You know the drill: a politician makes a defamatory attack on another person on the floor of Parliament. The aggrieved party demands that they have the courage to repeat their slander outside the shield of parliamentary privilege on debate – and it doesn’t happen. But the slur sticks.
And so it was with the reports by Axios’ Jonathan Swan of remarks by President Trump to high-level Republican operatives and donors at Mar-al-Lago earlier this month. Swan’s sources quoted Trump as saying "the Democrats hate Jewish people” and that he could not understand how any Jew could vote for a Democrat. More than 70 per cent of them do in presidential elections, and have for decades. And Jewish support for Democrats actually went up in the 2018 midterms.
Trump would not directly repeat the canard outside the privileged tent of his Florida estate (Swan reported it was a private event with cell phones sheathed in signal-snuffing bags to prevent video and audio recording). But Trump did tweet his endorsement of similar words from one of his staffers, Elizabeth Pipko, who is part of a group working to get young Jews to join the Republican party.
Last time I checked, in Charlottesville, there was anti-Semitism among marchers whom Trump referred to as “very fine people”, despite their chants of “Jews will not replace us”. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders would not own up to what Trump said in Florida. Asked repeatedly if she would confirm that Trump believes Democrats hate Jews, all she would say is, “ask them yourselves”.
The farthest Trump will go on the record is to say that Democrats are “an anti-Jewish party”. This was said before the Florida gathering in response to the conflagration that erupted over the words of Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, who has been critical of Israel and Jewish political support for Israel. “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” she tweeted in February about pro-Israel Jewish campaign contributions, conjuring up an anti-Semitic trope.
Omar was repeatedly damned on the House floor by her fellow Democratic colleagues for the anti-Semitism inherent in her remarks, and the House voted on a broad resolution condemning all forms of racism. Trump seized on the broadening of focus of the House Democrats to widen the blanket of criticism of Omar – hence diluting the focus on her anti-Semitism alone – to claim that this shows the Democrats hate the Jews.
What is really going on here? There is a longstanding effort among some Republicans to wedge Jews from the Democratic Party by claiming that Republicans are more reliable allies of Israel and the Jews than Democrats. President Obama was repeatedly criticised by Republicans for not only being insufficiently pro-Israel, but irretrievably hostile to Israel especially with respect to the Iran nuclear deal. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never forgave him for that. Indeed, Netanyahu’s emissaries worked with the Republican leadership in Congress to have the prime minister address a joint session of Congress on the Iran deal – without consulting with the Obama White House. It was an unprecedented, flagrant breach of protocol that reverberates to this day.
Trump seeks to capitalise on his support in Israel (“I would win 98 per cent of the vote if I ran in the Israeli elections.”) Trump’s ownership of the formal decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is part of the same campaign. These efforts continued last week. Rep Liz Cheney, the third ranking Republican in the House leadership, texted this fundraising appeal: "This is Liz Cheney. The Democrats are enabling anti-Semitism. We must take action. Donate NOW to restore our conservative majority!"
Trump’s effort to wedge Jews will fail for the simple reason that most Jews vote Democrat because the Democratic Party stands not only for Israel – but also for many other policies and values, at home and abroad, that appeal to Jews in America today. There are more voices today in the Democratic Party, as new leaders from Muslim communities are elected to Congress, that are hostile to Israel and Israeli policies on Palestine. But where those voices are clarions to anti-Semitism, the Democratic Party has so far rejected that and worked to change it. Where those voices raise concerns about Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, many American Jews sympathise with that. And how Jewish Americans vote reflects their overall understanding of all these factors.
In a Washington Post oped on Monday, Omar endeavoured to close the loop with an endorsement of the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
Trump would rather rend the fabric of the American polity on an issue like Israel than mend it. Support for Israel is bipartisan in America today – and that is the true key to Israel’s security. It will be so tomorrow – no matter how much Trump tries to wedge America’s Jews.