This past November 11th I gave a lecture at one of the largest Jewish Federations in the nation. The occasion was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the three-day “Night of Broken Glass” rampage against Jews in Germany and Austria that began on November 9th, 1938.
Kristallnacht was the worst pogrom in Jewish history and the first of several stepping stones along the inexorable path to the Holocaust.
In my presentation, I spoke at length about the lessons of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, among them the need to speak out loudly and clearly against self-serving demagogues who cynically stoke the flames of fear, resentment and hate by demonizing and scapegoating religious, ethnic and racial minorities.
I never mentioned President Trump directly, but rather left it to the highly-intelligent attendees to draw their own connection. Nor did the President’s name come up in the follow-up Q&A session, except at the very end when an elderly gentleman seated in the rear of the room and sporting a MAGA hat stood up and forcefully declared, “Say what you may, President Trump is great for Israel, great for the Jewish people and great for America.”
Before he could sit down the sponsor broke in and announced that everyone had to exit the building — the security guards were going off duty. It was fifteen days after the murder of eleven Sabbath-going worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh — the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in America, and security concerns were high.
So I never had a chance to respond to the man with the MAGA hat. He took flight from my consciousness just as swiftly as we took flight from the building. But now and then, he and his pithy words have come back to haunt me like Edgar Allen Poe’s grim and ancient raven wandering in from the nightly shore. They came back after the Poway Synagogue shooting; after the “send them back to the crime-infested place from which they came” rants; after the disparaging tweets about Baltimore as a “disgusting rat and rodent-infested mess” where no human would want to live (echoing words and phrases often employed by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels in the years leading up to the Final Solution); after the unforgivable atrocities at our southern border; and after the El Paso anti-immigrant mass murder. Each time I recalled the elderly Jewish man in the MAGA hat and each time I found myself taking flight from the building never able to deliver, let alone come up with a riposte. Then…
In late August, in one of his evidence-free rants during an impromptu Q&A session with members of the press on the White House Lawn, the President of the United States voiced his ire against Democrats.
“Where has the Democratic Party gone?” he asked. “Where have they gone where they are defending these two people over the state of Israel?”
The two people were Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Both have been long-time, vocal supporters of the boycott-Israel movement (BDS).
The President’s off-the-top-of-his-head barbs against the Democratic Party were triggered by the sweeping condemnation by congressional Democrats of Israel’s decision to deny their colleagues the right to visit Israel and the West Bank.
The previous week Israel had denied that right on the grounds that both were outspoken supporters of BDS. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu identified Omar and Tlaib as “leading activists in promoting legislation to boycott Israel in the U.S. Congress,” whose entire purpose was “supporting the boycott and eroding Israel’s legitimacy.”
As soon as Netanyahu’s statement crossed the wires, congressional Democrats unleashed an avalanche of press statements decrying the decision and urging its reversal.
Congressman Ted Deutch, of Florida, stated he was “extremely disappointed that the Israeli government has chosen not to allow my colleagues to enter Israel.” Deutch is Jewish.
Brad Schneider, Democratic Representative from Illinois, called Netanyahu’s decision “both shortsighted and wrong,” and urged him to reverse it. Schneider is Jewish.
And lawmaker Josh Gottheimer, of New Jersey, chastised it as “a serious mistake and plain wrong.” He too is a Democrat and Jewish.
Instead of hopping on the waiting Marine One helicopter and letting the White House press guess the answers to his questions the President lingered on and took the challenge on himself. One might have expected him to launch into a scathing tirade against the Democrats.
Instead, he chose to direct his venom at the 80% of American Jews who tend to vote Democratic and make up roughly 5% of its voter base. “And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” he insinuated in a voice full of unbridled arrogance and disdain.
To whom? To America, as Omar had insinuated of Jewish-American supporters of Israel back in March?
No, just the opposite — to Israel! “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel,” the President charged.
It wasn’t enough to accuse American Jews of disloyalty to Israel, if not of ignorance. He disparaged them for being weak as well. “Only weak people would say anything other than that,” Trump sneered.
Those mangled words are hard to fathom, but Trump seemed to be directing his contempt at Democrats in Congress, if not the Jewish Democrats who were among the quickest and most vocal of lawmakers to protest the decision by the Israeli government to deny Omar and Tlaib’s requested visit. After all, on the eve of Netanyahu’s decision to turn down their request — a decision that would reverse a previous one to allow it — Trump tweeted to Jerusalem “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people…”
Disloyalty, Ignorance and/or weakness. Take your pick or pick them all.
If American Jews are ignorant and disloyal because they vote for Democrats who are weak on Israel, are the Democrats whom they helped elect to Congress truly weak in their support for Israel, or is there something more sinister and troubling going on?
Let’s look at the last session of Congress to answer that question. On July 23, the House of Representatives led by its Democratic majority, took three pivotal and unequivocal legislative actions in support of Israel.
The first was a regional security act (U.S.-Israel Cooperation Enhancement and Regional Security Act — H.R. 1837). Its provisions, to name only a few, put into law a $38 billion ten-year military aid package based on a Memorandum of Understanding originally pledged to Israel during the Obama Administration in 2016.
Two of the bill’s key provisions include the transfer of military equipment to Israel in the event of a threatened or actual attack, and the delivery of precision-guided munitions, like the ones that Iran is believed to be about to deliver to Hezbollah — the Lebanese-based terrorist organization that serves as its proxy in its Jihadist crusade against Israel.
Weak? Disloyal? Or strongly supportive of our long-term ally?
In supporting the bill after its passage, Ted Deutch, its Democratic sponsor, stated “Today we sent a clear message that bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship, for the security and civilian cooperation between our countries, and for the ties between American and Israel people remains strong and unwavering.” Deutch is Jewish.
In case there was any doubt…
The second legislative action in July (Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act — H.R. 1850) was an anti-terrorism bill that sanctions foreign individuals, entities, and nations that knowingly assist, sponsor, or provide significant support for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, terrorist organizations that have been designated as such by the U.S. and the European Union.
It is critical,” said the bill’s Democratic sponsor, Josh Gottheimer, “that the United States and our allies continue to isolate Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad by cutting them off at the source…” The act, he explained, “… will strengthen existing sanctions to weaken these terrorist groups that threaten our ally Israel, undermine peace, and further destabilize the Middle East.”
In what alternative universe would this second Democratic action be construed as weak on Israel?
The third action (H.R. Res. 246 — Opposing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel) unequivocally condemned the BDS movement and its boycott of Israel, denouncing the BDS movement for denying the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination. It rebuked the BDS movement for undermining even the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding one-sided, non-negotiable concessions. It declared “its strong support for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in two states — a democratic Jewish State of Israel, and a viable, democratic Palestinian state — living side-by-side in peace, security and mutual recognition,” and, most crucially, it affirmed an unwavering support for Israel as “a key ally and strategic partner of the United States.”
In its clear rebuke of Omar and Tlaib’s claims that the resolution constituted a violation of free speech and the right to boycott it explicitly affirmed “the Constitutional right of United States citizens to free speech, including the right to protest or criticize the policies of the United States or foreign governments.”
More than 90% of House Democrats voted in favor of the Resolution. Representatives Omar and Tlaib were two of the 16 Democratic members who voted against it. Following its overwhelmingly bipartisan passage the bill’s Democratic sponsor, Brad Schneider, minced no words about the BDS movement when he released the following statement to the press:
“We condemn the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel and block that path to peace, denies the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel, refuses to accept the basic idea of a Jewish state and seeks to delegitimize Israel in international forums, on college campuses, and in global commerce.”
If one were to be disloyal, ignorant and/or weak, is this how a Democratic leader would express his or her opinion?
But what about the President’s charge that the Democrats are weak for defending “these two people” over Israel’s decision to bar Omar and Tlaib’s visit?
Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer has been one of the most unrelenting critics of the BDS movement. He has exposed the biased, double standards of its boycott campaign to delegitimize and isolate Israel as a blatant form of anti-Semitism. He is possibly the most forceful lawmaker in Washington to take on Palestinian terrorism in all its myriad forms. He was also, perhaps, the most emphatic and unequivocal lawmaker in defending the right of Omar and Tlaib to visit Israel. Did Schumer suffer a rare and inexplicable case of cowering weakness in his support for Israel? Hardly. To quote the Jewish senator from New York, “Denying entry to members of the United States Congress is a sign of weakness, not strength and will only hurt the U.S.-Israel relationship and support for Israel in America.”
Congressman Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic sponsor of the anti-Palestinian terrorist bill urged Netanyahu to let the two congresswomen “see for themselves the robust economic and national security cooperation between our two countries,” and tour Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Museum. Is that a reflection of weakness or of the common-sense wisdom of one who proudly and passionately support Israel’s future?
These instances, among others, are not only vivid displays by Democrats of their firm and unequivocal support for Israel, but of an unshakable confidence that there is nothing to fear in both congresswomen seeing for themselves that Israel, though hardly flawless, has become an open, functioning, thriving democracy, a rarity among its Middle Eastern neighboring countries. And it has sustained its democracy despite unrelenting efforts to annihilate it.
True leadership does not fear the discovery of truth; it encourages it and can learn from it.
So, why the President’s groundless insinuation of weakness?
Is it to dupe American Jews into believing that self-hating Jewish- lawmakers have embraced the views of congresspeople whom he accuses of hating “Israel & all Jewish people?”
And why the accusation against Jewish Americans for betraying Israel by voting for Democrats?
Is it to shame a big chunk of the so-called Jewish voting bloc into fleeing the Democratic Party and embracing a Republican Party led by “The Chosen One,” aka “King of Israel,” monikers by which the President has referred to himself?
Does the President believe American Jews are that naïve and ignorant? Let his accusation of their ignorance speak for itself.
And why the accusation of weakness against the Jewish Prime Minister of Israel for his initially right and smart decision to allow Omar and Tlaib’s visit?
Is it to fuel his cynically partisan “send them back” race-baiting campaign to try to make Omar and Tlaib, clearly a fringe minority, the face of the Democratic party?
Is this smear tactic one that Jewish voters are supposed to fall for?
Most troubling of all are the perilous consequences of his feeble and sinister ploys:
-They have turned lawmakers Omar and Tlaib into grievance victims and gifted them a heavily media-covered bully pulpit to promote and sanitize the BDS movement.
-They have put to a test the historically bipartisan congressional commitment to Israel. His jawboning Netanyahu into barring duly-elected Congresswomen of color from entering Israel, has given moderate Democratic lawmakers second thoughts about going on an educational mission to Israel in the fall.
-They have chipped away Israeli’s image in the world and given fodder to those who desperately want to cast the most democratic country in the Middle East as a pariah state.
-And they have dampened hope that anytime soon Israelis and Palestinians will coexist peacefully and prosperously in two, neighboring democratic states — one Arab and one Jewish.
Whether anti-Semitic in intent or not, witting or unwitting, Trump’s demeaning and fabricated accusations of disloyalty, ignorance and weakness have handed his white nationalist admirers an incendiary stockpile of verbal ammunition.
Whether racist in intent or not, witting or unwitting, his vitriolic hate campaign against Omar and Tlaib has incited the racial animus of white supremacists and put these two women of color lives at great risk.
And, all for what? To satiate his narcissistic political ambitions?
And so, to that very polite and well-meaning, elderly Jewish man sporting the MAGA hat on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht — a man who undoubtedly loves Israel, the Jewish people and America, I say, do you still believe President Trump is “great for Israel, great for the Jewish people and great for America?”
Robert Berkowitz is the author of The Long Damn Summer of ’42 and The Fate of the Tree of Life. Both essays can be found on Medium.com, as well as his presentation delivered on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht entitled Reflections on the Long Damn Summer of ’42.