News outlets are abuzz with outraged reaction to several recent statements from former president Trump. One such statement is this: “It used to be that Israel had absolute power over Congress. And today, I think it’s the exact opposite.” And this: “There are people in this country that are Jewish — no longer love Israel. I’ll tell you, the evangelical Christians love Israel more than Jews in this country.”
In the past, I’ve both defended and criticized some of Trump’s more controversial utterances. For example, I’ve argued that, when he famously referred to “very fine people, on both sides,” he was definitely not asserting any moral equivalence between white supremacists and neo-Nazis, on the one hand, and people who abhor racism and bigotry, on the other.
I’ve also insisted that Trump used racist language when he said that four progressive members of Congress—all of whom are women of color, two of whom are Muslim, one of whom is a naturalized US citizen and three of whom are natural-born US citizens—should “go back” where they came from. With regard to that Trump tweet, I wrote: “[I]t is a sad, disappointing, and embarrassing day when our president stoops to such language.”
So, I hope I have some credibility when it comes to evaluating Trump’s eyebrow-raising, click-generating off-the-cuff pronouncements. And with that bit of preemptive self-defense, I’ll turn to the latest chapter in the collected works of Donald J. Trump.
The idea that, in times past, Israel “had absolute power over Congress” is ridiculous on its face—there has never been such a time—and also is foolishly, stupidly consistent with classic antisemitic canards that Jews somehow secretly control governments, media, international finance, etc. No intelligent person, and certainly no former president, should be so thoughtless as to use such language. Trump ought to be ashamed of himself (if that were possible).
It’s also worth noting, however, that Trump clearly had no antisemitic intent in making that assertion. Look at what he said: Israel used to have “absolute power over Congress. And today … it’s the exact opposite.” Now, does anyone believe that today the US Congress has “absolute power” over Israel? Is Israel the puppet of the US? Does Israel do whatever the US wishes it to do? Of course not.
It is obvious that Trump, with his characteristic sloppy, careless way of thinking and speaking, simply meant to say that Israel had more influence in the US Congress in the past than it has now. I believe that any fair-minded observer would agree with that latter observation as a matter of fact, and there is no element of antisemitism in acknowledging that fact.
After all, seventeen members of the House of Representatives recently voted against condemning the BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—movement against Israel, and at least two current members (Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib) explicitly support BDS. Interestingly, Rep. Omar was appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Still, on its face, what Trump said does echo classic antisemitic themes, and therefore it does merit criticism.
What about Trump’s claim that there are Jewish Americans who “no longer love Israel”? Again, the reactions were quite heated. The American Jewish Committee responded by saying that Trump’s “past support for Israel doesn’t give him license to traffic in radioactive antisemitic tropes — or peddle unfounded conclusions about the unbreakable ties that bind American Jews to Israel. Enough!”
But, is it a fact that there are “unbreakable ties that bind American Jews to Israel”? No doubt the AJC wishes that were so, but evidence suggests otherwise.
Consider the case of one Peter Beinart, who has been described by The New Yorker magazine as “the most influential liberal Zionist of his generation.” (One fervently hopes that’s not an accurate description, but The New Yorker thinks it is.) Beinart is someone who characterizes himself as a “cultural Zionist.” What exactly is a cultural Zionist? Funny you should ask.
When Beinart himself was asked that question, he explained that, as a cultural Zionist, he doesn’t “believe … in a Jewish State.” Instead, he believes “in a Jewish society which didn’t have to be constructed like a state…. Not in a Jewish State, yes in the importance of a Jewish society in Israel, which can flourish in ֵa state of all its citizeֵns or a federation which gives equal rights to all. The Jewish People need a place, but there doesn’t have to be a Jewish State.”
Here we have a person who allegedly is “the most influential liberal Zionist of his generation,” and that person very candidly expresses his view that Israel—the one majority-Jewish state among the 193 member-states of the United Nations—could properly and advantageously be replaced by some kind of vaguely defined bi-national or federated state in which a Jewish society can “flourish.” So, hello Jewish society, goodbye Jewish state.
I have, in a prior op-ed, expressed my opinion of Beinart and his uninformed, infantile worldview. But can any person who wants to see Israel disappear as a Jewish state be said to have an “unbreakable tie” with today’s Israel, which is the nation-state of the Jewish people? Can pigs fly?
People may be up in arms over Trump’s bluntly provocative statement, but the sad truth is that there are lots of American Jews, particularly younger ones, who do not highly value Israel at all. With pied pipers like Beinart leading them, that trend will only intensify. For American Jews who want to see Israel continue to thrive as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Trump performs a service when he highlights that very unhappy trend.