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Trump’s Jewish Identity Politics

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Whenever a public figure starts talking about Jewish loyalty, it should be alarming to any person of conscience. Throughout history, questioning the allegiance of Jews has been used as a pretext for show trials, expulsions and pogroms.

So President Donald Trump’s recent comments that Jews who vote Democratic are displaying “great disloyalty” has prompted a round of denunciations. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned, Trump’s rhetoric is “encouraging — wittingly or unwittingly — anti-Semites throughout the country and world.”

That is an understandable criticism. Trump proves over and again that he does not appreciate the power of the president’s words. He should be more careful.

At the same time, the context of these particular comments shows that he is not engaging in anti-Semitism. In the modern context, the questioners of Jewish loyalty — think of Representative Ilhan Omar — tend to aim their calumny at the Jewish state: Diaspora Jews, according to this slander, are more loyal to Israel than to the country where they are citizens.

By contrast, Trump has raised the issue of Jewish loyalty not to question Jewish allegiance to the U.S., but to ask why Jewish Americans are not more loyal to Israel. His point is that the Republican Party, and his policies in particular, have been a boon to the Jewish state. Why wouldn’t Jewish Americans reward him with their votes?

In this respect, Trump’s comments are a rejection of the nativist claim that Jewish citizens are more loyal to Israel than to the U.S.  After all, his administration moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. His administration recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He has used his bully pulpit to call out progressives like Omar, who suggest American support for Israel undermines the national interest. His diplomats have pressed countries like Argentina and Paraguay to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

And yet if past is prelude, the vast majority of Jewish Americans will vote against him next year. This obviously bothers Trump.

That’s no excuse for questioning the loyalty of Jewish Democrats to Israel. It’s possible to support Israel and oppose Trump’s ostensible pro-Israel positions. Plenty of American Jews still believe the U.S. should press Israel to make more concessions for a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. Pro-Israel Americans disagreed with Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Ardent Zionists over the years have opposed U.S. military aid to Israel because it makes Israel too dependent on a powerful ally.

More important, Trump is assuming that Jewish Americans should vote as a single bloc. This kind of identity politics has long infuriated Republicans, quite justifiably. Just last month, many conservatives criticized Representative Ayanna Pressley when she told activists, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice.”

Just as there is no single “brown voice,” there is not a single Jewish voice. One of the strengths of the Jewish diaspora has been its capacity to nurture vigorous debate. It’s a tradition that goes back to the Talmud. It’s strange that a president who has so strongly supported the Jewish state doesn’t understand that.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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