Can you support Israel and be anti-Semitic? President Donald Trump has demonstrated this week that the answer is "yes."
Last week, Israel barred Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering because of their support for boycotts and sanctions protesting Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Trump has repeatedly insulted Omar and Tlaib in racist terms in the past, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision provided yet another opportunity to attack. For a Jewish American to support the Democrats, Trump said Tuesday, "shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."
As it happens, more than 75 percent of Jewish voters supported Democrats in the midterm election. Trump is thus calling three-quarters of American Jews stupid and/or treasonous. Moreover, he is doing so in explicitly anti-Semitic terms. Jewish people are often accused of having dual loyalty — their allegiance to the United States is supposedly compromised by their commitment to Jewish people and the Jewish state.
Yet, Trump deploys these anti-Semitic tropes in support of Israel.
This may seem like a contradiction. After all, if you support a Jewish nation, doesn't that mean you support Jewish people generally?
This may seem like a contradiction. After all, if you support a Jewish nation, doesn't that mean you support Jewish people generally? Some have argued it does; Morton Klein in the Forward, for example, argued that Trump adviser Steve Bannon could not be anti-Semitic for just such a reason.
The truth, though, is that it is easy to hate Jewish people in the United States while supporting Israel. You just have to embrace ethnonationalism.
Ethnonationalism is an ideology that argues that each ethnic group should have its own land and its own government. Trump has repeatedly embraced ethnonationalist policies and ideas. His whole presidency has been based on the belief that America belongs to white people like himself, and that people of color, or other marginalized people, are outsiders who weaken or corrupt the country's true character. Some of them can stay on sufferance, perhaps, but only if they defer to white people.
This is why Trump is so obsessed with walls and more than happy to ban Mexicans, Muslims and others whom he sees as outside his own white Christian identity group. It's why he talks about immigrants as being part of an "invasion" — language also used by the El Paso shooter. And it's why he said that congresswomen of color, including Tlaib and Omar, should "go back" to the places they "originally came from."
Trump often speaks as if Jewish people don't belong, either. In 2017, for example, Trump suggested that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish, should have to justify his opposition to Trump’s Iran policy — to Israel. The implication was that Schumer owed some kind of loyalty to Israel and its government. And now Trump has explicitly said that Jews who vote for Democrats are not displaying sufficient loyalty to the Jewish state.
But why should American Jews defer to Israel? The vast majority of us aren't citizens of Israel. And most of us don't like Netanyahu; his government's approval among American Jews stands at a dismal 41 percent.
The answer from Trump's perspective is obvious. America was founded by and for white Christians like himself. Jews are ethnic and religious others who don't inherently belong.
The Jews in the diaspora are displaced; our real home, for Trump, is over there. Israel is the ethnonationalist Jewish state; American Jews should be protecting and defending it from corruption by evil outsiders, just as Trump protects and defends his white borders.
Trump is a fan of Israel for several self-serving and interconnected reasons. Israel serves as a convenient ally against Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East, who are seen as enemy No. 1 by much of Trump's Christian evangelical base. In evangelical end-times narratives, the return of Jewish people to Israel is supposed to pave the way for Christ's return — at which point Jewish people will either convert or be damned. Good Jews accept their destiny — a narrative Trump implicitly cosigned Wednesday by quoting a conservative talk show calling him the "King of Israel." From Trump's perspective, Netanyahu has done his duty in preventing two black Muslim women from entering the homeland. Jewish people should be grateful to the Israeli prime minister. Those who aren't are disloyal— to Israel and to Trump, its "king."
This thinking is dangerous for Jewish people. In the first place, as noted above, Jewish people in America are not uniformly supportive of Israel in general, or of Netanyahu's government in particular. But linking all Jewish people everywhere to Israel makes it seem like all Jewish people everywhere are responsible for or culpable for Israel's actions. People who object to Israel's policies may use this as an excuse to target or persecute Jews in the diaspora.
Even more concerning, though, is the suggestion that American Jews don't belong in the United States and are not real members of this body politic. My family, as just one example, has been in the U.S. for five generations now. I have lived here all my life. I speak English, not Hebrew. If my home is not here, my home is nowhere.
Anti-Semites have often argued that Jews have no home. Joseph Stalin called us "rootless cosmopolitans"; a people lacking in the proper ethnic and nationalist attachments to be part of a powerful, unified, loyal state.
Even more concerning, though, is the suggestion that American Jews don't belong in the United States and are not real members of this body politic.
And Stalin, in his twisted way, was right. Jewish people have for a very long time been defined by their relationship to diaspora — and diaspora is, or can be, a repudiation of ethnonationalism. At its best, diaspora models a world in which people care for each other, and work together, not because they believe they share one blood or one pure destiny, but simply because they are neighbors. People belong where they are, wherever that may be. The goal of a community is not to purify itself of supposed unhealthy, unwanted elements. The goal of a community is to create a better life together.
That isn't what Trump thinks, though. For him, some people belong, and others must be excluded, expelled and walled off. So far, his main ire hasn't been directed against Jewish people. He even has a Jewish son-in-law, as his supporters are quick to remind critics. Jews, for Trump, can be tolerated. We just need to vote for the right party. We just need to know our place.