President Trump’s Jewish Problem

IN MARCH 2019, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, told the Christian Broadcasting Network he believed that God was acting through President Trump to protect the Jews of Israel. While Queen Esther had saved the Jewish people from certain Persian annihilation during Purim, today, Pompeo argued, President Trump was saving the Jews from the wrath of the ayatollahs in Tehran.

Indeed, following US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Benjamin Netanyahu further compared Trump to Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror who had liberated the Jews from Babylonian servitude and brought them back to their land. While only 18% of American Jews voted for Trump in 2016, why – after all of this public benevolence towards the Jews – were they still so ungrateful and disrespectful?

This puzzled Trump. At the end of August 2019, he commented that any Jew that voted Democrat showed ‘either a great lack of knowledge or great disloyalty’. After all, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner is a traditional Jew and visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave with his wife to pray for Trump’s victory just a few days before the 2016 election.

Jason Greenblatt, the Chief Legal Officer of the Trump Organisation and David Friedman, his bankruptcy lawyer had shown great devotion to him over many years — and he had rewarded them with plum positions in Israel and the wider Middle East. How could American Jews not support him?

He had delivered the goods, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, cutting funding for the Palestinians and pulling out of Obama’s controversial deal with the Iranians. What was there not to like?

American Jews, however, are not Israeli citizens, even though Trump – when addressing Jewish audiences – has referred to Netanyahu as “your prime minister”. Moreover, national interests are more important for Israel in today’s world than universal values. In 2004, 78% of Israeli Jews wanted the Republican George W. Bush to retain the presidency whereas the same percentage of American Jews wanted the Democrat John Kerry to defeat him.

Whereas most American Jews have remained wedded to a universalist liberalism, many Israeli Jews – since the killing of Yitzhak Rabin nearly 25 years ago – have embraced an ethnocentric illiberalism. Indeed, since 2016, Netanyahu has mimicked Trump in denigrating academic expertise, undermining the rule of law and defining all critical coverage as “fake news”.

Over 70% of American Jews have always supported the Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. In the mid-term elections in November 2018, this high figure further increased.

Yet there are sections of American Jewry who fervently support Trump. The religious Zionists of the National Council of Young Israel favour the settlement drive in the West Bank. Indeed, during Trump’s first year, Netanyahu’s coalition raised the spending on West Bank infrastructure by 39%.

In addition, many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that President Trump is “God’s messenger” — the words of the head of the Orthodox Union in May 2018. The much-repeated story of Andrew Ten, the child of an Orthodox family, is often rolled out to indicate Trump’s inate kindness towards the Jewish people.

In July 1988, he benevolently lent his aircraft to this boy who needed emergency treatment when no commercial airline, lacking a life-support system, would take him. If Trump can deliver this for the Jews, it is argued, why is there a need to reconcile his personal behaviour and conduct with his policies and actions?

During the last 20 years, many American ultra-Orthodox Jews have drifted away from the Democrats, disdaining their social liberalism, exemplified by same-sex marriage, fearing a gradual worsening of Obama’s seemingly critical approach towards Israel and expressing a general concern that America was changing. The fear of violence, the burning and the looting, was always an ongoing worry.

Would it soon reach the doors of peaceful Jewish communities? What then should be the reaction to the pumping of seven bullets by police, this month, into the back of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin? Should the ultra-Orthodox speak out or silently support the police out of their own interests?

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews, like the evangelical Christians, point out that President Trump is no different from the rest of humanity — someone who possesses “flaws like you and me”. This is a common refrain from some commentators, but does this mean that we are all therefore as flawed as Trump?

John Fea, a professor of evangelical history in America, in an acerbic comment to Baptist News Global last January, pointed out that such an explanation was “the theo-political version of money laundering, taking Scripture to clean up your candidate”.

What about those of Trump’s supporters who have always funded many worthy Jewish causes? Whereas Sheldon Adelson was willing to shell out nearly US$100 million in 2018 to ensure that the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate — in hindsight a failed and wasteful exercise — other traditional Republican donors such as Seth Klarman and Les Wexner turned away from the party because they worried about the fate of democracy in Trump’s America.

Several former Soviet Jews who had made their fortunes in the 1990s also willingly supported Trump. In the USSR, many Jews had been excluded from the professions because of state inspired anti-Semitism. Some therefore eagerly took to mathematics as an academic discipline and professional aspiration when it was offered to them. Others dabbled in the black market to makes ends meet.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and privatisation was embraced, some figures found themselves in the right place at the right time with the right expertise. They were joined by those who had already emigrated to the United States, studied the ways of capitalism and returned, ready to implement their newly acquired entrepreneurial skills in the new Russia.

Despite all this financial support for Trump, it made little difference to Jewish opinion. Within a few months of taking office in 2017, an American Jewish Committee survey indicated that 77% of American Jews viewed Trump’s presidency unfavourably — a figure much higher than in the general population. A consistent 70% opposed his policies on national security, terrorism, relations with Russia, immigration, relations with NATO, the Iran deal. Even then, before the recognition of Jerusalem, 54% were critical about Trump’s approach to the US-Israel relationship.

The mid-term elections in November 2018 produced a plethora of Jewish Democrats for the House of Representatives. Many such as Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, Nita Lowes, Eliot Engel, John Yarmuth and others became heads of House committees. Pro-Israel, but rarely pro-Netanyahu, they challenged Trump, not so much because he was a Republican, but because he methodically eroded the American dream of building a fair society for all — and was disparaging, in particular, about the poor immigrant.

Just before his death in 2018, the US writer, Philip Roth described his president as “a humanly impoverished con-man, destitute of all decency”. A growing number of Americans will concur with that sentiment. With 50 days to go before the US election, it is no exaggeration to suggest that many American Jews are hoping for a humiliating defeat for President Trump at the polls.

plus 61j 8 September 2020

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