There have always been gaps between American and Israeli Jews. On matters surrounding Donald Trump, they’re just wider.
NOVEMBER 15, 2018, JERUSALEM – It’s no secret that there’s something of a disconnect between Jews in the U.S. and Jews in Israel. Remember the popular book “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus?” Just slip “Israelis” in place of men, and “U.S. Jews” in place of women. But on some things, such as the gap in perceptions of U.S. President Donald Trump, many, if not most, of my fellow Israelis might as well be from Pluto.
A good place to start is with Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.
When it came time for Israel to show solidarity with U.S. Jews as they mourned 11 dead coreligionists and began to reconsider their sense of security in a country where anti-Semites are crawling out of the woodwork at rates indicating infestation, Bennett flew to Pittsburgh. But as reported by the online publication Jewish Insider, he later met in New York City with prominent Jewish members of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“‘I am not sure at all that there’s a surge in anti-Semitism in America,’” Bennett mused, according to the report. “Bennett also doubled down on a series of tweets in which he praised President Trump as ‘a true friend of the State of Israel and to the Jewish people,’ and criticized those ‘using the horrific anti-Semitic massacre to attack President Trump’ as ‘unfair and wrong.’”
This ruffled some feathers in the room.
The German-born Henry Siegman, a former national director of the American Jewish Congress, retorted: “The problem for me in Germany was never whether Hitler was an anti-Semite. Rather, it was that the German people, who were known as the most advanced and sophisticated, culturally liberal people, allowed this monster to come to power and that’s the problem is this country.”
Bennett: “This is not in any sense Germany of the 30s, it doesn’t resemble that in any possible way.”
This led former Warner Bros. president Edward Bleier to speak up.
“Some of us are older than you are and we recall the pre-war period in America when the Nazis convened in Madison Square Garden and paraded on 96th Street with brown shirts and swastikas,” Bleier told Bennett, according to the report. “And the rallying cry of the anti-Semites was America First. So my hair stands on end when I hear an American president invoke that line.”
Citing this report, American-Israeli journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer summed things up in a fine piece for Haaretz by writing: “Not only did Israel’s leaders choose Trump over American Jews, but they did so easily, naturally, without hesitation, leaping to the defense of a political leader who is actively and openly fanning the flames of hatred that now has an unprecedented death toll.”
A pair of polls conducted last May in both the U.S. and Israel by the American Jewish Committee show major divides on a number of issues. They include Jewish pluralism, Jewish settlements, the peace process, and even whether one side views the other as family or merely as friends – all issues important enough to have been measured over the years.
Now add Trump and his policies on Israel, and the AJC report has this to say on the findings: “The gap between American Jews and Israelis regarding President Trump’s approach to Israel is profound. While 77% of Israeli Jews approve of how the president is handling U.S.-Israel relations, only 34% of American Jews do. A majority, 57%, of U.S. Jews disapprove, while only 10% of Israelis do.”
The specific Trump-era issue highlighted in the report is the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv: “85% of Israeli Jews, compared with 46% of U.S. Jews, support the decision, while 7% of Israelis and 47% of U.S. Jews oppose it.”
At about the same time, a poll conducted by University of Maryland political scientist Shibley Telhami found that overall support for the embassy move among Israeli Jews stood at 73%, with healthy support from all four major sectors of Israeli Jewish society: ultra-Orthodox (77%), national-religious (89%), traditional (84%) and secular (60%).
But there’s another Trump policy decision that certainly has played a role: backing out of the multilateral nuclear deal brokered by former U.S. president Barack Obama to restrain Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Polls conducted among Jewish Israelis at the time of the deal showed that very few shared Obama’s trust for the Iranians, even with verification provisions. After all, if things didn’t work out, Tehran’s nuclear-tipped missiles would be aimed at Israel long before being aimed at the U.S., Europe, Russia or China, the other co-signatories. Similar polls conducted after Trump’s withdrawal from the deal indicated clear, if not unanimous, support for the move.
Of course, it’s important to remember that Israelis have always seen themselves as beleaguered, a people surrounded by hordes that want nothing more than to push them into the sea.
It doesn’t matter that there are peace treaties, cold as they are, with two immediate neighbors. A third neighbor, Lebanon, is powerless to prevent Hezbollah from aiming – and launching – what’s estimated to be tens of thousands of missiles with Israel’s name written all over them. And as for Syria, which once shared Israel’s quietest border, the jury will be out for a long time as to just how close Iranian and other hostile groups have been able to move their influence – and forces – closer to the “Zionist entity.”
The bottom line is that no matter what Trump means for the U.S., he is seen in Israel as having been good for the Jewish state – and no amount of bullying, xenophobia, misogyny or just plain buffoonery on the president’s part is likely to change that.
Lawrence Rifkin is the Journal’s bureau chief in Jerusalem.