For critics of the pro-Israel community and President Donald Trump, it was the ultimate “gotcha” moment. After months of having to listen to Jews and friends of Israel pointing out the anti-Semitic invective of the two pro-BDS members of Congress, supporters of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) claimed that it was really Trump who was the anti-Semite.
What was their proof? Trump referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister” when speaking to the annual conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition last weekend in Las Vegas.
It was enough to earn Trump rebukes from the Anti-Defamation League, whose CEO Jonathan Greenblatt went into scolding mode, saying, “Mr. President, words matter. As with all elected officials, it’s critical for you to avoid language that leads people to believe Jews aren’t loyal Americans.”
Liberals who have been chafing at the criticism they’ve endured because Democrats let Tlaib, and especially Omar, off the hook for public expressions of anti-Semitism after the GOP had disciplined one of their own, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), for years of hateful speech, saw this as another example of how hypocritical conservatives give Trump and other Republicans a bye for the offensive rhetoric they use.
Israel-haters, like the staff of the left-wing publication The Intercept, also pounced, claiming that while Trump had made a direct accusation of dual loyalty that was blatantly anti-Semitic, Omar and Tlaib had merely criticized members of Congress and others for pressuring them to be loyal to Israel.
Trump was guilty—and not for the first time—of speaking words that no experienced politician would think of using and which could possibly be misconstrued. But the context here is everything. That’s true both for the president and the two pro-BDS members of Congress.
While the ADL was right to say that Trump shouldn’t have said what he did and that “words matter,” we should all know by now that the president doesn’t agree about the need for precise speech. As columnist Salena Zito famously pointed out during the 2016 campaign, Trump’s critics “take him literally but not seriously,” and his fans “take him seriously but not literally.”
But the notion that what he said was an accusation of dual loyalty or part of an anti-Semitic slander requires us to ignore the context of his remarks and their clear meaning. Trump, a man who came of age in a New York real estate and political world in which Jewish support for Israel was considered automatic, is still laboring under the misapprehension that all American Jews are ardent backers of the Jewish state.
While Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of the Bronx claimed that no one tell Irish Americans that the prime minister of Ireland was their “Taoiseach” (prime minister in Gaelic), in fact, he knows very well that in previous generations when that community was deeply engaged in the struggle for Irish independence and its aftermath, that wouldn’t been considered out of place in New York politics.
As for his inappropriate use of the phrase “you people” when talking to Jews (or any other group), Trump ought to cut it out. But in the world of New York real estate and the Queens in which Trump grew up, this kind of talk was routine and rooted in a sense of assumed ethnic solidarity—not “dual loyalty,” let alone anti-Semitism.
More to the point, his loose talk notwithstanding, Trump is a proven friend of Israel. Indeed, he is arguably the most ardent supporter of Israel to sit in the White House since it was reborn in 1948. While his critics can claim that his language encourages anti-Semites, does it not occur to them that his actions regarding Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, accountability for the Palestinians, opposition to appeasement of Iran or his close personal ties to the Jewish people, including a Jewish daughter and grandchildren, speak a lot louder to Jew-haters than a few stray phrases?
Perhaps the only people in the world who don’t know that Trump is a friend of the Jews are some of the Jews. While Trump’s pro-Israel policies don’t obligate anyone to support him, liberals’ abhorrence for the president and his politics is so great that acknowledging the truth about this conundrum gives them an acute case of cognitive dissonance.
As for Omar and Tlaib, their situation was just the opposite. They are already on record as supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement. Their statements—in which they alleged that Jewish money was buying congressional backing for Israel and claimed that those who support the Jewish state were “pledging allegiance” to a foreign nation—were clearly intended to both silence and marginalize American Jews.
Nor were the excuses made for them—that they didn’t understand the meaning of their words—remotely credible. They understand the politics of the Middle East very well and meant every word they said. We know that because their anti-Semitic tropes were fully in accord with their anti-Semitic policy positions on BDS and Israel’s existence.
The willingness of so many people to invest themselves in the false narrative that Trump is an anti-Semite is about partisan politics, not his bad character. The same is true of the willingness of so many Democrats to turn their heads when it comes to Omar and Tlaib.
Democrats talk a lot about not wanting Israel to be a partisan issue and about the GOP sowing divisions among their party. They claim to fear that the GOP is sabotaging the national consensus by pointing out its lockstep support for the Jewish state and pointing to divisions among Democrats. But until they acknowledge the truth that Trump is a friend of the Jews and Israel (albeit one who is easy to criticize and misinterpret), in addition to the anti-Semitic nature of the policies backed by some on their side of the aisle, these arguments are just so much hot air.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.