Three years into his administration, president Donald Trump is showing no signs of change concerning his public persona. “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” the president told reporters last Tuesday during an Oval Office meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
There was predictably quick condemnation from liberal Jewish organizations, Jewish Democratic lawmakers, and historians who understood the history of statements associating Jews with disloyalty to a country. Throughout our long exile we’ve faced attempts to combat discrimination by standing together with our neighbors in their national struggles. What made Trump’s remark troubling was its vagueness. To whom did he expect the loyalty of Jewish voters? Was it toward Israel? Toward the United States? Toward himself and the Republican Party?
As is often the case with his press conferences and tweets, a statement is issued and the rest is commentary. Based on his policy toward Israel, the president expects gratitude from American Jews for his recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, relocating the embassy to this city, reducing foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, enacting the Taylor Force Act, recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel, and merging the consulate in Jerusalem with the new embassy.
Perhaps that is why so many of Trump’s Jewish supporters shrugged their shoulders at his “loyalty” remark, seeing his policies as more indicative of his pro-Jewish bona fides than his words. There are some far-right Americans who see President Trump’s support for Israel as evidence of his own “disloyalty” to the “America first” ideal, even as they cheer on his restrictive immigration policies.
“It’s a word that I wouldn’t use, with a long history of being used by others who have a hatred towards Jews and Israel,” Rep. Lee Zeldin told Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview. “Even if the person using it is filled with love towards Jews and Israel, I still avoid it because of that history.” Zeldin is the lone Jewish Republican in Congress. His district covers the eastern tip of Long Island.
There has never been an American administration so closely aligned with the policies of Israel, but not all American Jews share the views of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While supportive of Israel, most non-Orthodox American Jews oppose the religious policies of the state as it concerns conversions, marriage, divorce, burial, Shabbat restrictions, and funding for draft-exempt kollel students. There is also opposition toward Israeli control of lands acquired in the Six-Day War. Among Orthodox Jews there are anti-Zionist haredim who see themselves as loyal Americans with no connection toward the Jewish state. They do not want their Judaism to be defined by the State of Israel.
There are also Orthodox Jews who “split the ticket” by voting for Democratic candidates for local offices and Republicans on the federal level. Then there are Orthodox Jews whose concerns for the affordable housing, education, and healthcare, climate change, immigration, the rights of workers, and women have kept them from making the “Jexodus” or “Jexit,” or “walking away” from the Democratic Party, despite the presence of anti-Israel lawmakers such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
A couple of weeks ago I met one such Jew at a supermarket parking lot in Kew Gardens Hills. The back of the car featured stickers in support of Hevron and the Golan Heights. There was also a sticker for Hillary Clinton in Hebrew letters, another depicting a pink hat, and “no way, no Trump.” I was in my car with my children waiting for my wife to finish shopping for food. I was curious about the owner of this vehicle and its seemingly conflicting sticker collection.
A middle-aged woman from New Jersey clicked the remote key to open the Honda Odyssey. “My children are ashamed at my views,” she said. I replied that there are not so many Democrats around with Hebron Fund stickers alongside anti-Trump slogans. She said that her opposition to Trump stems from her loyalty to this country, wishing to see a president who could act more “presidential.” This does not make her any less supportive of Israel, which succeeded in many of its endeavors without American financial and military support.
Based on his pattern of behavior and manners, Trump’s remarks should not be taken seriously. What we should examine is his upcoming peace plan for the Middle East, to make sure that as it puts “America first,” it can also safeguard the security of Israel.