Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands at the conclusion of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, US, October 9, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When a notable number of American Jews on both sides of the political spectrum write Facebook posts threatening to make aliya if their opposing candidate wins the US presidential contest, it can be taken as a reliable sign that no matter who won, this particular election was bad for the Jews.
In part that's because no matter what the outcome, this campaign was without question the dirtiest battle ever for the White House, and probably the most divisive since the Civil War. The brutal partisan contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump brought out not only the worst in both candidates, but empowered fringe elements within both the conservative and liberal camps that were largely submerged in previous presidential races.
Those far-Right and far-Left constitutiences, among other extremist positions, also hold views on Jews and Israel that lie well out of the mainstream of most American political discourse. In previous presidential elections the main party candidates had the luxury to either completely ignore, or roundly dismiss, these attitudes. That was not the case this time around, and the impact on both the Trump and Clinton campaigns was undeniable.
Trump flirted rhetorically during his entire run with the apparently growing number of ``Alt Right'' reactionaries who reject traditional conservatism for a more openly xenophobic populism directed against minorities, immigrants and and mostly everyone outside the U.S. (with the possible exception of Russian leader Vladimir Putin). This revived isolationist outlook also includes adopting old conspiracy theories railing against a vague ``global economic order'' out to weaken America, that always seems to include a disproportionate number of Jewish financial figures.
Three of the latter – Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellin, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and investor George Soros – were the only indiviuals besides the Clintons singled out in Trump's final campaign advertisment as guilty of assisting the ``global special interests'' who ``have bled our country dry.'' This pitch earned a justified rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League for using images and rhetoric that ``touch on subjects that anti-Semites have used for ages,'' and would have been unthinkable in any Republican presidential campaign of the past half-century.
The more politically extreme fringes of the Democratic party also found wider expression in this race, largely during Clinton's primary battle against Bernie Sanders. The independent Vermont senator adopts a far more negative position toward Israel than the majority of mainstream Democratic officeholders, and his supporters include a substantial constituency that take those views even further, including backing the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) movement against Israel.
While Clinton differentiated herself from Sanders and his followers as regards supporting Israel during their primary battle, she has tread more carefully on the subject in comparison than past Democratic presidential contenders, including her husband.
Wiki-leaked emails from her campaign team included advice from several of her top advisors that she simply avoid mentioning support for Israel at Democratic public events, limiting those kind of statements for private fundraisers with potential Jewish donors – and this was even before the emergance of a ``Sanders wing'' of the party even more hostile to boilerplate expressions of support for the Jewish State.
That stance should have opened a door of opportunity for Trump in such battleground states as Pennsylvania and Florida, where Jewish voters can provide decisive help in tipping a close election. But like Clinton, and notably unlike other recent Republican presidential candidates, Trump also seemed more inclined to just ignore the subject of Israel, rather than risk alienating a segment of his constituency who look less favourably on U.S. dollars going to any foreign state, including the Jewish one.
This campaign-trail taciturnity on Israel was most notable during the three debates between Clinton and Trump, when Israel barely merited two glancing references, a striking contrast to the 30 call-outs the Jewish state got in the 2012 face-offs between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
A glass half-full perspective might take solace by recalling the last presidential race, when debate and media focus over the role of Israel in the race sometimes seemed way too prominent, especially when it focused on the implicit support Benjamin Netanyahu was allegedly providing Romney, and the outside influence of Sheldon Adelson's campaign contributions. Isn't a move in the other direction a preferable step?
Maybe – except when the pendulum swings so far it reaches the point when candidates start believing that expressions of support for Israel are best mentioned as little as possible in public, and rhetoric that harkens to ``The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'' creeps back into mainstream political discourse.
This election has clearly unsettled no small number of Jews in the U.S., and a share of those watching it unfold from abroad, as well. Whether this will turn out to be a passing phenomenon related strictly to this particular campaign, or a portent of trends that will only broaden in the American political landscape in the years to come, will ultimately determine just how much, if anything, was lost for Israel and the Jews in this election.