by Dr. Joshua Shanes.
Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, Director of the Arnold Center for Israel Studies, and has published widely on modern Jewish politics, culture and religion.
There may never have been a more interesting or dangerous time for American Jews. Jews sit at the center of national discourse, despite their demographic insignificance. For months now, the Jewish establishment have joined Republicans in confidently accusing Democratic representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib of anti-Semitism for statements that suggest supporters of Israel are exhibiting or demanding allegiance to another state. Although they never named Jews, or used the phrase “dual loyalty,” they have been widely accused – particularly by the president – of exploiting this anti-Semitic canard, and on at least one occasion apologized for language that suggested it.
Monday, Congressman Lieu also apologized for reminding Amb. David Friedman that he served America, not Israel, in response to the ambassador’s sustained support for illegal settlements and refusal to advocate on behalf of U.S. Congressmen seeking to visit one of our closest allies and recipient of vast foreign aid. Here, too, the Congressman apologized despite the reality that Friedman has in fact been advocating on behalf of the extreme Right in Israel rather than American interests. As Dan Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel under George Bush said to me, “Congressman Lieu was right to call out Friedman for his behavior, and if our system was operating properly, Friedman would already have been recalled.”
Apparently, Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s concern of a loyalty test was not imagined.
As we all know, President Trump – as part of his attack on Reps Omar and Tlaib – accused Jews who vote for a Democratic candidate of “total” ignorance and “great disloyalty.” This encompasses approximately 80% of American Jewry, based on the last election. To whom they were disloyal was not clear, but he later clarified that he meant disloyal to Israel. He attacked American Jews for being disloyal to Israel.
Consider what this means: Trump is assuming that it is a basic obligation of American Jews to support Israel, which he equates with supporting himself, just as he equates supporting America with support for himself. L’etat c’est moi.
He is not accusing Jews of dual loyalty. He is rather assuming that their primary loyalty is owed not to America, but to Israel. As my colleague Andrew Katz wrote, “In the right-wing ethno-nationalist transactional mind, the most rational and moral thing is loyalty to one’s own people’s interest. Things like “empathy” and “democratic norms” and “human rights” [that which guide most Jewish votes] are irrelevant, if not dangerous. … Trump sees Jews and everyone else as being fundamentally self-interested and tribal. We are all, or we should all be, right-wing Israelis. Israel is our REAL country.”
Trump did not attack Jews for their “dual” allegiance to a foreign country. To repeat: he attacked them for insufficient loyalty to Israel, their “actual” home.
And then things truly got interesting.
The next day, Trump proudly quoted a racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist who claimed that Israeli Jews viewed him as the “King of the Jews, the second coming of God.” Unfortunately, he continued, American Jews refused to accept him, but Trump/Christ loved them anyway and would continue to care for them as he does for all people.
Now, it is certainly anti-Semitic for a non-Jew to accuse Jews of being bad Jews for their religious or political choices, whether for rejecting Christ or his second coming at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Certainly, it is anti-Semitic for the false messiah to declare it himself, and especially to argue that they are not only bad Jews but demonstrate “great disloyalty.”
Here, however, the President of the United States has literally quoted a description of himself as the second coming of Christ and attacked Jews for stubbornly refusing to accept him, even hating him, willfully blind to his benevolent rule and greatness. This is literally the accusation which has been levelled at Jews for nearly two thousand years, the basis of countless incidents of violent persecution. Christians accused Jews of collectively knowing the Truth of Christ, but out of their perfidy refusing to acknowledge it.
Indeed, by putting this insane claim into the mouths of Israeli Jews he adds the effect of “proving” its truth. It was the Jews themselves who said it in this fantasy, which means it must be true. They have the scripture and they are declaring me the second coming of Christ.
As my colleague Chaya Halberstam noted, this also worsens the ever-widening gap between Israeli and American Jews. Israeli Jews who accept the king act as the Christians of the New Testament – the new, good, and blessed Jews – whereas American Jews who refuse to accept him fill the role of New Testament’s old, cursed Jews. Trump’s favored pastor Robert Jeffress made precisely this point in an interview yesterday, noting that those who support the enemies of the Jews – which he equated with voting for the Democrats – will themselves be cursed.
Accusing 80% of American Jews of “great disloyalty” and (echoing historic accusations of Christian antisemitism) religious perfidy from that highest bully pulpit in the land is likely to continue to increase the attacks on Jews that has been seen since the beginning of his campaign and very possibly may get Jews killed. When the vast majority of an ethnic group is accused by the president of being willfully ignorant or else willful traitors, that is dangerous anti-Semitism.
We should measure reaction to this statement – by all parties and institutions – to their reactions to alleged suggestions of “dual loyalty” by Omar that dominated the news cycle literally for weeks. Consider the difference and consider which was more overt and which more dangerous. The fact that some of Trump’s supporters continue to malign the left for hinting at the Jews’ “dual loyalty” while defending the president for literally attacking them for insufficient loyalty to that foreign country is a contradiction they seem unable to fathom, much as they miss this unprecedented religious attack against American Jews echoing ancient charges of perfidy.
There may be anti-Semitism coming from left and right. But only one side – the side in power – is openly denying the equal belonging of American Jews in this country while tapping two-thousand-year old rhetoric of Jewish rebellion against God and his manifestation on Earth.