Trump did not go into specifics about what he considered to be Jews’ disloyalty, but his language echoed the anti-Semitic smear that Jews are more devoted to Israel than they are to their own country, an accusation that goes as far back as the Roman Empire and is now used by white nationalists.
Trump’s comments were the latest turn in a toxic controversy over religion and politics that erupted last week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, at the president’s urging, barred an official visit to Israel by the first two Muslim women in Congress, Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Democrats. The two have been harshly critical of Israel.
The move prompted condemnation from diplomats and analysts across the political spectrum that in Trump’s zeal to curry favor with Jewish voters and tighten his alliance with Netanyahu, he risked endangering the bipartisan support of Israel that has long existed in the United States, the country’s most reliable ally.
“It’s unclear who @POTUS is claiming Jews would be ‘disloyal’ to,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said on Twitter, using a common acronym to refer to the president of the United States, “but charges of disloyalty have long been used to attack Jews.”
Logan Bayroff, the communications director for J Street, a progressive Jewish organization, said: “It is dangerous and shameful for President Trump to attack the large majority of the American Jewish community as unintelligent and ‘disloyal.’ But it is no surprise that the president’s racist, disingenuous attacks on progressive women of color in Congress have now transitioned into smears against Jews.”
In his comments Tuesday, the president lashed out anew at Omar and Tlaib for suggesting in a news conference Monday that the United States should cut off aid to Israel. The two are vocal proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which advocates cutting ties with Israel until it ends its occupation of the West Bank. It is often condemned by its critics as inherently anti-Semitic.
“Where has the Democratic Party gone?” Trump said in the Oval Office, at the tail end of a freewheeling round of comments to reporters during a visit by the president of Romania. “Where have they gone where they are defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
The remark was the latest from a president who has a history of language that stokes racial and religious divisions, some of which has surfaced recently in the statements and writings of deranged people bent on committing violence.
On Tuesday, the FBI said it had arrested a Nazi sympathizer who threatened to butcher a Hispanic woman and boasted that Trump would wipe out nonwhites in a “racial war and crusade.” Earlier this month, a 21-year-old man accused of killing 22 people and injuring dozens more at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, wrote a manifesto echoing Trump’s language calling migrants crossing the southwestern border “an invasion” and saying that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
The president’s “disloyalty” comment prompted a fresh round of outrage Tuesday from Jewish leaders, who called it divisive and dangerous.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said Trump should apologize for using “the kind of language that ends up fueling the anger of white nationalists.”
“What the president is doing is creating an environment in which anti-Semitism can flourish,” Deutch said on CNN.
Trump’s remarks Tuesday had broad implications: According to the Pew Research Center, 79% of Jews voted for Democrats in last year’s midterm congressional elections. The president’s comments were in keeping with his strategy of trying to make the two Muslim lawmakers, along with two other progressive congresswomen of color who have been among his most vocal critics, the face of the Democratic Party.
“AOC plus three,” Trump said, referring to the first-term quartet of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Tlaib, Omar and Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, whom he has repeatedly attacked in explicitly racial terms. “That’s what I call it: Just take AOC plus three. And you should see the things that the four of them have said about Israel over the last couple of years.”
Some conservative allies of Trump in the Jewish community sprung to his defense Tuesday, arguing that the president’s comments were giving voice to a sense of befuddlement among many American Jews that too many Democrats appeared to be tolerating extreme views about Israel within their ranks. Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the views of Omar and Tlaib, both of whom have made remarks condemned as anti-Semitic, were far outside the mainstream of their party and the country as a whole, and should be rejected by other Democrats.
“There is a growing cancer within the Democratic Party right now of people who are supportive of BDS, who are advocating a shift in the U.S.-Israel relationship away from the strong bond that exists now between this administration and the government in Israel,” Brooks said. “As the center of gravity in the Democratic Party moves further and further to the left, this problem becomes clearer and more acute. It’s certainly not an indictment of the entire Democratic Party, but the unfortunate part is that none of them are speaking up and speaking out.”
In fact, the Democrat-led House voted overwhelmingly last month to condemn the boycott-Israel movement. During the debate, Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, passionately defended the movement as a legitimate economic protest to advance human rights, calling Israel’s policies toward Palestinians “racist” and comparing the campaign to American boycotts of Nazi Germany.
On Monday in St. Paul, Minnesota, Omar raised the prospect of cutting off aid to Israel, arguing that a central purpose of the visit that she and Tlaib had hoped to make there was to conduct oversight over the $3 billion in funding that the United States provides.
“We must be asking, as Israel’s ally, the Netanyahu government stop the expansion of settlements on Palestinian land and ensure full rights for Palestinians if we are to give them aid,” Omar said. “We know Donald Trump would love nothing more than to use this issue to pit Muslims and Jewish Americans against each other. The Muslim community and the Jewish community are being othered and made into the boogeyman by this administration.”
In an emotional moment during the news conference, Tlaib broke down in tears when discussing why she turned down a last-minute offer by Netanyahu’s government to allow her to visit her 90-year-old grandmother in the West Bank if she promised not to speak out about the boycott during her stay.
“I’m her free bird, so why would I come back and be caged and bow down when my election rose her head up high, gave her dignity for the first time?” Tlaib said of her grandmother. “You don’t let anybody tell you that you’re less than or humiliate you.”
Trump ridiculed the congresswoman for the display, saying her grief was not genuine.
“All of a sudden, she starts with tears, tears — I don’t buy it,” Trump said. “I don’t buy it for a second, because I’ve seen her in a very vicious mood at campaign rallies.”
“I saw a woman who was violent and vicious and out of control,” Trump added, without elaborating on what violence he was referring to.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.