Guns and walls

How Trump and his supporters are changing Israel’s image in the US.

A LIKUD CAMPAIGN poster in Jerusalem featuring the Trump- Netanyahu bond. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A LIKUD CAMPAIGN poster in Jerusalem featuring the Trump- Netanyahu bond.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘Super-Trump, he’s the prince of Jerusalem,” sang The Jerusalem Flowers, a choir of religious boys who dressed in tuxedos for an unusual performance on an Israeli morning news show on June 21. A music video played in the background, showing the kippah-wearing American president at the Western Wall, along with an emotive mix of the Statue of Liberty, the Old City of Jerusalem and American flags. A bizarre wax-like figure of Trump watching from a couch was shown intermittently, seemingly approving of the boys’ performance.
The Jerusalem Flowers are not alone. Israelis love Trump. According to a 2018 Pew Poll, 69% of Israelis approve of the American president. Indeed, with the American Embassy move to Jerusalem, the US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and Trump’s standing up to anti-Israel actions at the UN, he seems like a dream come true for Israel. Trump’s warm relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are all the more striking when contrasted with the troubled relationship between Netanyahu and former president Barack Obama. At the same time that Trump was greeted by protests and giant angry baby balloons in London last month, Ramat Trump (“Trump Heights”), a new town in the Golan Heights, was named in his honor.
When asked how they could support such a controversial and morally off-putting figure, Israelis tend to explain it as a tactical move. Sure, his personality is outrageous, but Israel can’t afford to be picky with so much of the world against it and the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment Movement to boot. It’s a savvy move by the Start-Up Nation. Kiss up to Trump’s ego, turn a blind eye to his bad behavior and reap the rewards. After all, we are allies with mutual strategic interests.
But something seems to be getting lost in translation. Israelis who pride themselves on not being frayerim (“suckers”) assume that they are using Trump, since he is giving them what they want. But this love fest with Trump and the Republican Party comes with a price that many Israelis are entirely unaware of.
Until now, support for Israel has had bipartisan support in the US. Today, however, thanks to Netanyahu, Israel has increasingly become a partisan issue. Netanyahu is a longtime member of Republican neo-conservative circles who is backed by major Republican donors such as Sheldon Adelson. He consciously plays into American domestic politics when, for example, behind President Obama’s back in 2015, he accepted a Republican invitation to address Congress on the Iran deal. Today, support for Israel has become just another one of a bundle of issues – along with supporting access to guns, being tough on immigration and opposing abortions – which signal that someone is a Republican. The problem is that only one in six American Jews identifies as Republican.
Moreover, unlike Netanyahu, most Israelis, who do not typically follow American domestic politics, may not be aware how Trump and the Republican Party are using Israel as a poster child to push their domestic agenda in disingenuous ways.
The most obvious example is guns. America has a problem with public shootings, primarily due to its lax gun laws. After the horrific 2019 Parkland shooting in which an armed student walked into a school in Florida and killed 17 people, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee tweeted that Israel “pretty much eliminated it [school shootings] by placing highly trained people strategically to spot the one common thread – not the weapon, but a person with intent.” This message went viral.
But that was fake news. While many Israelis learn to shoot a gun as part of their military training, the country tightly restricts private gun ownership. The right to carry a private gun in Israel requires having a job that necessitates being armed, meeting tough personal requirements, and submitting a declaration of health signed by a doctor. All this is just so the gun owner can buy a tiny pistol with no more than 50 bullets. It is not even possible to buy automatic weapons in Israel.
Israel has a ratio of about one gun shop for every 230,000 Israelis, while the ratio in the US is 1:5,045, the highest in the world. In Israel, guns are not seen as a right and a check to government power. As one article put it, “Israelis are armed not against the state, but by the state against external threats like terror attacks.”
Then there is the wall. Trump frequently uses Israel to push for his wall on the southern border of the US with Mexico. “A wall protects,” said Trump in one interview in 2017. “All you have to do is ask Israel. They were having a total disaster coming across and they had a wall. It’s 99.9% stoppage.” But Israel’s barrier is a fence, and it has hardly helped with rockets from Gaza. Israel’s wall is to stop terrorists, while Trump’s wall is to stop labor migrants.
Israel cares about its public image. It invests heavily in public diplomacy efforts abroad and aims to present itself as a gay pride parade-hosting, tech-savvy, beach-loving nation. But Trump and his Republican allies are gaining growing control over Israel’s image in the US, Israel’s most important ally. Israel is anything but a gun-loving, abortion-hating, anti-government paradise. We have strict gun control, abortions are uncontroversial and often free, and we by in large trust our government. But Israelis should understand that Netanyahu’s siding with Trump means siding with these values and defending them. It also means eroding Israel’s alliance with the 70% of American Jews who identify as Democrats.
America, unlike Israel, has term limits on its top leader. Trump will either be gone next year or in four years. The bargain with Trump may turn out to be a rip-off. Israel needs to start thinking about the morning after.
The writer is an Israeli undergraduate student at Stanford University and the 2019 recipient of the George and Charlotte Shultz Fellowship in Modern Israel Studies.

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