Donald Trump’s first international trip as president of the United States will include Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican. This breaks a longstanding tradition of a new U.S. president shuffling north or south to drop in on one of America’s nearest neighbours.
The snub of Mexico, if that’s what it is, is not surprising. Trump has built his political career on demonizing Mexicans. If his first official foreign visit is also a snub of Canada, that also should not surprise, given Trump’s recent extemporaneous attacks on our supply management system and his general beefs with NAFTA.
Trump’s choice of Israel and Saudi Arabia is strategic. He is signaling support for the countries he sees as America’s leading allies in the war on terror. Of course, while Saudi Arabia produces its share of terror (including most of the 9/11 perpetrators), it is officially a close ally of the West, in spite of its atrocious human rights record, in part because it is the regional bulwark against Iran. On Israel, Trump has been bombastic, insisting when he was still Candidate Trump: “I’m going to be great for Israel.” Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has hit it off better than most world leaders have with Trump, so the coming visit will probably cement that chummy relationship. (The Vatican? God only knows what that meeting will produce.)
Israel and Saudi Arabia, for their vast differences, are the most important allies of the United States in the Middle East. With Saudi Arabia, the friendship is certainly a matter of pragmatism over principle. The West needs their oil and the stability and counterbalance they provide in the region.
The Israeli relationship is quite different. While American politicians and diplomats will focus on military and intelligence cooperation, as with Saudi Arabia, they also salute Israel’s democracy and our shared values. The long history of friendship between the United States and Israel also frequently comes up. What is less prominent in words of friendship is Israel’s Jewishness. This is common even among pro-Israel voices. We extol Israel’s democracy, diversity, the immense contributions to science and medicine, technology, culture, foreign aid – even Tel Aviv’s funky nightlife. But we don’t always emphasize the foremost case for Israel’s existence: that the Jewish people deserve and require self-determination in our ancient and modern homeland.
This is an interesting tendency. Are we acknowledging that, perhaps, Israel’s democracy, scholarship, vibrancy and beaches are all great selling points, but its Jewishness is not? Maybe we are. And maybe we’re right. But, by not continually promoting Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish homeland, we undercut the most important case we can make and, in the process, probably bend our position somewhat to suit the tastes of casual antisemites.
We need to make the case forcefully that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and deserves to exist for that reason – first among the many reasons Israel deserves to exist and be respected. However, there is an effort afoot in Israel to affirm its Jewishness in a way that is divisive, exclusionary, even possibly racist.
On Monday, Netanyahu threw his support behind a so-called “nation-state” bill proposed by Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter that would enshrine Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people.” This statement is undeniable – or it should be. But the bill goes on to declare that “the right to realize self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” and would revoke Arabic as an official language in Israel. These latter aspects of the bill deliberately insult and diminish the rights of non-Jewish citizens of Israel.
Here is the difference between the case we made about Israel’s Jewishness and the bill’s intent: Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people – but Israel is also the homeland of people who are not Jewish, up to one-quarter of the population. These two things need not be exclusive, but the bill would make it so and, in the process, expressly deny the equality of minority populations.
The prime minister called the bill “the clearest answer to all those who are trying to deny the deep connection between the People of Israel and its land.” This is a morsel of red meat for hungry Zionists because we are tired of people diminishing or outright denying the right of Jewish people to live in Israel. So, the bill might deliver a frisson of delight for those of us who bristle at the latest United Nations nonsense or campus apartheid week.
Yet, whatever the merits of such a bill, it is an unnecessary and intentional hot stick in the eye of Israeli minorities – and indeed those of us in the Diaspora who make the case for Israel as a diverse, welcoming, multicultural and multifaith place. Though the comfort of Diaspora Zionists should not direct Israeli policy, this example is merely harming Israel’s cause with no commensurate upside.
That said, one person who would see this kind of exclusionary, divisive, unnecessarily nasty bill as a good idea is going to be visiting there soon: the president of the United States.