Trump’s behavior is “very dangerous,” Abe Foxman, the former longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, told me. “He’s trying to use us: in his efforts, his campaign, whatever his needs are.”
Read: Trump has enabled Israel’s antidemocratic tendencies at every turn
The upshot is that Jewish organizations have lost control of the narrative on Israel. Trump’s actions and statements about Jews and Israel have little to do with the Jewish people—they reflect the mode and priorities of his largely Christian, right-wing base. In practice, Washington’s bipartisan consensus on Israel mostly remains intact, but the story about Israel has changed radically. Jews have become characters in a larger political drama over Israel and anti-Semitism, two of the issues they have historically cared about most. The endless cycles of outrage are not meant to benefit Jews, and they’re not really about Jews.
The watchword of pro-Israel groups in Washington has always been bipartisanship. This generally lines up with Americans’ views: Since at least 2001, according to Gallup, people from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans have consistently held favorable opinions of Israel, and their views have largely improved over the past two decades. Alan Solow, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who helped lead fundraising for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, told me that he came up in an era when members of the two political parties basically agreed that they should work together to promote the U.S.-Israel relationship. Now “the whole world is becoming more partisan,” he said.
Trump, in particular, has changed the bipartisan playbook on Israel. The president repeatedly singles out Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who have been critical of Israel and were recently barred from entering the country at Trump’s urging. When Trump says these women hate Israel, hate Jews, and are anti-Semites, that gives permission to “the president’s people to say, ‘We don’t care about traditional ways of approaching the U.S.-Israel relationship,’” Solow said. “It also frees up all the president’s opponents in the Jewish community to say, ‘You know what? All the rules have changed.’” As a result, politically conservative and progressive Jews, who might have once found common ground on the Israel issue, are constantly at one another’s throats.
For Jewish leaders who want the old bipartisan consensus to remain in place, this dynamic has been highly frustrating. “I’ve been struggling with the impact this has had on the [Jewish] community,” Democratic Representative Ted Deutch of Florida told me. Groups including the Republican Jewish Coalition have defended Trump no matter what, even when he seems to invoke classic anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish dual loyalty. “We are going to support Trump because President Trump has been a great friend to the Jewish community and a great friend to our organization, and he’s been the most pro-Israel president in history,” Neil Strauss, the national spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, told me. “What President Trump said wasn’t anti-Semitic ... The idea that President Trump doesn’t like Jewish people is outlandish.”