Last week I traveled with my wife to Miami, Florida, to attend the annual Israeli-American Council convention where, among many other distinguished guests and speakers, President Donald Trump was set to address the thousands of Israeli and pro-Israel Americans who had gathered there. Never before had a sitting American president addressed the convention, but then again, Trump’s relationship with Israel has in many ways been unprecedented.
In his address, Trump hailed the “unbreakable” bond between the United States and Israel, both “woven together by history, heritage and the hearts of our people. The Jewish people,” he went on, “have endured, persevered and flourished beyond measure, building a thriving, proud, beautiful and mighty nation in the Holy Land.” At another point, he announced in no unclear terms the truth that many Jews have waited decades to hear: “International law does not prohibit settlements in the West Bank.”
The world’s most powerful leader connected touchingly to the world-renowned Israeli Shalva Band, who performed shortly after. The band is composed of Israeli special needs children, some of whom were wearing yarmulkes. Seeing the president hug them on stage was profoundly moving.
In the wake of the address, particular pundits and personalities from one side of the American political spectrum stormed social and conventional media platforms to attack the speech, which they loudly claimed was antisemitic.
One rabbi tweeted that Trump’s antisemitism was “not even coded... he’s saying this. Out loud. To a room full of Jews.” The former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Aaron Keyak, called Trump’s words “dangerous” enough to be of concern to “even Jewish Republicans.” One director at J Street said Trump had “surpassed Nixon” in his “contempt for Jewish Americans.”
One doesn’t even need to have sat through the entire speech as I did to understand just how ridiculous these claims are. Here you had the president of the United States addressing a massive and almost completely Jewish audience on the topic of Israel, to which he shows unprecedented sympathy and support. All throughout, he receives genuine appreciation and applause, with people sitting gob-smacked at the site of an American president saying “God bless Israel and America” over and over again, conjoining the two as inseparable allies. Are we meant to believe he was spewing antisemitism?
You’ve got to be kidding.
Of course, if you were at the speech, you’d understand why his words were received so warmly. His address, which lasted for nearly an hour, was possibly the most pro-Israel address ever delivered by an occupant of our nation’s highest office. More importantly, seen in the context within which they were given, you’d understand that his words were not antisemitic, but were more likely decontextualized and otherwise manipulated to seem that way.
For example, Dean Obeidallah writing for CNN claimed that Trump employed the antisemitic trope of “Jewish dual-loyalties” when he said that some Jews “don’t love Israel enough.”
Ironically, Obeidallah’s implication that a roomful of thousands of Jews would cheer at blatant “antisemitism” implies far more Jewish disloyalty than anything the president could even be misunderstood to have said.
But what’s important is that Trump was not questioning Jewish loyalty to the United States, which is the key ingredient to the dual-loyalties charge. Rashida Tlaib was guilty of employing the trope when she said that those opposing the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement “forgot what country they represent.”
Ilhan Omar was guilty of the same when she let an audience guess which American community is “pushing for allegiance to a foreign country [emphasis mine].” Both implied that Jews who support Israel are not fully loyal to America, which means they are not fully American. They were not commenting on American Jews’ loyalty to Israel, which is a matter of choice. Supporting the country where you live, conversely, is a matter of duty.
Trump, however, said those words in the context of what he said immediately before, namely that, “We have to get the people of this country to love Israel more.” He was saying that his campaign to rally American support for the Jewish state should itself be supported by the Jewish community. Considering Jewish support for Obama’s disastrous Iran deal was 20 percentage points higher than for Americans overall, he may have a point.
Those of us who work as professionals in the organized community are well aware of the alarming statistics that support for Israel is declining among American Jews, especially among the youth and especially on campus. There is nothing new in these reports, and the community is engaged in an ongoing debate as to how to reverse it. Why Trump’s comments were controversial is beyond me.
Perhaps people felt that Jews have a right to say it but not those outside the community. But this is the most pro-Israel president in American history. He has a right to ask American Jewry to join him in fighting the delegitimization of Israel at the UN and getting more countries, like the United States did, to recognize Jerusalem as the Jewish people’s eternal capital.
OBEIDALLAH ALSO claimed that Trump depicted Jews as being “hyper-focused on money.” He was referring to a part of the speech where Trump said that even those who don’t like him will still vote for him to avoid paying Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s “wealth tax,” which he claimed would put them “out of business in about 15 minutes.”
Nothing about this is specific to Jews, and versions of this argument have been made by wealth-tax detractors like Bill Gates, Marc Cuban and, of course, the president and members of his campaign. That Trump repeated one of his standard campaign slogans – which he recites before nearly every audience – about an opponent’s economics shouldn’t cause a stir, even before a roomful of Jews.
What’s most shocking is that Obeidallah, with whom I debated on national TV, has used his own platforms on The Daily Beast and other outlets to rehabilitate and even lionize Representatives Omar and Tlaib in the wake of their own unimagined use of antisemitic tropes (their offenses going far beyond those mentioned above). That he will mince and jumble their words in defending them means we shouldn’t be surprised when he slices and dices those of the president in order to attack him.
I simply do not believe in either of these cases that Obeidallah even attempted to understand the antisemitism American Jews are actually facing. If he did, he wouldn’t be the PR czar for the two politicians who made the word “trope” a thing.
It’s one thing to ignore real antisemitism where it roars loudest, in BDS and in the political extremes. It’s another to sharpen Jewish pain and vulnerability into yet another tomahawk to hurl at the president – certainly not a president who moved America’s embassy to Jerusalem, took us out of the Iran deal, defends Israel at the UN, and recognized the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory.
Judaism believes in gratitude, and whether the reader is a Democrat or a Republican, whether you love the president or loathe him, surely we should give credit for what was one of the most pro-Israel speeches ever given by an American president. At the very least, let’s not spin outrageously to suggest it was antisemitic.
The writer is the author of Judaism for Everyone and the founder of the World Values Network. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.