Who started weaponizing Jewish identity in U.S. politics, Trump or Obama?

“Here’s my question. As Obama donned his yarmulke and embraced your community, did you also catch the hint of a warning?”

August 22, 2019 21:24
Donald Trump Barack Obama

Donald Trump speaks to Barack Obama at Trump's presidential inauguration in Washington, US, January 20, 2017. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

The classic antisemitic trope of Jewish dual loyalty is one that stretches back thousands of years across many different lands, but always with the same fundamental theme: Jews are more loyal to their co-religionists and religion than to the land where they reside and its rulers.

And it is now something that has leapt into the headlines because of US President Donald Trump’s statement on Tuesday: “I think Jewish people that vote for a Democrat – I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”

The remarks triggered a furor among American Jews, even though it was not clear to whom Trump believed Democratic Jews were being disloyal – to their people, to Israel, or to him for not voting Republican despite all that he has done for the Jewish state.

On Wednesday, the president clarified his remarks, saying that he thought Jews voting Democratic are “being disloyal to Jewish people and you’re being very disloyal to Israel.”

American Jews – or at least organized American Jewry – have long lived with a degree of anxiety that their allegiance to the US will be questioned. One of the reasons often given for a lack of sympathy that many American Jews felt for Jonathan Pollard – an American Jew spying for Israel – was a fear that his case would trigger the “Jews are not loyal” canard, and that all Jews in government would then become suspect.

The dual loyalty issue was addressed in a series of letters in 1950 between prime minister David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, an American Jewish industrialist and head of the American Jewish Committee. That exchange of letters is seen as one of the foundational documents guiding Israel’s ties with American Jewry.

“It is most unfortunate that since our State came into being, some confusion and misunderstanding should have arisen as regards the relationship between Israel and the Jewish communities abroad, in particular that of the United States,” Ben-Gurion wrote. “These misunderstandings are likely to alienate sympathies and create disharmony where friendship and close understanding are of vital necessity. To my mind, the position is perfectly clear. The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel.”

That letter was written nearly 70 years ago, but – as the Trump comments and ensuing furor indicates – the issue it touched on is as delicate and relevant today as it was then.

Even if Trump was implying that a Jewish vote for the Democratic Party was a disloyalty of Jews to their own people and to Israel – and not to America – it remains problematic by implying that Jews naturally should be more loyal to Israel, an idea providing fertilizer for those trying to plant the seed that US Jews are more loyal to Jerusalem than to Washington.

But Trump is not the first president to go down this path. There is a strong argument to be made that his predecessor, Barack Obama, also raised the specter of dual loyalty, but – being Obama and not Trump – in a much more subtle form.

On May 22, 2015, at the very height of the storm over the Iranian nuclear deal – after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued against it in a controversial appearance before Congress, and just before the Senate was to vote on it – Obama gave a speech at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington on the occasion of Jewish American Heritage Month.

In that speech, he channeled Jewish values to argue that essentially, the Jewish thing would be to approve the deal, as well as to make the accommodations toward the Palestinians that Netanyahu – whom he did not mention by name in the speech – was unwilling to make.

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and a former defense department and National Security Council official, wrote an open letter a week later to the Adas Israel congregation in an article in Mosaic magazine.

“Here’s my question,” Doran – who is not Jewish – wrote. “As Obama donned his yarmulke and embraced your community, did you also catch the hint of a warning? If you did, it was because the president was raising, very subtly, the specter of dual loyalty: the hoary allegation that Jews pursue their tribal interests to the detriment of the wider community or nation.

“Obama was certainly not engaging in anything so crude as that; nor is he an enemy of the Jewish people,” he continued. “But he did imply that many Jews — that is, Jews who support Benjamin Netanyahu — have indeed placed their narrow, ethnic interests above their commitment to universal humanistic values. In his view, they have betrayed those values. And so the warning was faint, but unmistakable: if Jews wish to avoid being branded as bigots, then they — you — must line up with him against Netanyahu.”

Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, in an updated edition of his memoir Ally, wrote briefly about that speech, and Doran’s take on it.

“Speaking at Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue, he [Obama] recalled how Jeffrey Goldberg… called him ‘the first Jewish president,’ and described himself as an ‘honorary member of the tribe.’ He likened the Jewish struggle for equality to that of African-Americans’ and to the Palestinians’ quest for statehood, and talked about how the pre-1967 Israeli values ‘of Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir’ worked for world betterment – Tikkun Olam. Then at length he justified the Iran deal.”

Oren wrote that he did not detect the “threat” that Doran did, but that he certainly picked up an Obama syllogism: “My values produced the Iran deal, these are also Jewish values, therefore Jews must uphold the agreement.”

In other words, Obama’s message in that speech was that his values are Jewish values; his values created the Iranian nuclear deal; and therefore, Jews loyal to their own values will support the nuclear deal, and not Netanyahu who doesn’t represent Jewish values.

According to this argument, therefore, Obama’s message was not that different than Trump’s: “If you are a good Jew, than you are with me,” meaning that the weaponization of Jewish identity – dragging Jewish identity into the polarization of American politics – might very well have begun not with the current president, but rather with the previous one.

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