Donald Trump isn’t only venomous; he’s also vague. So when he said yesterday that “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” it wasn’t entirely obvious whom he was accusing Jewish Democrats of being disloyal to. But the most plausible explanation is that he was accusing them of being disloyal to Israel.
In the previous sentence, Trump had condemned Democrats for “defending these two people”—Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar—“over the State of Israel.” And in the past, Trump has repeatedly spoken about American Jews as if they were Israelis. In an April speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he called Benjamin Netanyahu “your prime minister” and warned that a Democratic victory in 2020 “could leave Israel out there all by yourselves.” At the White House Hanukkah Party last December, he told the mostly Jewish audience that Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, “love your country. And they love this country.”
Why does Trump keep suggesting that American Jews are loyal to Israel? The answer may lie in his tribal concept of nationhood. Trump often implies that what determines a person’s national loyalty is not citizenship but ethnicity, religion, and race.
The first hint of this worldview came during Trump’s effort to prove that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. As evidence, Trump often claimed that Obama had been born outside the United States. But he interspersed these claims with allegations about Obama’s religion. In a 2011 interview with Laura Ingraham, Trump said he had been told that on Obama’s birth certificate, “where it says ‘religion,’ it might have [said] ‘Muslim’”—as if this cast doubt on Obama’s Americanness.
When Trump ran for president, he repeatedly suggested that Muslims—or alleged Muslims like Obama—were loyal to Islamist terrorist groups rather than the United States. In November 2015, Trump claimed to have seen “a heavy Arab population” in New Jersey “cheering as the buildings came down” on September 11. The following month he touted a bogus poll suggesting that one-quarter of American Muslims supported violence against the United States. In June 2016, he claimed that “there’s no real assimilation” even among “second- and third-generation” American Muslims. And that same month, Trump suggested that Obama secretly supported the Islamic State.
Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “America first,” implied that some Americans were not putting their country first. His inaugural address, which declared, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America,” suggested that in the past, this allegiance had been lacking. And for Trump, it wasn’t only Muslims whose true allegiance lay outside America’s borders. While running for president, he claimed that the Indiana-born Mexican American judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased against him because “he’s a Mexican.” In its final ad, the Trump campaign featured images of three prominent Jews—George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein—while it called for replacing “global special interests” that “don’t have your good in mind” with “a new government controlled by you, the American people.”
Since becoming president, Trump has continued to claim that prominent nonwhite or non-Christian Americans lack loyalty to the United States. He’s claimed that Omar is “pro Al-Qaeda.” And in an apparent reference to Omar, Tlaib, and fellow “squad” members Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he declared in July that “certain people HATE our Country.” This claim of disloyalty underlay Trump’s demand last month that the members of the squad “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” As many commentators noted, only Omar immigrated to the U.S. from a foreign country. But just as Trump called Curiel “a Mexican” and conflated American Jews with Israelis, he implied that it is the squad’s racial, religious, and ethnic ancestry that defines their true allegiance, not their Americanness, which he cast into doubt.
Trump’s call for the squad members to “go back” to their native lands offered a veiled warning for American Jews. His implied argument was that because Omar, Tlaib, Pressley, and Ocasio-Cortez are interlopers here, their lack of loyalty to the United States should be grounds for returning them to the countries that reflect their racial, religious, or ethnic origins. And by lack of loyalty to the United States, Trump meant lack of loyalty to him and his vision of an America where white Christian men rule.
Trump’s conception of American identity is more inclusive of Jews than of Muslims and people of color. He praises “Judeo-Christian values,” yet never “Islamic values.” By telling American Jews that Israel is their real country, however, and attacking them for opposing him, Trump subtly makes their status in the United States contingent too. It’s no coincidence that Trump implied in his final campaign ad that George Soros—whom he blames for aiding the “invasion” of America by nonwhite immigrants—is an enemy of the American people. If Jews like Soros become allies of Muslims, Latinos, and others who threaten America’s racial and religious hierarchies, then they are displaying disloyalty, and become little better than the squad.
It’s worth remembering that, historically, Zionism and anti-Semitism have often gone hand in hand. In the early 20th century, politicians such as British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and the leaders of interwar Poland, who saw Jews as a threat to the cultural integrity of their own nations, did their best to help Jews emigrate to the land that would become the state of Israel.
Trump hasn’t gone that far. But if you squint, you can see the implied threat: You Jews are guests here. Israel is your true home. You’re neglecting it. And if you keep repaying American hospitality with ingratitude, maybe you too should “go back” to the place you truly belong.