Perhaps the only thing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have in common is they both have Jewish son-in-laws. Although Trump says he gets advice from his regarding Israel, neither candidate is going to win any votes based on familial connections. The man with the deepest Republican Jewish pocket in the election, Sheldon Adelson, is backing Trump because he believes he is good for Israel. Even if this is true, most Jewish Republicans will have a hard time voting for him.
I frankly have no idea whether Trump would be good for Israel, but a number of red flags have to make Jews worried. First, Trump has no foreign policy experience and, worse shows little knowledge or sophistication when it comes to Middle East affairs. Though he is one of the few to understand, or at least publicly admit, that radical Islam is a problem, his ideas for combating it, including barring Muslims from entering the United States, are ill-conceived.
He set off alarm bells in February 2015 when he told an interviewer he’d be “a neutral guy” when it comes to negotiating the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Though he walked this back later, his first thought was not to stand behind Israel or to call out the Palestinians for their recalcitrance. His position is not so difficult to understand for a guy who has made a living as a negotiator. Given his lack of religious or personal attachment to Israel, it would not be surprising if he saw the conflict as just one more negotiation between competing parties. Like James Baker when he was Secretary of State, Trump may treat the parties like the auto industry and the UAW.
When Trump appeared before AIPAC soon after, he came prepared with all the guaranteed applause lines. This was reputed to be the first speech that was prepared for him and that he read from a teleprompter (reportedly his son-in-law advised him), no doubt because his Jewish supporters wanted to make sure he didn’t make any mistakes speaking in his typical off-the-cuff manner.
Some people protested against AIPAC even inviting Trump to speak and others were disturbed by the positive reception he received. AIPAC could not ignore the leading candidate for the Republican nomination so his invitation was a no-brainer. As to the applause, Jews have a Pavlovian response to magic words, such as, “We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem – and we will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel. The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.”
A good part of that speech was devoted to bashing Obama’s policy toward Israel, especially on Iran, which resonated with a large percentage of the attendees. A few weeks later, he threw more red meat to the Jewish Republicans when he said, “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
Still, Trump has no overarching foreign policy vision or ideology. He seems to tilt toward isolationism, which is troubling, and he has little knowledge defense and security issues.
You can usually tell a lot about a candidate from their advisers, but Trump said he would be his own foreign policy adviser. Moreover, the people who have been publicly named as advisers is an unimpressive group that lacks any serious Middle East experts.
For Israelis, Trump is a wild card and they can’t predict what he will do. He is likely to be friendly to Israel because its leaders are the tough types that he likes and he recognizes that Israelis share American values and interests. On the other hand, if a disagreement arises, he’s liable to bring hellfire down on Israel. He does not react well to being challenged, as we’ve seen in his reaction to the media.
Of course, there are all those other issues unrelated to Israel that also concern Jews. The bigoted statements, the support of the NRA, his opposition to abortion and the failure to condemn anti-Semitic supporters who have attacked Jews critical of Trump. He certainly won’t attract Jewish Democrats with those views. Some of his economic policies may be appealing, such as rescinding Obamacare, and many Jews probably take some pleasure in seeing him take on the media given the bias they see in reporting on Israel.
Whatever policies Trump espouses, he may have trouble getting any through Congress. He’s bad-mouthed Republicans throughout the campaign and they may lose seats in the House and Senate. Democrats certainly won’t cooperate with him so he may find himself governing like Obama, often by Executive Order. Unless Democrats reach a majority in Congress, Clinton may be in a similar position as Republicans will oppose her tooth and nail.
Jewish Democrats are solidly behind Clinton based in part on her Senate record, close ties to the Jewish community and their hope that Bill will counsel her on Israel issues. Against a different candidate, Trump might not have gotten more than a handful of Jewish votes; however, most Jewish Republicans are in the ABH camp – Anyone But Hillary. Still, Trump is proving difficult for many Jews to stomach, which is why people like Bill Kristol have been looking for some way to derail his nomination or promote a conservative independent candidate.
It is especially frustrating for Jewish Republicans to be in this position given their belief that they were making some headway in attracting new party members. This election is likely to set them back for a decade or more because, unless something drastic happens (Hillary is indicted?), Trump is likely to challenge the record low Jewish vote for a Republican candidate of 10 percent that ignominiously backed Goldwater, Dewey and Wilkie.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.