On August 20, after President Donald Trump told a reporter that any American Jew who casts a “vote for a Democrat… shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” outraged reactions flooded social media, attributing to his statement the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.” This is the idea, rampant in so much nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought, that Jews cannot be trusted because their allegiances are inherently divided between their Jewish and their national identities. Captain Alfred Dreyfus would never have been tried in France without the perception that Jews were disloyal.
The insecurity Jews felt in the face of the accusation of disloyalty was something that Zionism, born in the nineteenth century, aimed to resolve by establishing a Jewish homeland in a modern nation-state. By Zionism’s account, assimilation or minority status in the Diaspora could never assure the same safety; Jewish identity had to be its own nationality. As the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua said to a room full of American Jews in 2006, “I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. [Being] Israeli is my skin, not my jacket.”
Just as troubling in Trump’s statement as any echo of the old charge of dual loyalty, though, was its implication that any Jew who doesn’t subscribe to his politics—to both the policies of his Republican Party and of the current Israeli government—is a disloyal Jew, an inauthentic Jew, a self-hating Jew. Trump was equating Judaism with a messianic vision associated with Israel’s settler right, putting forth a souped-up loyalty test based on his alignment with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his years in office, Trump has made himself a staunch ally of Netanyahu—withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and ending USAID to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. If you are Jewish and vote Democratic, then you are triply disloyal—to Trump, Israel, and America.
While Trump himself has a long record of anti-Semitic dogwhistling—including another instance, in April of this year, of the dual-loyalty trope when he told an audience of Jewish Republicans that Netanyahu was “your prime minster”—he has made accusations of anti-Semitism against political opponents a weapon of choice. Over recent weeks, Trump has repeatedly singled out for attack Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, who take strong positions on Palestinian rights, labeling them Israel-haters and Jew-haters. By defining any public stance critical of Israeli policies (or continued US support for them) as anti-Semitic, he is using Tlaib and Omar to smear the entire Democratic Party as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
But the smears against Democrats didn’t start in the mere eight months since Tlaib and Omar were sworn in to Congress. Nor did they start with Trump, or even with the Republican Party. The smears against Democrats originated with America’s pro-Israel establishment. For years, powerful right-wing American Jewish and Christian pro-Israel organizations and leaders have equated being a good Jewish citizen in the US with unbridled support for Israel—regardless of Israel’s worsening human rights record. Organizations that claim to represent American Jews and their interests—like the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—have pushed to ensure that those who challenge the pro-Israel consensus in Washington, D.C., or advocate for Palestinian rights are silenced.
Although Israel still enjoys a baseline of strong support among American Jews, they also lean firmly Democratic—voting nearly three to one for Clinton over Trump in 2016—and are more critical of Trump’s handling of Israeli-Palestinian relations than, in fact, American Christians are. As hopes for a negotiated two-state solution in the Middle East have all but vanished, along with much likelihood that Israelis will vote out their far-right government, Western progressives, including many liberal Jews, have become more outspokenly critical of Israel. As a result, the bipartisan approach to Israel in US politics that for decades had a lock on Washington has begun to break apart.
In tandem, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, which seeks to use similar tools to those that once made the movement against apartheid in South Africa a powerful international force, has grown in influence and currency—on US campuses and beyond. That Representatives Tlaib and Omar entered Congress with pro-BDS positions is a measure of how far a political movement once considered well outside the mainstream has traveled.
In response, the Israeli government and its US supporters have redoubled their efforts to render BDS politically toxic, even criminally punishable. Their strategy is simple: to declare support for BDS intrinsically anti-Semitic because—the claim goes—the movement denies Israel the right to exist as a Jewish state. This rhetorical maneuver suppresses an essential point for many that BDS is not a denial of Israel’s right to exist as such, but an objection to its right to exist as a state that affords rights based on ethnicity (as opposed to a civic nationalism that grants equal rights to all citizens). Israel, as a national homeland for Jews, gives Jews a right to a country, but the military and geopolitical power Israel has amassed since gaining independence has emboldened the state to control as much territory as possible while largely denying Palestinians civil rights inside Israel’s 1948 borders and their right to self-determination in areas occupied after 1967.
Over time, Israel’s hawkish leadership has construed criticism of its policies as hatred of Jews. The logic has stretched so far that today being pro-Israel appears necessarily to entail being anti-Palestinian. This semantic feat relies on a modern redefinition of anti-Semitism, sometimes called “the New Anti-Semitism,” as primarily a racist hostility toward Israel. The term dates from the last decades of the twentieth century, but it solidified when a 2001 UN conference notoriously drafted a declaration that Zionism was racism. (After the US and Israel withdrew from the meeting in protest, the statement was dropped, but the damage was done.) In the hands of the pro-Israel political right, the New Anti-Semitism effectively flipped the script by declaring that anti-Zionism is racism. In doing so, it added new tropes of “demonization” and “delegitimization” of Israel to the ancient slurs of traditional racism against Jews.
Proponents of the New Anti-Semitism also seek to identify a specifically left-wing form of anti-Semitism, distinct from the traditional far-right manifestations. As Israeli politics, particularly under the governments of Netanyahu, have moved farther and farther to the right, it was inevitable that the definitions of the New Anti-Semitism would harden into a dogma deployed to silence progressives who criticize Israel and advocate for Palestinian rights.
The outlines of this approach became visible, for example, in a 2012 campaign waged against the Democratic Party-aligned organizations Media Matters for America and the Center for American Progress that charged them with anti-Semitism for their criticism of Israel and for suggesting that support for Israeli policies was not in America’s national interests. (CAP’s Matt Duss is now senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, the first Jew to win a presidential primary and a notable critic of Israeli policies.)
At the time, attacks like these were not yet as open and normalized as they are today. It was reported at the time that a former AIPAC spokesperson, Josh Block (who, up until this year, headed the right-wing watchdog group the Israel Project), had been pushing conservative journalists on a private email list to attack Middle East commentators as anti-Semites for so much as suggesting Iran’s nuclear program was not an immediate threat or for holding Israel responsible for the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Such charges are now a stock in trade for both the pro-Israel lobbying industry in the US and the Israeli political right. This effort, backed by millions of dollars, has systematically quashed advocacy for Palestinians rights in American political discourse. It is why any endorsement of a boycott against Israel—even one narrowly targeting the products of Israeli settlements—can be deemed anti-Semitic and why BDS activists have been placed on blacklists and spied upon. It is why a civil rights institute in Birmingham, Alabama, tried to rescind a prize from Angela Davis, why the academic Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN, and why the Palestinian-American organizer and high-profile BDS advocate Linda Sarsour is one of the pro-Israel establishment’s main punching bags.
Jewish Republicans have promoted this stance and many Democratic lawmakers have enabled it, in particular by backing a wave of anti-BDS legislation that has swept over half the states in the country. As Lee Zeldin, a Jewish Republican representing New York’s first congressional district, stated on Twitter in defense of Trump’s comments, “The President loves the Jewish people & the US-Israel alliance. He opposes BDS, moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, signed the Taylor Force Act into law, withdrew from the fatally flawed Iran Nuclear Deal, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights & much more.”
A significant new development is that non-Jewish American conservatives, too, have adopted the strategy—and in full force: indeed, they’ve expanded it further, just as President Trump did, to label criticism of Israel also anti-American. This has led to a new and disturbing phenomenon whereby prominent Republican figures like Meghan McCain and Liz Cheney are cloaking themselves in unconditional support for the Israeli right—which they seem to think gives them the status of honorary Jews—in order to make defamatory accusations of anti-Semitism against progressives. This has become feasible in part because, as the journalist Peter Beinart recently wrote: “Republicans no longer talk about Israel like it’s a foreign country. They conflate love of Israel with love of America because they see Israel as a model for what they want America to be: an ethnic democracy.”
It may be hard to recall today but the Republican Party has not always given Israel carte blanche, and there is no historical precedent to suggest that Republican presidents ever acted out of any special affinity for, or identification with, Jews. Even when Republican presidents bolstered their financial and political support for Israel over the years, it was always out of a strategic interest. At times, Republican support for Israel has even gone hand in hand with hostility toward Jews. Richard Nixon, whose support for Israel in the 1973 Arab–Israeli War was crucial to Israel’s survival, made grossly anti-Semitic comments about American Jews, as tapes released in 1999 by the National Archive revealed.
Though Ronald Reagan strengthened US military support for Israel in 1982, he suspended a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin extended Israeli sovereignty to the Golan Heights—a far cry from Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Syrian-claimed territory earlier this year. Reagan was not accused of anti-Semitism for doing so. In 1991, Reagan’s Republican successor George H.W. Bush delayed Israel loan guarantees until it halted settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza, and entered the first US-brokered peace negotiations with Palestinians, the Madrid Peace Conference. No one called him an anti-Semite, either.
Trump’s emphatic pro-Israel tilt has nothing to do with the well-being of Jews in America—or the well-being of Israel, for that matter. Rather, Trump has put the Israeli right in his pocket in order to shield himself when using charges of anti-Semitism to attack liberal opponents. He learned this playbook from Netanyahu.
Over the last decade, Netanyahu has mastered the art of instrumentalizing accusations of anti-Semitism for political currency, overseeing a government that pulls the anti-Semitism card whenever it is convenient, and then makes it disappear when anti-Semitism comes from its political allies. He has used it in his own war against billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who funds human rights and anti-occupation work in Israel; in his campaign against the Iran nuclear deal; in currying favor with authoritarian European countries that espouse anti-Semitism; and in the effort to discredit and marginalize the Palestinians in general and the BDS movement specifically.
After the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last October, Netanyahu convened a cabinet meeting in which he spoke of the “new anti-Semitism” in Europe and “radical Islam”—two phenomena that played no part in that mass shooting by a self-identified white nationalist, who instead invoked the Great Replacement theory. This is the ultimate destructive logic of the “New Anti-Semitism,” which has made allegiance to Israel virtually its sole criterion—to the point that it is aligned with the very white nationalism that led to the deadliest attack on Jews in US history. It is no surprise then that Netanyahu has remained silent on Trump’s latest remarks.
In contrast, Netanyahu last week took false accusations of anti-Semitism to a new level when he condemned the HBO mini-series Our Boys, a co-production with Israel’s Channel 12 that tells the story of the revenge murder of a Palestinian teenager by Orthodox Jews in 2014. In a Facebook post Friday, Netanyahu called the show “anti-Semitic” because it “besmirches the good name of Israel,” and called on his compatriots to boycott the Israeli channel. (Meanwhile, his Likud party has used litigation in an attempt to suppress publication by the news division of Channel 12’s parent company, Keshet, of leaked documents relating to the police investigation of the prime minister’s alleged corruption.) Such false accusations of anti-Semitism do not come without a cost: the most dangerous long-term effect, which we are already beginning to see unfold, is that they will obscure and pervert people’s understanding of what actual anti-Semitism is—and thus undermine the battle to combat it.
This explains why Republicans continue to make anti-Semitic remarks with no consequences and why Evangelical Christians get a pass even though their fetishization of Israel is rooted in the inherently anti-Semitic theological belief that the return of Jews to the Holy Land will bring about the End of Days, when all Jews either perish or become Christians. Making right-wing pro-Israel sentiment a litmus test of Jewishness, and anti-Israel sentiment the measure of anti-Semitism, radically misrecognizes the long history of Western anti-Semitism. This distortion creates new dangers for non-Zionist or liberal Zionist Jews in the West—which describes the great majority of the American-Jewish population.
Last month, Omar and Tlaib held a news conference in Minnesota to address Israel’s decision, made at Trump’s behest, to bar their entry to Israel and the West Bank. (Tlaib was later granted permission to enter to visit her grandmother on condition that she agree to a series of restrictions, which she ultimately refused to do.) For those who have watched for decades as mainstream American politicians have glossed over Israel’s transgressions, or simply ignored them, it was a watershed moment.
The congresswomen stood with Jewish and Palestinian Americans, who voiced issues rarely heard in the US, outside narrow activist circles: that Palestinians lack freedom of movement, that a Palestinian-American woman, Lana Barkawi, has never been able to visit the West Bank village where her parents were born, that a Jewish-American woman, Amber Harris, who married a Palestinian, has been barred entry into Israel, and that progressive American Jews—such as the activists of the group IfNotNow, which protests American support for Israeli occupation—face being smeared as allies of anti-Semites.
Speaking in St. Paul, Omar encouraged other Congress members to visit Israel and see what she was not permitted to. She urged making US aid to Israel conditional upon a moratorium on settlements and on ending the occupation, something Senator Sanders already raised back in 2017.
Some on the right labeled her remarks anti-Semitic. But they are not anti-Semitic. They are simply a direct challenge to the status quo in Washington that will take a great many courageous politicians, including more American-Jewish leaders, to break.
Reprinted from The New York Review of Books with permission.