President Donald J. Trump at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, April 6, 2019.
For months, Republicans—and some Democrats—have been relentless in their criticism of Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for lamenting AIPAC’s influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East and criticizing “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” She was accused of parroting an old anti-Semitic trope which held that Jews would never be fully loyal citizens of the countries in which they lived. The accusation that they held “dual loyalties” has justified the oppression of Jews dating back to the Roman Empire.
So Donald Trump raised some eyebrows on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when he bragged to a crowd of Republican Jews gathered in Las Vegas that he had “stood with your prime minister at the White House,” and warned that Democrats would “leave Israel out there all by yourselves.” Here was the president not only implying that the group’s loyalties were divided between the U.S. and Israel, but stating outright that their primary allegiance is to the Jewish state.
Several prominent American Jewish groups condemned the statements. On social media, people noted that just a day earlier, a New York man had been arrested for threatening to “put a bullet” in Omar’s skull, and wondered whether Trump would receive a similar amount of opprobrium for the comments as she did.
Trump will almost certainly get a pass for it, in large part because he’s not known for the precision of his diction. And many will give him the benefit of the doubt as a nominal Christian who supports the Israeli government, rather than a Muslim critic of the increasingly hard-right regime.
But another announcement during that same event revealed that the belief that American Jews hold dual loyalties is widespread within the Republican Party. According to Politico, GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, host of last week’s Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) conference, unveiled “a $10 million-plus blitz geared toward attracting Jewish support for President Donald Trump.” According to the report, the investment “will far surpass what the group has spent in past presidential elections,” and its primary focus will be using declining support for the Israeli government among Democrats as a wedge issue to win over Jewish voters. “We’re at the intersection of a very unique moment in time,” former RJC executive director Matt Brooks told Politico. “We have the most pro-Israel president ever in history in Donald Trump, and we also at the same time have the Democratic Party—because of the pressure of the progressive left—moving away from the traditional support for Israel.”
That effort will follow the path of the fledgling “Jexodus” campaign, which seeks to lure Jewish Democrats into the Republican tent in similar fashion. Launched by a former Trump campaign adviser, that effort, since redubbed “The Exodus Movement,” has been embraced by Trump and a number of GOP leaders. According to a strategy memo released to The New York Times, the group plans to “use ‘extensive microtargeting’ to find ‘persuadable Jews’ in eight states—Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota”—and win some of them over by emphasizing a growing divide in the Democratic Party over the United States’ unconditional support for Israel.
In other words, Republicans have not only embraced that old anti-Semitic trope, they’re wagering upward of $10 million that it’s true.
Adelson may be a casino magnate, but public opinion polls suggest that he’s making a bad bet. According to a J Street survey, only 4 percent of American Jews say that Israel is one of their top two voting issues. Gallup found that just 26 percent have a favorable view of Trump, while 71 percent disapprove of his presidency. And while the RJC claims that Trump is “the most pro-Israel president ever in history,” American Jews disapprove of how he has handled U.S.-Israeli relations specifically by a 57-34 margin, according to a survey by the American Jewish Committee. Almost twice as many disapprove strongly (41 percent) as voice their strong approval (21 percent).
Trump’s grasping support for Israel’s dominant right wing is unlikely to change those numbers. According to the J Street poll, large majorities of American Jews favor a halt to settlement construction in the occupied territories, want a two-state solution—with East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state—and by a 60-40 margin say the U.S. should play an active role in achieving those goals by “exerting pressure on both the Israelis and Arabs to make the compromises necessary to achieve peace.” Trump, beholden to white evangelical Zionists, has gone in the opposite direction. He recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, exerted not a bit of pressure on the Israelis while cutting off all aid to the Palestinians, and has shown unflagging support for Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who has vowed to annex large swaths of disputed territory in the West Bank should he win re-election this week.
It’s entirely possible that millions of dollars of misleading ads, properly micro-targeted, will win over a handful of Jewish voters—maybe enough to make up some of the six percentage points the GOP lost among that demographic between the 2012 and 2016 election cycles—but it’s a dubious investment because the dual loyalty canard was always just that, a canard.
The reality is that Jewish Americans are loyal to their country and concerned about their own communities. They worry less about Israel than things like health care, the economy, and the environment—issues where Republicans don’t have much to offer. And as a group, they really dislike Donald J. Trump.