Israel, which in the last few years has become a wedge issue in Congress, was trotted out by President Trump this week in a dramatically new — and potentially even more divisive — way.
“So sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our country and who, in addition, hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion,” he wrote on Twitter.
He was widely understood to be referring to Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Queens-Bronx), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.). All but Pressley have been critical of Israel and/or Jews. The four women of color are known in congressional corridors as “The Squad.”
“When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said,” Trump tweeted. “So many people are angry at them & their horrible & disgusting actions .…
“I can tell you that they have made Israel feel abandoned by the U.S. We all know that AOC [Ocasio-Cortez] and this crowd are a bunch of Communists, they hate Israel, they hate our own Country, they’re calling the guards along our Border (the Border Patrol Agents) Concentration Camp Guards, they accuse people who support Israel as doing it for the Benjamin’s [sic].”
He later told reporters that Omar “hates Israel, hates Jews.”
Omar in February apologized for saying that supporters of Israel in Washington, D.C., and specifically the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, is “all about the Benjamins” — a reference to $100 bills featuring a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Her remark was widely criticized as having anti-Semitic undertones.
Tlaib, the country’s first Palestinian-American in Congress, has claimed Israel continues to “dehumanize” Palestinians and pursue “racist policies … that violate international human rights, but also violate my core values of who I am as an American.”
Ocasio-Cortez has accused Israel of committing a massacre in the Gaza Strip, and most recently equated American detention centers along the Mexican border to Nazi concentration camps, and saying she was addressing those who “are concerned enough about humanity to say that ‘never again’ means something.”
Trump’s comments were seen by observers as an attempt to rally his base and to assert that these women were representative of the entire Democratic Party.
One prominent Democrat suggested that Long Island Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Huntington), seen as a major supporter of the Jewish community, had played into Trump’s hands when he told NBC News Tuesday that although he didn’t “agree with all the politics of the Squad … I want to be an honorary member of the Squad because I want to fight against this un-American, racist type of behavior. This is not what our country wants.”
Ocasio-Cortez quickly replied on Twitter: “You’re in.”
Although many condemned Trump’s comments as “racist,” others were both critical of Trump’s remarks and supportive of his attack on the congresswomen.
“I’m very seriously worried about the women who lashed out at Israel spewing forth their anti-Zionism,” Fred Zeidman, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told The Jewish Week. “I’m disappointed in the leadership of the Democratic Party, which seems to be supporting them.” On Sunday, Trump had tweeted that they “could go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
In fact, only Omar, who came to the United States as a child from Somalia, was born outside of the country.
Asked about Trump’s comments, Zeidman replied: “Shame on both sides. … I think perhaps President Trump’s words were inappropriate. I don’t know why he said that; I wish he hadn’t. But to hear the intermingling — the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish speech that we continue to hear coming out of the Democratic Party — and to see the support they are getting from fellow Democrats is disappointing and I think dangerous. …
“I think it is a true threat to the Jewish people if they get more oxygen. … It scares the hell out of me that this is going to spread and they are spreading anti-Semitism. That’s my big fear.”
Thane Rosenbaum, who directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at NYU School of Law, said in an email: “The progressive agenda of the Democratic Party is avowedly critical of the United States and Israel — as colonialist, capitalist and racist enterprises. And the singular criticism of Israel, and the influence of Jewish money, is anti-Semitic. I don’t know if they are card-carrying communists, or whether they actually hate America, but as a group, they have been testing how far they can go in demonizing Israel.”
But the New Israel Fund’s CEO, Daniel Sokatch, was critical of Trump for dragging Israel into the political fray.
“Trump has done his best to deflect criticism of his bigotry by calling himself a defender of Israel,” he said in a statement. “But when Trump wields racist tropes, he has no standing to call himself a friend of Israel because an enemy of democracy cannot be a friend of Israel.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the rabbinic human rights group T’ruah said of Trump’s series of tweets, “This has nothing to do with Israel.”
“It’s about your behavior toward American citizens and congress people,” she wrote. “Please don’t try to cover up your racism by making Israel a wedge.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition Monday tweeted a clip of a Fox News interview with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) with the comment: “We simply believe everything Sen. Graham says in this clip is correct, both in fact and sentiment.”
In the clip, Graham said: “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists. They hate Israel. They hate our own country. They’re calling the guards along our border, the border patrol agents, concentration camp guards. They accuse people who support Israel of doing it ‘for the Benjamins.’ They’re anti-Semitic. They’re anti-America. Aim higher. We don’t need to know anything about them personally. Talk about their policies.”
Sander Gerber, a major fundraiser for President George W. Bush, told The Jewish Week in an email: “Lindsey Graham is a straight shooter. The Gang of Four tries to arouse bigotry against Jews for political aggrandizement; seems they are successful.”
The divisiveness in the White House has spread to Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway, who, when asked a question this week by a Jewish reporter, replied, “What’s your ethnicity?”
When the reporter, Andrew Feinberg, asked why that was relevant, Conway said his question was irrelevant because “a lot of us are sick and tired in this country of America coming last.”
Earlier in the day, she had said The Squad represented the “dark underbelly in this country.”
Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman and former president of local B’nai B’rith and American Jewish Congress chapters, told The Jewish Week: “This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. Donald Trump’s racist attacks are typical of the attacks Jews have faced throughout our history. We have a moral obligation to our faith and to the principles of America to condemn his hateful, racist rhetoric.”