduate education is off the charts. Moreover, they cluster in blue states, where they are overrepresented in the population and in terms of their extremely high voting rate. Metropolitan-based Northeasterners remain a bedrock of American liberalism just as rural, religious Southerners contribute to Trump’s base.
The question of Jewish loyalty to America and to the other nation-states where the diaspora has been prominent is another, much longer story. For more than a century, the leaders of American Jewry feared accusations of being more loyal to other Jews—eventually represented by Israel—than to their home country. Many American Jews opposed Zionism until they learned of the Holocaust and remained cool to Israel after its 1948 founding right up until the Six-Day War, at which point it became the central component of their ethnic and religious identity. Today nearly half of American Jews say Trump favors Israel “too much”—far more than Protestants or Catholics. As Israel becomes more like the apartheid state its enemies have accused it of always having been, more and more American Jews—especially the young—are turning away from it and looking for new ways to express their Jewish identities.
Trump has taken this moment to flip the script and accuse Jews of being insufficiently loyal—not to America but to Israel—by remaining Democrats. The accusation has an anti-Semitic implication when Trump and his fellow right-wing gentiles level it, as it implies that Jews are not Americans first and hence cannot be trusted to put their home country’s interests ahead of those of a foreign nation. And yes, Trump is really catering to his evangelical base, not to Jews. And yes again, he is doing it in his own ridiculous way, retweeting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist. But it is not so different from what the Podhoretzes, the Kristols, Peretz, and company have been peddling all these years.
The neocon scolds were never willing to face up to the possibility that Israel’s interests were not always those of the United States and vice versa. Trump, naturally, has confused the question with his unique combination of stupidity and cupidity. But the truth is, to oppose both Trump and Netanyahu has no bearing on whether one is a good Jew. It means only that one is a decent human being.