Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump said the Democratic party in that country has become an “anti-Jewish” and an “anti-Israel” party.
The president was criticizing Democrats based on stands taken by Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has made impolitic comments, including accusing pro-Israel politicians of forgetting what country they represent. Omar, along with fellow freshmen congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, have made their presence known on the national scene faster and more effectively than almost any political newcomers in years. They bring a fresh, radical approach to politics, whether one agrees with their positions or not. They have the potential to be a left-wing version of the Tea Party, which upended the Republican party beginning a decade ago. The parallels are several: fresh faces with radical views and little respect for business-as-usual or party leadership hierarchies.
The Tea Party and the new Democrats, who dub themselves “The Squad,” are both causes and symptoms of a widening polarity in American politics. The centre is not holding – a reality that many Democrats are fearing as they enter the most unpredictable presidential nominating process in their history, with a score of credible candidates having entered the race. Progressives think another centrist like Hillary Clinton can’t win, while party leaders fear that nominating an avowed socialist or other seemingly far-lefty will give Trump another term.
That divisiveness is exactly what Trump wants. His only criterion for supporting an issue is whether it has short-term rating benefits for his reality-TV presidency. He may not have a sound, thought-out strategy, but if a tweet or a comment from him can monopolize the talking heads for a news cycle, this is what he views as a presidential triumph.
So, to stick a knife in the entire Democratic party based on a few (admittedly crude and arguably antisemitic) statements by a couple of new politicians is just the sort of infotainment that Trump relishes. The problem is, it isn’t the Democrats who will suffer most if Trump’s latest gambit succeeds. It’s Jews.
Trump has a compulsive need to poke sticks at people, but weapons can sometimes miss their mark. He has painted himself as a Judeophile, touting his Jewish grandchildren, but he also traffics in overt stereotypes of Jews, such as when he noted before a group of Jewish Republican that he is “a deal-maker, like you folks.” This is to say nothing of his unconcealed cavorting with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
But the line about Democrats being an anti-Jewish and anti-Israel party is a step too far. It’s not a problem in the sense that it is entirely false – we have seen the Labour party in the United Kingdom degenerate into a movement irreparably saturated with prejudice toward Jews and an attitude toward Israel that in many cases borders on psychosis. The Democratic party could follow a similar path if the trajectory from a sliver of the party’s progressive wing is not put in check.
The reason Trump’s comments are despicable is that he takes joy in the possibility that his opposition could become a genuinely anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish party. Jews be damned, it could help Trump get reelected, so he exploits it as much as he can.
Whatever the likelihood might be of the Dems actually becoming an anti-Jewish, anti-Israel party, like U.K. Labour, Trump has politicized Israel and Jews in a way that can only harm Jewish Americans and the American-Israeli relationship.
Support for Israel based on moral, military, economic and historical foundations has been an unshakeable plank in the platform of Democrats and Republicans for decades. By refusing to turn that bilateral relationship into a partisan slapfest, both parties have managed to ensure that, barring bratty interpersonal spats like the Obama-Netanyahu tantrums, the relationship between the two allies remains strong and seemingly unbreakable.
The Democrats are finding ways to accommodate new ideas. Some of them will be good ideas, some less so. The vast majority of elected Democrats stand as firmly with Israel as ever, and they could take some lessons from the newcomers about how to get their messages across in a dynamic, engaging way.
We have had this discussion in Canada when political figures have tried to make support for Israel a partisan wedge. True friends don’t do that, because they know that their political advantages will flow and ebb, while Jewish and Zionist Canadians will have to live with whatever consequences result from short-term political schemes.
A sitting U.S. president who foments tectonic political discord around an issue like this is no friend to Jewish Americans or Israel. No matter how much he professes love for his grandchildren and Jewish deal-making skills.