Some facts are so simple they seem too obvious. This tempts people to believe there’s some kind of trick, some conspiracy, behind these facts because nothing could be that straightforward. Tricks and conspiracies are far more interesting, especially if they can be twisted to confirm the biases and beliefs of those who preach them.
That is how it is with Donald Trump and Israel. If Trump isn’t the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House, he’s pretty close.
Here’s how you know: He sides with Israel. Period.
Forget why. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. He sides with Israel. He has put in place policies friendly to Israel. He has implemented at least one American policy—moving our embassy to Jerusalem—that was mandated by American law two decades before he did it; a law his predecessors found a way to circumvent. Why? Because they didn’t want to side with Israel that much.
They had defensible reasons—fears of region-wide violence and the like. And because of those reasons, it was thought that Trump moving the embassy was, at best, imprudent and, at worst, a knowing effort to trigger war. But as the result has demonstrated, the facts on the ground in the Middle East have changed so profoundly that the move happened at extraordinarily low cost. In this case, as it turned out, siding with Israel proved to be a no-brainer.
Except, that is, for those who don’t think siding with Israel is a good thing, or with the current Israeli government, or whatever.
There are many prominent Jews among those who don’t think siding with Israel in this way is a good thing.
Some of them think this way out of genuine love—because they are convinced the Israeli government is acting in ways that endanger the Jewish state in the long term, and that siding with Israel encourages self-destructive behavior. That the government acts as it does because it was elected to do precisely that by Israel’s voters does not invalidate this concern. After all, the voters of Israel could be wrong—in which case, the choices they are making at the ballot box could literally be their funeral. One thing is certain, though: It won’t be the funeral of these American Jews, whose love has not yet impelled them to make Aliyah. Their concern is real but, when push comes to shove, whom should one trust: The anxious armchair quarterback or the players on the field?
Then there are others, who look like the ones I just described but who are posing disingenuously as concerned lovers of Israel. What they say is that Israel needs “tough love.” It needs to be told what to do and how to do it better because Israel is being stupid, or feckless, or self-destructive.
The “tough love” idea is astonishingly condescending. Those who advocate it are dismissing the acts of a democratic nation that has gone through hell—and changed its approaches to things as a result of that hell—as though it is akin to a recalcitrant teenager or a drug addict. That should be invalidating in itself.
Finally, there are those American Jews who believe refusing to side with Israel is a mark of their higher virtue, their moral superiority. They are rising above petty in-group rah-rah emotions to a higher plane of dispassionate judgment. Their sense of right and wrong is unencumbered by blood bonds. They are only interested in Truth. Shot through their self-righteousness is an implicit humblebrag. They are actually brave by refusing to side with their own—thus, demonstrating that their humility is more onanistic than pluralistic.
So, let’s review: Donald Trump is a great friend of Israel. The only real way to argue otherwise is to say he isn’t a great friend of Israel because the only true friends of Israel are those who oppose the policies Israel has decided (through its own political system) are in its best interest. By these lights, Barack Obama was a great friend of Israel and Trump isn’t.
Now, people can believe this. They certainly act like they believe this. But most probably don’t believe it deep in their souls. They probably just believe it because they like Barack Obama for other reasons and want to apply those reasons to Israel, too.
In 2015, when Obama struck his nuclear deal with Iran, aides tasked with selling the deal essentially accused those who opposed it, in part, because of the danger it posed to Israel of disloyalty to the United States. This charge could not have been levied without Obama’s knowledge. It was disgusting—a sign of deep intellectual rot.
Funny how so few people on Obama’s side pointed this classic anti-Semitic canard out, given how readily they call out Trump.
This past week, Donald Trump openly mused about the loyalties of American Jews. The outrage was all but universal. As Abe Greenwald pointed out, Trump’s words were so imprecise people chose to take them as anti-Semitic—as an accusation of dual loyalty, the very accusation of dual loyalty Barack Obama through his giggling Renfields had so easily hurled. Trump did no such thing.
What Trump was doing was calling out the disloyalty of Jews who vote Democratic to their own people. Not to the United States.
Now that is a weird thing for him to have done. First, it’s a bizarre subject for a president to opine about. And it’s a discomfiting subject for a non-Jew to offer an opinion about. Basically, it’s none of his business, either when speaking as a public figure or a Gentile.
But unlike the Renfields, Trump was in no way calling the loyalty of American Jews to America into question. The problem here is, again to cite Abe, Trump speaks in vagaries that then require defensive exegeses long after the initial impression gave offense.
There’s something else upsetting about this.
Jews make up a little less than two percent of the population of the United States. Now, naturally, I am deeply fascinated by this ethnic sliver because I am among it. My children are Jewish Americans, like my wife and me. This publication you are reading, which I edit, came into existence in 1945 to argue for the view that it is possible to be fully Jewish and fully American. Continuing to advocate for this blessed dual existence, unique in the annals of Jewish history, is one of the missions of my life.
That said, there are 330 million Americans and (by what is surely an inaccurate count but the only one we have) 5.8 million American Jews. Similarly, there are 6 billion people on earth and only 8 million Israelis. The question is: Why do people who are not us care so much about us, about our internal arguments, about our political sympathies?
In this respect, Trump is easy to understand. He doesn’t really care about us. Rather, he wants what he sees as his just reward. He wants credit and votes (and financial support) for being such a stalwart friend to Israel. Moreover, he thinks Jews should punish Democrats for the way they kowtow so shamefully to the squad of freshman anti-Israel congresswomen.
And you know what? So do I. And maybe more American Jews than anyone expects will show that they think so too when they vote next. We don’t know yet.
What’s different about Trump is that other politicians ask for one’s vote. Trump demands your vote as his right. When he does it, he does himself no favors in the mind-changing department—especially when it comes to American Jews, who really don’t like being told what to do by Gentiles, especially a Gentile to whom some very dangerous anti-Semites in the United States do seem drawn.
But what of Trump’s point? Do I think Jews should be “loyal” to Israel? No, because I think “loyalty” is the wrong word here.
Jews have an obligation to protect and defend Israel because it is the ingathering of the exiles after two millennia. Is one called upon to be “loyal” to one’s sister? To one’s cousin? To those of us whose Ancestry.com record reveals consanguinity connections hovering around 100 percent to other Jews?
The Jewish state is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) miracles of our time, and while it is strong and vibrant, it is still under threat. Its enemies express their enmity by killing our fellow Jews, by stockpiling rockets and missiles to target our fellow Jews, and by developing nuclear capability to commit the mass murder of Jews. Do you turn your back on your sister, your cousin, at a time of threat and justify your behavior by complaining about theirs?
We American Jews are not disloyal when we turn our backs on Israel and insult its friends and treat them as though they are enemies—and when we treat its enemies as though they are our friends, Peter Beinart. No, at best, at best, we are blind fools who do not see how a mere twist of historical fate kept us from speaking Hebrew as a first language as we ride on a bus headed toward Mount Scopus that will be blown up or ensanguined by a knife-bearing terrorist.
At worst, we are far more despicable than merely disloyal. We are acting as active collaborators with those who wish our destruction. Such people do not bother sorting out which Jew is full of deep feeling for Palestinian rights and which Jew is a settler seeking to annex the entire West Bank. What they see is a Jew, and the Jew should be dead, and that Jew could be you or your mother or your baby.
Clearly, Trump shouldn’t have wandered into this minefield. But spare me the outrage about Trump saying no Jew should vote Democrat.
That has nothing to do with Jews per se. Trump thinks no person in America should vote Democrat. This is just part of his own evolution as a partisan since he was a Democrat until about five minutes ago. Now, he’s a Republican, so he thinks everybody else should be, too, especially because he’s sure he’s so wonderful. And why should that be surprising? Every liberal thinks everybody should vote liberal. Every conservative thinks everybody should vote conservative. Every Jew thinks every other Jew should vote the way he does. You think you’re right and the other side is wrong. You can work to understand the opinions of others and respect them, but you still think they’re wrong. If you didn’t, you would vote the other way.
Donald Trump says things no president has ever said before, and many of his rhetorical innovations have not been good for our political life or our country. But in this respect, he’s just like everybody else these days.