Trump, in the presidential tradition of Jewish advocacy

Since such vitriolic speech never emanated from the halls of Congress, no earlier president faced the same challenge or seized the historic chance to respond as did Donald Trump.

August 8, 2019 22:06
2 minute read.
Trump, in the presidential tradition of Jewish advocacy

U.S. President Donald Trump . (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Lost in the invective over the politics of US President Trump, is that his path-breaking attack on Congressional antisemitic rhetoric follows the tradition of his White House predecessors who over some two and a half centuries rose to defend Jewish wellbeing.

No previous president directly and personally attacked a member of the US Congress on this score, because the viciousness expressed by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar never surfaced in American history. Her castigating Jews as owing “allegiance to a foreign country” using influence to buy preference for Israel – it’s “all about Benjamins” – and referring to her “Jewish colleagues” as though they are Congressional outliers, provided the president with material to denounce her, and less so her progressive cohort. Since such vitriolic speech never emanated from the halls of Congress, no earlier president faced the same challenge or seized the historic chance to respond as did Donald Trump.

Though Jews have always comprised a numerically small percentage of the US population, there is a whole literature on relations between the presidents and the Jews. In the early years, given the cultural goal of starting a “New Zion” in this new world, admiration was basically shown to the People of the Book. There was also awareness of the record of Jewish persecution. Thus in his famous exchange with the Newport Hebrew Congregation in 1790, George Washington wrote that in this new land there should be for “bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

John Adams asserted that the Jews “have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and happily than any other nation.” Jefferson in his native Virginia fought to remove from its books a law on “disabilities for dissenters and Jews.”

In the 19th century, presidents fought manifestations of antisemitism, whether in Czarist Russia, Swiss cantons or a Damascus blood libel. Lincoln quickly rescinded the infamous Order Number Eleven promulgated by General Ulysses S. Grant ordering the removal of Jews in Tennessee the next day.

In more recent administrations, presidents have focused on Israeli security as a keystone of American foreign policy. In 1969, before entering the White House, Gerald Ford said, “I therefore cannot conceive of a situation in which the US administration will sell Israel down the Nile.” Similarly, in 1984, Ronald Reagan warned, “If Israel is forced out of the United Nations, the United States and Israel will walk together.” Reagan also made clear to the Soviet Union that relations between the two countries will always be limited unless Moscow allows Jews to emigrate.

Thus, when President Trump attacks Rep. Omar for antisemitism, he is supported by sound historical precedent. In earlier periods, though members of Congress may have harbored nasty feelings about Jews, they never demonstrated her frontal assaults.

President Trump deserves more credit than chalking up his attacks on her simply to political partisanship. Having grown up in Queens, New York, and having made his fortune in the New York real estate industry, a largely Jewish enterprise, many of his friends and associates are Jews. They helped this president navigate through his personal travails. He seems to be proud of his Jewish grandchildren, who would – as grownups – experience the ire of a country beset with a more antisemitic ethos. And isn’t there a resonance between this scrappy hustler in the White House and the impossible achievements of modern Israel?

The writer is a professor emeritus at CUNY and author of the forthcoming book, Strangers and Natives, a Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America.

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