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After Fanning the Flames of Anti-Semitism, Trump Is Hiding Behind the Pro-Israel Defense

Generally speaking, American Jews do not live in Israel. We live in the United States. New York? Of course. Florida? It’s the bubbe belt. But Tel Aviv? Only a few of us enjoy falafel quite enough to decamp there.

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This fact does not seem to have registered with a number of high-profile  Republicans, who have taken to using their support for the Jewish state as a sort of all purpose pass to fan antisemitism at home. That’s been especially apparent in the wake of Saturday’s tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as Donald Trump and his allies have tried to squelch any suggestion that president might have helped set the stage for violence through incitement.

The charge against Trump is that he has mainstreamed white nationalism through his attacks on immigrants and Muslims, and his frequent waves to the alt-right, helping to foster a political climate where hatred of Jews is bound to take seed and flourish. Trump has also at various times trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes. Whether or not he harbors any personal animus towards the community, his rhetoric—especially his grotesque Charlottesville response—has often catered to hardcore anti-Semites, or chummed the water by hyping conspiracies that are bound to take on Elders of Zion-ish life of their own. Such is the case with Pittsburgh shooter, Robert Bowers. The killer disliked Trump because of the president’s ties to Israel. But he fixated on the immigrant caravan that the White House hyped as an election season ploy, concluding it was all part of a Jewish plot to supplant white Americans.

Trumpists have brought up three main defenses in response. They note, again, that Bowers wasn’t a supporter of the president. They also note that Trump’s daughter Ivanka and trusted son-in-law Jared Kushner are orthodox Jews, which certainly suggests Trump is comfortable with some Jews. Beyond that, they incessantly bring up his reflexive support for Israel. “Donald Trump is the first president in 23 years to keep our nation’s promise to the people of Israel and to recognize Jerusalem as its capital and to move our embassy,” former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka told Fox News. On Monday, Trump pal Sean Hannity ventured that “perhaps no president is modern history has demonstrated more support for Israel and the Jewish people than president trump.” During his sitdown with Laura Ingraham, Trump himself responded to a softball question about antisemitism by announcing that the Israeli government had just given him an award thanking him for the embassy move. “I’m going to show you right after this the most beautiful plaque,” he kvelled. “It just came!”

None of this actually rebuts the idea that Trump has trafficked in conspiracies and language that put Jewish lives at risk. But it does speak to a broader outlook among Republicans that one somehow can’t be guilty of perpetuating antisemitism so long as he properly supports Israel. Not all of them are quite so explicit about it as Trump, but the idea does seem to hover as a tacit assumption among many conservatives.

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The prize example may be Steve King, the Iowa congressman who has pushed further into open white supremacism than any other Washington lawmaker. King is a devoted supporter of Jewish state. He’s also an anti-immigrant fanatic who is friendly with members of the Europe’s hard right, has endorsed a white supremacist for Toronto mayor, and recently talked about wanting an alternative “Polish perspective” on the Holocaust after visiting Auschwitz. Another pro-Israel stalwart, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, tossed lighter fluid on the caravan conspiracies that motivated Bowers this month, with a viral tweet suggesting that the train of refugees may have been funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros, who figures heavily in antisemitic myth making, and whom Republicans have turned into a political bogeyman. (The GOP has decided to continue featuring Soros in their midterm attack ads, despite the shootings in Pittsburgh and the fact that the man was just targeted for assassination by the alleged MAGABomber, Cesar Sayoc, Jr.) When Gaetz got into a bit of hot water for inviting a holocaust denying conservative troll to the state of the union, one of his political backers was quick to point out that the Congressman was a “champion of Israel.” (That supporter was himself Jewish). 

The excuse-me-I-support-Israel defense sometimes pops up in less sinister, but nonetheless offensive contexts. The other day, Charlie Kirk posted a video of himself “destroying” a left-wing rabbi who spoke up at one of his events. In it, the young conservative chud boorishly lectured the rabbi for not taking the bible literally, which unfortunately echoes a longstanding antisemitic trope where Christians accuse Jews of perverting their own religion. When the rabbi called him out on this, Kirk just waved the guy away. “You will find no bigger defender of the State of Israel or the Jewish people than me,” he said. (Note which came first).

One glaring problem with using Israel as a shield against accusations of antisemitism is that, well, some vocal antisemities really like Israel. Richard Spencer, the alt-right’s closest thing to an intellectual, sees the country as a perfect model for the white ethnostate he’d like to one day create. He’s referred to his philosophy—perhaps a bit trollishly—as white zionism, and as he once put it: “I would say, if I were to have a beer with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, I bet we would agree on everything.”

Spencer doesn’t speak for many people, obviously. But much of the U.S. political support for Israel comes the from the much more influential evangelical movement, which can be worrisome for Jews in its own way. Many Christian Zionists seem to believe that Jewish control of the holy land is necessary to bring about the apocalypse and Christ’s return to earth. Not to put too fine a point on it, but most of us don’t exactly find comfort in being cast as extras in the schlock end-of-days action movie that’s probably playing inside Mike Pence’s head. Movement officials have toned down the eschatology, and now claim it simply recognizes that the Jews have a special biblical claim on Israel. As the website says: “There remains a national destiny over the Jewish people and her national homeland is her everlasting possession in fulfillment of God’s plans and purposes for her.” That too might be a bit discomforting for many American Jews; it suggests our destiny, after all, is in another country, not the one we call home now. It again casts us as the other.

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Some politicians who conflate support for Israel with support for Jews more broadly also have a dark habit of dividing us into two camps: The good Jews and the bad Jews, the real and the fake. The former support Israel, and are generally conservative. The latter criticize it and are generally more liberal, which seems to make them fair game for the sorts of antisemitic tropes Soros is subjected to. Again, Steve King may have offered the purest expression of this sentiment a few years back when he told Boston Herald Radio, “I don’t understand how Jews in America can be Democrats first and Jewish second.” To whatever extent that men like King feel emboldened to embrace white nationalist movements that imperil the Jewish community because they believe they’re on the side of the true Jews, well, it’s both a bit ironic and terrifying.

But ultimately, the excuse-me-but-I-support-Israel defense fails for a more fundamental reason: It’s a non-sequitur. Just like racism isn’t merely about overt, personal dislike for minorities, antisemitism isn’t just about loathing all Jews as a people. It’s about indulging in tropes that keep Jew hatred alive, or put some Jews—as a group—in danger. You can commit an antisemitic act without being a dyed-in-the-wool antisemite. You don’t have to be Louis Farrakhan to a pose a danger to the community. Talking about your love of Israel when someone calls you out for antisemtism is a bit like saying “some of my best friends are black” when you’re called out for racism. Sure, you’re fine with them. But what about the rest of us?