Trump ‘disloyalty’ jab a bridge too far for supporters
The New York congressman, one of only two Jewish Republicans in the US House of Representatives, has been an ardent Trump supporter and defender, but he couldn’t bring himself to say that the term was okay.
“It’s a word that I wouldn’t use, with a long history of being used by others who have a hatred of Jews and Israel,” Zeldin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview. “Even if the person using it is filled with love towards Jews and Israel, I still avoid it because of that history.”
Since Trump dropped the “disloyalty” bomb, a number of Jewish conservatives have defended the use of the term, among them columnists at the conservative Jewish news site, JNS; the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition; and Michael Glassner, the former American Israel Public Affairs Committee senior staffer who is chief operating officer of Trump’s re-election campaign.
Other Jewish conservatives, among them David Harsanyi at The Federalist, like Zeldin, say the word was poorly chosen, even if they cheer Trump on for taking on Democrats who have relentlessly criticised Israel.
But Zeldin’s discomfort stands out because his party has made him a standard-bearer for its pro-Israel stance. He chairs the House Republican Israel Caucus.
Zeldin also has a good working relationship with Representative Eliot Engel, the Jewish and Democratic chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, which Zeldin sits on.
There’s a specifically Jewish question arising out of Trump’s contention that Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal to Israel and to other Jews. Is this how Jews want to talk about one another? A president has two great powers unfettered by law and congress: pardoning criminals, and shaping a discourse. Is “disloyalty” now part of the Jewish vocabulary?
On Tuesday, after attacking two Democratic congresswomen who are highly critical of Israel and who back the boycott-Israel movement, Trump said, “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat – it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty”.
Reporters wondered the next day, disloyalty to whom? He clarified, “If you vote for a Democrat,” he told reporters, “you’re being disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel.”
Jewish organisations on the left said from the get-go that putting “Jewish” and “disloyal” in the same sentence, whatever the intention, was anti-Semitic. Then the centrists weighed in. The Anti-Defamation League’s chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, said the remarks were anti-Semitic. The American Jewish Committee’s David Harris said they enabled anti-Semites.
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) didn’t quibble with Trump’s suggestion that Jews who vote for Democrats are betraying Israel and their fellow Jews.
“President Trump is right, it shows a great deal of disloyalty to oneself to defend a party that protects/emboldens people that hate you for your religion,” the coalition said on Twitter, even before Trump clarified that was what he meant.
Jewish partisans have been fighting for supporters and voters for years. But it’s unlikely that even at the height of the bitterest of battles – over the Iran nuclear deal – one mainstream Jewish leader would have suggested the other was “disloyal” to Israel or their fellow Jews.
Has Trump then reframed such disagreements by using a term, “disloyalty” that is only a skip away from “treason” – and even “self-hatred”?
RJC Director Matt Brooks doesn’t think so, and insists Trump was putting into blunt terms what Jewish Democrats have long said about Republicans.
“The president is not plowing any new fields here,” he said in an interview.
What happens if it sticks? How do you work with someone you think is disloyal, or who thinks you are disloyal?
Zeldin said he believed Trump was right on policy, and that he hopes that Democrats marginalise – “crush” in his words – the Israel-critical minority Trump was targeting when he made the “disloyalty” comment. But while Trump keeps insisting that the two pro-boycott congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, are the “face” of the Democratic Party, Zeldin notably acknowledges that Democrats have pro-Israel leaders within their ranks.
Two days before the disloyalty kerfuffle, a pro-Israel group urged Democrats and Republicans to refrain from painting the other party according to its extremes. The appeal didn’t come from a mainstream Jewish group, but a hawkish Christian one: Christians United for Israel (CUFI).
CUFI’s statement referred to the previous week’s Israel-related drama, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government barred Tlaib and Omar from entering the country. But it might have as easily applied to the “disloyalty affair”.
“The leaders of both parties should keep their fringe elements in check, and stop attributing the views of these outliers to the opposition,” CUFI said. “Allowing a handful of anti-Israel members of congress to hijack congressional action on Israel has gone on long enough.”
- A version of this post first appeared in ‘The Tell’, Ron Kampeas’ weekly newsletter on Jewish news from Washington.