1/30/2017 Trump Bibi and American Jews

In Israel on election night, at an Election Eve celebration hosted by American Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro — hours before the results became known — I ran into an old acquaintance, Bradley Burston, a regular columnist for Haaretz newspaper and a keen observer of the American Jewish community. We engaged in an animated discussion on how candidate Donald J. Trump had divided the American Jewish community and Israel. Of course, at that moment we thought we were having a largely theoretical conversation, believing (like many people) that by the end of the evening the political career of Donald Trump would be over.

That conversation came to mind on Saturday night, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted his support for Trump's call to start building the wall with Mexico. That tweet made clear Netanyahu was willing to act in order to gain grace with Trump, without the slightest concern for the views of the American Jewish community. In the midst of one to the most contentious actions taken by any recent US President, (i.e. the announcement of the travel ban on citizens from seven nations), Netanyahu decided to insert himself indirectly into the fray, by coming out in support of Trump. Moreover, Trump's travel and immigration ban policies were overwhelmingly opposed by the Jewish community. Leaving aside the damage Netanyahu's tweet placed on Israel-Mexican relations, and its showing of support (immediately retweeted by Trump), the comment wholly enraged many in the American Jewish community.

It was a weekend of rare unity in the American Jewish community, when all three branches of Judaism condemned the Trump administration's actions regarding the travel and immigration bans. These prohibitions, which coincided with the presidential message marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and which deliberately did not mention the premeditated murder of Jews, propelled one of the most right-wing American Jewish organization, Z.O.A., ( and who supported Trump), to issue a statement delivered by its President Morton Klein declaring: “especially as a child of Holocaust survivors, I and Z.O.A. are compelled to express our chagrin and deep pain at President Trump, in his Holocaust Remembrance Day Message, omitting any mention of antisemitism and the six million Jews who were targeted and murdered by the German Nazi regime and others.”

Despite the massive backlash, Netanyahu refused to back down. He even dismissed entreaties from Interior Minister Aryeh Deri suggesting Netanyahu apologize. Of course, this is not the first time Netanyahu has inserted himself into American politics. Both his comments before the 2012 elections, and his speech to Congress after the Iran deal, were considered highly partisan and alienated many American Jews. Netanyahu's actions have even resulted in a perceived drop in support for Israel from parts of the Jewish community. As one politically engaged Chicago lawyer said to me, attempting to explain the drop: “Maybe it's partially generational, partly due to changing demographics, and partly due to Bibi’s explicit partisanship.”

However, Netanyahu’s support for Trump's actions have taken his intervention into US affairs to a whole new level. Theo Saal, who lived in Israel for a number of years and today serves a legal defense attorney in Queens said: “I feel offended and I feel threatened by a country that I basically consider my homeland, advocating the spirit of separation and isolation that Jews have been subjected to through the ages. It's none of Bibi’s damn business. Nor should Trump be looking for approval from Bibi. He should only be looking to the people he accidentally became in charge of.”

In Israel the reactions are divided. Amongst the American expat community — regardless of political belief on the Arab-Israel community, and with the exception of those explicitly tied to the Republican party, there is a feeling of tremendous dread. As one friend who considers himself right-of-center wrote to me last night: “Truth is, he’s (Trump) more dangerous for the rest of the world than for the US. They have federal judges there(US) to prevent the worst. Though, every one else is going to be left in a much more dangerous and cruel world — if that is at all possible. If I were anywhere near Russia, for instance, I’d be planning my evacuation.”

Some Israelis continue to hail Trump as “strong and willing to take action.” While outside of Tel Aviv, more people may share that opinion; in Tel Aviv the feeling after the first week of the Trump administration is much more of fear and wonder over how America could have gone so far off the rails.

The relations between American Jews and Israel is a complicated and requires a book length manuscript to fully explain all of the elements involved. However, it's very clear that the election of President Trump — a President who is an anathema to much of the American Jewish community, but who is considered a “savior” by other parts of the Israeli population (along with most of Israel's current government), has deepened the divide between the two. Tonight, now that President Obama is not in the White House, a green light has been given for the Knesset to pass legislation that ex post facto legalizes the seizure of private Palestinian lands, an act that will bring down a torrent of international criticism, but will make Netanyahu's base happy. With Netanyahu acting in “survival-mode”, hoping that his warm relationship with Trump might somehow save him from a police indictment, there is no way of knowing how much additional damage the Prime Minister might do to further fray the ties between American Jews and Israel.