The Jews of America are exhausted. The past three years under Trump have been a perplexing and somber reminder that antisemitism and racism are alive and well. Since Trump’s election we’ve witnessed white supremacists march in the streets of Charlottesville, threats and vandalism on synagogues and Jewish community centers, assassination attempts on multiple high-profile Jewish Democrats, and in Pittsburg, the deadliest mass shooting of Jews in American history.
The GOP and an increasingly irritable Donald Trump have weaponized cries of antisemitism for right wing causes, almost never on behalf of the majority of diaspora Jews, but instead co-opting extremist Israeli views (such as withholding civilian aid to Gaza and the West Bank) as their own and dangerously casting them representative of the American Jewish community at large. The beloved GOP red herring of labeling any and all criticism of Israel or its occupation of Palestinians as antisemitic only detracts from the very real instances of antisemitism occurring across the globe.
The vast majority of these vapid statements on antisemitism have been largely ignored due to the tumultuous, toxic, and perplexing daily communications transmitting from Trump on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. That was the norm until last week, when the President of the United States dared to accuse American Jews of being disloyal and uninformed for voting Democratic, saying “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Given an opportunity to revise or retract, Trump doubled-down on these comments, ignoring the fact that in 2016 and 2018 Jewish voters cast their ballots for Democrats at 71% and 79%, respectively.
As countless other scholars, leaders, and writers have already pointed out, such accusations of dual loyalty originate from a deeply antisemitic place, once invoked by the likes of Adolf Hitler to dehumanize Jews and strip them of their citizenship, now a vehicle for dividing Democrats on Israel and delegitimizing over a century of Jewish voting trends in America.
It’s also worth noting that Trump’s accusations are well within his wheelhouse. Since taking office, the president has made numerous problematic comments to Jewish groups and surrounded his cabinet with closeted racists and antisemites, such as former chairman of Breitbart Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, a Jewish member of the Trump administration and chief architect of its cruel immigration policies. Bannon infamously made comments from 2007 that resurfaced after his appointment as White House Chief Strategist, complaining about his children attending school with “whiny Jews.” Meanwhile, Miller’s own uncle publicly lambasted his nephew for his nativist anti-immigrant views, all of which are most certainly antithetical to Jewish principles.
The GOP has an anti-Semitism problem, one that is galvanized by Donald Trump, fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of Zionism, and driven by an obsession to appeal to and mobilize evangelical Christian voters. Republicans continue excusing racially charged sentiments from this president out of fear of being attacked on Trump’s twitter, or worse, facing a primary challenge. While it is certainly unfair to claim the GOP to be majority racist and anti-Semitic, those who harbor hatred have unquestionably been given a sense of freedom since Trump’s election. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported just this February that “the number of white nationalist groups, those particularly electrified by Trump’s presidency, surged by almost 50 percent – from 100 groups to 148.”
Simultaneously, there is a fundamental misunderstanding that assumes criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. While we should be wary of arguments that seek to delegitimize Israel’s status as a sovereign nation state, criticizing its government under Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly anti-Semitic. Netanyahu is rightfully under the threat of indictment for corruption charges and has consistently worked to undermine peace efforts by increasing Jewish presence in illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Groups like J Street U, Breaking the Silence, and New Israel Fund are working tirelessly to provide a more nuanced and critical understanding of the geopolitical dimensions of the conflict than the one promoted by Taglit Birthright Israel and others who seek to delegitimize Palestinian claims and ties to the land. But this isn’t enough to shift the conversation. We need to rebrand the debate.
For the first time since the emergence of Zionism, it seems that members of the diaspora Jewish world are facing a politically manufactured choice: are you pro- or anti- Israel? I find this question detestable, suspicious, and misinformed at best, and manipulative propaganda at worst. I hate this question.
Presenting a complex, non-binary issue in such explicitly binary terms not only stifles criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestinians, but also forces us to conform our views to inadequate and overly-simplistic categories: for or against. How can we have an honest, informed dialogue when our language stands as a barrier to productive discourse? While we argue the right of Israel to exist (which, at this point should be settled) what is to come of the millions of Palestinians who reside in occupied territories? Does Judaism not teach us to love and not oppress the stranger? Does Judaism not teach us the importance of repairing the world through acts of loving kindness? Does Judaism not teach us to pursue justice at all costs?
At this crucial moment, we have an opportunity to deny the American and Israeli right wing the power to frame the discussion. If we change the dialogue itself, rejecting the notion that a nuanced stance toward the state of Israel could be boiled down to “for or against,” we might somehow discover a more meaningful and productive pathway toward ending the suffering in the occupied territories, all while making Israel more secure and transforming it into a project more aligned with its founding ideals and principles.
The notion that Jews must maintain loyalty to the state of Israel is itself antisemitic, even if it is what the Jewish Right believes to be true. Both American and Israeli Jews have an important job in 2019 and 2020: stop the spread of right-wing extremism and change the conversation around Israel. Like it or not, Israel will be on the ballot in 2020, and candidates can already be seen engaging on the issue leading up to the Democratic primaries. Should we fail to expand our discourse on Israel, we stand to lose sight of the immediate needs of Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza, the latter of which is said to be unlivable in its present state. What’s more, should Israel continue its military occupation of Palestinian areas, it will threaten the security of a region already rife with conflict.