Since the establishment of the State of Israel and its quick recognition by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, Israel and support for it have been important issues in American politics. Long thought of as a “third-rail” issue in American politics––one that was so mainstream that deviance from the prevailing orthodoxy would be political suicide––US support for Israel today is partisan in ways not seen before, thanks in part to shifting demographics and opinions and also to changes in the relationship between Israel and American Jews.
It appears that these Jews’ fears for Israel’s safety and existence have largely dissipated given the state’s military dominance in the Middle East. In their stead rose serious concerns about the nature of the Israeli state and its policies toward the Palestinians and the occupation of Palestinian land. American Jews’ own position within the American body politic is also a salient factor. Subsequently, there are clear signs of a divide within the American Jewish community about support for Israel in American politics as well as worries among some in the community that the alliance between the present Israeli government and the American right is likely to lead to unpleasant developments in the future.
A Growing Divide
From the outside, there is often a misperception about American Jews and US policy toward Israel. Specifically, some believe that American policy is shaped to secure the “Jewish vote.” This is far from accurate, however. In reality, American Jews are a tiny percentage of the US voting population and they routinely rank several other issues of importance ahead of US policy toward Israel. Like all Americans, some of the top issues of concern for American Jews include jobs, the economy, security, and the environment. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal and have supported Democrats consistently in national elections for generations. Israel usually ranks somewhere around fifth among Jewish American priorities in polls, and recent studies have found it has dropped even lower.
While American Jewish voting behavior does not conclusively shape US positions on Israel, American Jewish institutions do play an important role in shaping the debate around Israel in the United States. Messaging between American Jewish institutions and the Israeli government has often been in concert about the US-Israel relationship, but never before has there been so much discord as there is today due to a fundamental tension between the two sides. American Jewish institutions claim to represent an American Jewish community that is liberal, while the Israeli government has increasingly sought and found support from the American right wing.
This tension has been on display for years and helped contribute to a partisan divide on Israel in the United States. Heading into the 2016 elections, public opinion polling continued to show that Israel was becoming a partisan issue. The genesis of this trend has deeper historical roots; its foundations lay in the growing impact of Evangelical Christians in American politics and the increased reliance of the Republican Party on their support. This trend was further enabled by the George W. Bush years (2001-2009) during which the pro-Israel and Christian Evangelical-backed White House pursued wars against Muslim countries––mainly Iraq and Afghanistan––that became politically charged election issues in both 2004 and 2008.
The trend was further fueled during the presidency of Barack Obama (2009-2017), who received the vast majority of the Jewish American vote but was constantly attacked from the right for overtures to the Muslim world, a perceived lack of support for Israel, and US diplomatic engagement with Iran. The attacks against Obama from the early stages were racially coded. His birth certificate, religion, and true beliefs were called into question by elements on the right stoking white rage against the first African American president. Polls in 2015 found that “29 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of Republicans, believe Obama [was] a Muslim.” Donald Trump, who came onto the American political scene by claiming Obama had lied about his origins and forged his birth certificate, could count on conspiracy theorists to form his base. By May of 2016, polls found that two-thirds of Trump supporters thought Obama was a Muslim.
During the American debate around the Iran nuclear agreement, the Israeli government challenged the American president very publicly by aligning with the Republican Party in an unprecedented way. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech before Congress to lobby against the Iran agreement was boycotted by 58 members of Congress including many members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The election in 2016 would prove to be pivotal for this partisan divide. While the underlying demographics of opinion suggested a deeper discontent with Israel among liberals, much of the discourse was focused on the personal distaste Obama and Netanyahu had for each other. A post-Obama Democratic Party could have potentially slowed the divide, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had pledged to invite Netanyahu to the White House within her first 100 days in office. But the exact opposite happened. Instead of a 2016 election outcome that contributed to slowing this divide, the election of Donald Trump, who relied not only on Evangelicals but also on divisive, racist, and often specifically anti-Semitic rhetoric to motivate white supremacist voters, catalyzed that divide.
Donald Trump’s Anti-Semitism, and His Validator
Donald Trump’s political rise came from the birther movement. That movement, however, was not a special interest group focused exclusively on the birth certificates of all political candidates. Rather, its motivation was a particular animus against the first African American president whose middle name happened to be Hussein, after his Kenyan-born father. It was at once an anti-black and an anti-immigrant animus with a vision for what American leadership should be: white and xenophobic. Thus to “make America great again”—Trump’s campaign slogan—was about returning America back to a time when its leadership was firmly in the hands of white Americans who were not the descendants of recent immigrants.
There are a number of examples of Donald Trump’s anti-Semitism from his campaign and into his presidency. His key strategist, Steve Bannon, whom he would later appoint to be a co-equal to his chief of staff, ran the online magazine Breitbart, the leading publication of the alt-right. During the campaign, Trump tweeted an anti-Semitic meme targeting Hillary Clinton during the campaign, and he has retweeted anti-Semitic accounts as well. His final campaign ad warned of globalists who controlled the “levers of power” and focused on three Jews: the billionaire George Soros and the chairs of the Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs, respectively, at that time, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein. Then there was the infamous march of white supremacists in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and later killed a protester in a vehicular ramming attack. President Trump took the opportunity to make clear that there were “very fine people” on both sides.
This chant, “Jews will not replace us,” is significant because it offers insight into a particularly twisted line of thinking among white supremacists. The idea is that Jews, who make up less than 2 percent of the US population, could replace the 70 percent of the US population which is Christian, the vast majority of which is white, is absurd on its face. But for white supremacists, Jews are not doing the actual replacing but rather facilitating it by promoting cultural values—like many in US society—that gnaw away at the white, male, and Christian-dominated society. This community encourages women’s empowerment, equal rights, secularization, and immigration—all values seemingly anathema to white supremacists. To them, Jews should not have positions of authority or influence in American society as they are essentially “foreign interlopers who need to be expunged.”
There was obvious concern about Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the prominence of anti-Semitic dog whistles. An Israeli reporter asked Trump as he stood alongside Netanyahu in a February 15, 2017, press conference at the White House whether his rhetoric stokes xenophobia and racism. Trump responded that he had Jewish friends as well as a Jewish son-in-law, daughter, and grandchildren. But the more important response came from his guest, who was unequivocal: “I’ve known the President and I’ve known his family and his team for a long time,” said Netanyahu, “and there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump. I think we should put that to rest.”
There are a number of issues that have contributed to tension between the American Jewish community and the Israeli government, which is under right-wing control. One of them is the ongoing mistreatment of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government and its military. American Jews largely support a two-state solution and oppose the way the Trump Administration is handling the relationship with Israel; among Israeli Jews, however, the opposite is true. While American Jews might grow uncomfortable with the endemic mistreatment of Palestinians by the Israeli state, they have likely been persuaded to limit their criticism because of the security challenges Israel claims make such brutal policies necessary.
Another issue that divides Israel from the American Jewish community is religious interpretation, as most American Jews are either secular or subscribe to a Reformist denomination while another large grouping follows the Conservative denomination. Only some 10 percent are Orthodox. The rabbinate in Israel is dominated by the Orthodox, and they have control over recognizing marriages, conversions, burials, and other rituals that put them at odds with much of the American Jewish community.
While these divides existed before the Trump Administration and have been largely about values, never before have the stakes been as high regarding the personal safety and security of the American Jewish community as they are today. The alliance between Trump and Netanyahu at a time when Trump is energizing white nationalists means that Israel and the American Jewish community not only have a difference of opinion, but that the difference is leading to real and dangerous consequences for the latter.
Netanyahu’s validation of Trump was important—but not for American Jews, most of whom have grown particularly alienated from the Israeli government led by Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition. Instead, Netanyahu’s support was significant for another constituency where his voice carries a lot of weight: among Evangelical Christians. In fact, the Israeli prime minister is the most admired world leader by American Evangelicals. White Evangelical Christians, in particular, are the heart of Trump’s base. Some 71 percent continue to approve of Donald Trump, making them the only religious grouping in America to still do so. Additionally, American Evangelicals prioritize Israel in their voting behavior far more than American Jews do. Indeed, Trump’s Israel policy was especially obvious when he decided to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and to have a dedication ceremony led by Evangelical pastors who are considered to be anti-Semitic bigots.
For Netanyahu, this devil’s bargain is paying short-term dividends as the White House is green-lighting things he could not have dreamed of in years past. But the costs became clear when a murderous gunman, who believed Jews were conspiring to subvert white Christian society through an increase in the number of immigrants, went on a rampage in a Pittsburgh synagogue killing 11 worshipers in the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history.
For many American Jews, the connection between the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history and the rhetoric of Donald Trump was excruciatingly clear. What might have made it more painful was that Israeli leaders gave cover to Donald Trump. When the president went to Pittsburgh to visit the grief-stricken city, most local officials refused to meet with him; instead, he was greeted by Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer.
The New York Times also reports that Israeli leaders are giving up on American Jews. Speaking to the current Israeli government minister—and former Israeli ambassador to the United States—Michael Oren, the Times quoted him explaining the debate among Israeli leaders and the direction they are heading: “One school of thought is: ‘These are our people, we have to do everything possible to reach out.’ The second school says: ‘It’s too late, they’re gone … we should invest in our base —evangelicals and the Orthodox.’” Oren continued, “The first school, which is mine, is a beleaguered school.” To be sure, the language in Oren’s quote is telling: Israel must “reach out” to most American Jews, while Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews are the “base.”
The attack on Jews in Pittsburgh by a white supremacist will only make it harder for those in Oren’s camp to win the argument. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran an analysis that did not mince words, saying “[N]ever before has the State of Israel so blatantly demonstrated that it will protect its own political interests at the expense of American Jews. Not only did Israel’s leaders choose Trump over American Jews, but they did so easily, naturally, without hesitation, leaping to the defense of a political leader who is actively and openly fanning the flames of hatred that now has an unprecedented death toll.”
What does this mean for the future? It probably indicates that the partisan divide is here to stay and will continue to grow. Israel’s liberal spaces are diminishing as it has increasingly embraced the right. Such a political reality has been years in the making and will not likely change in the short term. Over time, tension between American Jewish institutions and Israel will continue to grow as the interests of US Jews and the Israeli government continue to drift further apart. It will be interesting to see if and how this impacts the American Jewish establishment’s willingness to advocate for Israel. American Evangelicals will completely dominate pro-Israel advocacy, making it harder for leaders to reach across the aisle. Even among Evangelicals, there is evidence that a generational divide might lead to weakened support for Israel over time.
Under Netanyahu and his right-wing government, Israel may have made an effective tactical maneuver in the short term by putting all its eggs in the Republican Party’s basket. In the longer term, however, the rift with American Jews and the broader partisan divide is likely to prove to be a strategic error of momentous magnitude.