Opinion

Trump's disloyalty slur is about shoring up support from evangelicals, not American Jews: Neil Macdonald

Clearly, Trump is betting that base hatreds and tribalism will send him to the White House for a second term. Given modern America, that's probably a smart bet.  

The attack was not really about Jewish American voters at all. Trump wrote them off long ago

Clearly, Trump is betting that base hatreds and tribalism will send him to the White House for a second term. Given modern America, that's probably a smart bet.   (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

So America's president now says most Jewish American voters are either ignorant or disloyal.

It's such a dreadful thing to say, so heavy with historical hatred and violence, that it's utterly unsurprising in U.S. President Donald Trump's mouth. And his supporters nod and say he's right. (Imagine the reaction if, say, former President Barack Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that any Jew who votes Republican  "shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.")

But it was bound to happen. Trump eventually slurs anyone who inconveniences him, and the plain, measurable fact is that a large majority of Jewish American voters continue to vote Democrat.

There are various hypotheses for this. I tend to think it's because most American Jews are relatively well educated urban dwellers, and, for good reason, have a history in America of involvement in progressive causes and identification with minorities.

In any case, it drives Republicans crazy, particularly Trump. In Trump's lizard political brain, all Jews should unconditionally support Israel, so all American Jews should support him, the greatest supporter of Israel in the history of America and Israel. 

Did he not, thinks the lizard brain, move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and recognize Israeli sovereignty over land it occupies? Did he not cut off American aid to the Palestinians? Does he not smear Muslims regularly?  Has the Israeli government not named one of its settlements "Trump Heights" in gratitude? What's wrong with you people anyway? You must be idiots. Or disloyal. Probably disloyal idiots.

In sly, nasty Trump fashion, he left the obvious question of whom American Jews are disloyal to unanswered. Disloyal to Israel? To right-thinking America? To Judaism? Probably all of the above. Why get more specific?

The backlash was immediate, as Trump must have calculated. Several American Jewish leaders pointed out that disloyalty, or divided loyalty, is a classic anti-Semitic trope, used to justify everything from pogroms to the Holocaust.

What none of them seemed to recognize was that the attack was not really about Jewish American voters at all. Trump wrote them off long ago. As he told a group of Jewish political donors in 2015, playing to every stereotype imaginable, "You're not going to support me because I don't want your money. But that's okay. You want to control your own politician."

No, the disloyalty slur, and Trump's equally slimy attacks on two Muslim congresswomen in the past couple of weeks, has all been a play to shore up the support of a group that would probably serenely vote Trump even, to use Trump's own scenario, if he shot someone dead on the street outside his condo tower in Manhattan.

Trump cannot be re-elected without the votes of evangelical Christians, a group of people who, because of their heated eschatological dreams, are simultaneously capable of blindly supporting Israel and regarding American Jews with suspicion. (Some evangelicals refer to them as "uncompleted Christians," meaning they still need to come to Jesus).

Many evangelicals believe that establishment of Israel and the ingathering of the Jews from their diaspora set the scene for the end of days, during which they, and only they, will be raptured up to heaven while tribulations lay waste to the rest of humanity. All that remains is for the temple to be rebuilt on the Temple Mount, which would require the destruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, something that would conveniently trigger a regional conflagration.

To that end, they send huge amounts of money to Israel, and demand that U.S. politicians support Israel unconditionally, which many do.

It was to evangelicals that Trump was appealing when he asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bar Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib from visiting Israel. A president publicly urging a foreign head of state to bar two serving members of Congress is unheard of, but it no doubt gave many of his evangelical voters great joy. Netanyahu immediately agreed. Not that he needed much encouragement. 

Not only are the two Democratic congresswomen Muslims, they support an international movement that advises shunning Israel and its goods and services unless it ends its occupation and rule of the Palestinians.

Trump routinely calls Omar and Tlaib anti-Semites (even falsely calling Tlaib "violent"). (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction), as it is now known, is a non-violent strategy urged on the world by Palestinian leaders who realized that armed struggle against a modern military equipped by America is suicidal. (A sensible calculation. Having watched tanzim militants firing rifles at Israeli battle tanks during the intifada in 2001, then of course being blown to smithereens moments later, I came to the same conclusion).

Israel has marshaled its diplomats, its allies in the Jewish diaspora, and other financial resources to combat the movement, with considerable success. Various Western nations, including Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have condemned BDS as an attempt to delegitimize Israel.

Some American states are attempting to force anyone doing business with their governments to sign what amounts to loyalty oaths to Israel, and Republican politicians, led by Trump, routinely characterize any criticism of Israeli policies, or support for BDS, as vicious Jew-hatred. 

Which is why, presumably, Netanyahu felt safe in barring two congresswomen from entering and observing the behaviour of a country to which Congress is sending US $38 billion over ten years, effectively subsidizing settlements like the one named after Trump. (Israel later granted Tlaib permission to enter the country on humanitarian grounds to visit her grandmother, if she would promise not to speak about a boycott. The congresswoman declined the conditional offer.)

Trump routinely calls Omar and Tlaib anti-Semites (even falsely calling Tlaib "violent"), which is a bit rich, given his indifference to right-wing anti-Semitism and white supremacist violence in America.  

In fact, Trump has tried to conflate all Democrats with BDS, which is ridiculous. As is the notion he is peddling that all Democrats hate Israel. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in July to condemn BDS.

But facts and ridiculousness are no deterrent to Trump's re-election strategies. 

He understands better than anyone that the American discourse has hardened to the point where ideology, and its sisters, religion and nationalism, are all that matters. Inconvenient facts are Fake News.

Remember, his intended audience this week is evangelical Christians, not American Jews, many of whom, particularly among younger voters, not only vote Democrat, but increasingly question Israel's evolution into what many — including former Israeli prime ministers — view as an apartheid state. (It is worth noting that some of the most vocal supporters of BDS are American Jewish activists).

Trump is actually willing to shame American Jews, and stand instead with right-wing Israelis. Warmly retweeting a quote Wednesday from a far-right TV host and conspiracy theorist declaring Trump so beloved by Israelis that he is now considered "like the King of Israel" is part of that.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a staunch evangelical, has suggested publicly that Trump may have been sent by God, like a modern Queen Esther, to save the Jews. The subtext being that anyone who doesn't support him wants the Jews destroyed.

Clearly, Trump is betting that base hatreds and tribalism will send him to the White House for a second term. Given modern America, that's probably a smart bet.  

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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