During his recent screed about the American Jewish community, Donald Trump got it half right.
He might have actually got it only one-third right, or probably a quarter or less. But there was a dollop of truth in the former president’s interview with Israeli journalist Barak Ravid when he questioned the level of Jewish support in this country for Israel.
True to form, Trump wildly and spitefully overstated his charge that American Jews “don’t like Israel or don’t care about Israel”. There is ample public opinion polling to the contrary, including a Pew Research survey conducted this past spring showing that 82 percent of Jewish Americans said caring about Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them.
But what Trump really meant is that American Jews don’t like or care for him, more specifically that we failed to appreciate Trump’s support for Israel over the course of his presidency and failed to reward him with a sufficient portion of Jewish votes in his re-election campaign. Republicans have argued for years that Jewish Americans should be more appreciative of the GOP’s strong and consistent cooperation with Israel, and that their party’s ongoing assistance should yield a larger number of Jewish votes.
But that line of thinking relies on two flawed assumptions. The first is that Israel is the most important voting issue for most American Jews; but polling for the last two decades demonstrates that domestic policy issues – especially social and cultural matters – have long eclipsed Israel as the primary motivator for the majority of Jewish voters.
While most American Jews do care deeply about Israel, they have found ways of expressing those feelings other than voting for candidates with whom they disagree on many other matters.
The second is the presumption that all Jews – and all people, for that matter– define their support for Israel in precisely the same way. Younger Jews, in particular, have begun to more aggressively question the decisions of the Israeli government, and increasingly confrontational attitudes from many minority and progressive voters toward Israel have impacted the way many American Jews express their support for Israel.
There are serious questions for the Jewish community to confront about how this splintering of public opinion will impact the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jews in the years ahead. The emergence of J Street and other left-leaning Jewish advocacy organizations reflect the probability that a divisive internal debate lies ahead of us, with immense stakes for both the Jewish people in this country and the Jewish homeland. But for better or worse, the reflexive assumption that the characterization of a politician or voter as “pro-Israel” means the same thing in 2021 as it did in the late 20th century is simply no longer accurate.
The deepening divisions within the Democratic Party here, and among left-leaning activists elsewhere, have made it easier for conservatives to assume that Jewish voters will abandon longtime liberal political allies. But even while anti-Zionist voices grow louder in progressive Democratic circles, many American Jews differentiate between the anger against Israel within the party’s base and the more traditional support for the Jewish homeland among their establishment leadership, allowing them to maintain their ties based on domestic policy priorities.
Democrats also benefit from Republicans’ increased social and religious conservatism, which prevents large numbers of Jewish voters from seriously considering the GOP as a plausible alternative. If anything, Trump’s presidency has intensified those sentiments. Of much greater concern is the resurgence of the virulent anti-Semitism that has existed on the extreme right of the political spectrum, in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Many American Jews see Trump as either a symptom or a cause of this intensified threat.
There are exceptions, of course. Majorities of Orthodox Jews and newer arrivals from Israel and Iran are much more supportive of Trump than the community as a whole. But while most American Jews do care deeply about Israel, they have found ways of expressing those feelings other than voting for candidates with whom they disagree on many other matters.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www/lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 PM.