Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Confessions of a disloyal Jew

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a signed proclamation at the White House on March 25, 2019, in Washington. Trump signed an official proclamation formally recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(RNS) — I am guilty of disloyalty.

On Tuesday (Aug. 20), President Trump said, “I think that any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”

One: I am, for better or worse, a Jewish person. Two: I expect to vote for a Democrat at the next available opportunity. And three: Between total lack of knowledge and great disloyalty, I’ve got to choose disloyalty.

But, you’re wondering, disloyalty to what or whom? The U.S.? Israel? Trump himself? Reactions were all over the place.

For the answer, let’s review the full text of the president’s comment, which was made in response to a reporter’s question about U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s suggestion that the U.S. rethink its policy of aid to Israel.

“Omar is a disaster for Jewish people,” Trump begins. “I can’t imagine if she has any Jewish people in her district, that they could possibly vote for her.” He then goes into a riff on Omar’s House colleague from Michigan, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib: “You should see the horrible things Tlaib has said about Israel.”

Finally, after declaring his support for Israel’s decision not to let the two congresswomen visit the country (but disclaiming any responsibility of his own for it), he returns to the subject at hand.

I can’t even believe that we’re having this conversation. Five years ago, the concept of even talking about this, even three years ago, of cutting off aid to Israel, because of two people that hate Israel and hate Jewish people. I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation. Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone, where they’re defending these two people over the State of Israel?

Then comes the disloyalty comment, and we’re done.

Clearly, then, it’s to disloyalty to Israel that Trump’s charge refers. His message to me and my kind is: Vote Republican or be disloyal to your (the Jewish) state.

In a typical display of ignorance, Trump assumes that American Jews will be horrified at the thought that we are being disloyal to Israel. But not even Israel’s most enthusiastic Jewish supporters in the GOP would voice that thought.

For ever since the state of Israel was established in 1948 we have been at pains to disavow any suggestion of dual loyalty. The traditional Jewish American two-step is to assert that our support for Israel is in America’s interest, and therefore simply a dimension of our unitary loyalty to the U.S.

In other words, being pro-Israel is one thing. Being loyal to Israel is something else.

As for me, I’ve not been unaware of Omar and Tlaib’s criticism of Israel, up to and including their support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement — which, by the way, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to condemn last month. (The defense of Omar and Tlaib by many Democrats — and even some Republicans — has been against Trump’s attacks on them, and of the Trump-agitated Israeli decision to deny them entry.)

Point is, I can’t permit myself Trump’s “total lack of knowledge” alternative. And I rather think that goes for most American Jews, who tend to be pretty well up to speed on political news, especially when it relates to them.

We’ll have to see whether a couple of Democratic congresswomen’s active hostility to Israel will turn some of the 72 percent of us who voted Democratic in 2018 into Republican voters. What I’m sure of is that, if that happens, it won’t be because they’ve been accused by the president of disloyalty to Israel.

What gives us heartburn is the charge of disloyalty to America.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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