It started, as do so many stories of the Trump presidency, with an inflammatory tweet.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” wrote President Trump on Sunday, July 14, targeting his tweet at four progressive first-term members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar. (All four are U.S. citizens; only one, Omar, was born outside of the country, in Somalia.)
Then at a rally three days later, Trump whipped up the crowd with a more focused attack on Omar, who is the first Somali refugee to be elected to Congress. The crowd responded with chants of “Send her back! Send her back!”
After pushback from Republicans and Democrats alike, the president tried to distance himself from the chant on Thursday, saying he “disagreed with it.”
But in another tweet on Saturday, the president, while denying that he encouraged the chant, called the crowd “very big and patriotic.”
This latest episode has observers and activists wondering whether the president will fully embrace nationalism and an even harder stance on immigration as his re-election campaign moves into full swing this fall. Whether in the president’s tweets about Israel or in debates about the appropriateness of describing migrant camps as concentration camps, Jews have been central to the political conversation.
All of this has left Jewish voters anxious to see which direction the president’s campaign will take, and left Jewish organizations wondering how to react to baldly nationalist rhetoric from a sitting president running for re-election.
“There were moments in the 2016 campaign, but I think this feels different,” said David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The fact that a sitting president and not just a presidential candidate is doing this is all the difference.”
“We know that 76 percent of American Jews did not vote for Trump, so we already know that the Jewish community is very opposed to Trump and those that enabled him,” said Stosh Cotler, CEO of the progressive Jewish advocacy organization Bend The Arc. “I think that now we just have more evidence that not only was this always inappropriate, it continues to be totally immoral and abhorrent, and it also is a signal to all of us, including the American Jewish community, that we are all being put in danger.”
Allan Lichtman, professor of history at American University and a presidential historian, put the current moment in a wider context. “In the 1930s, the same arguments that Trump is making about these congresswomen were said about the Jews. The great majority of Americans didn’t want Jewish immigrants coming to the United States.”
After last week’s rally, even the president’s supporters felt compelled to condemn the chants of “Send her back” directed at Rep. Omar.
In a rare rebuke of the president, the Rabbinical Council of America issued a statement condemning “the most recent outburst of racist rhetoric in the highest levels of government,” though it did not mention the president by name. The Orthodox organization represents the only Jewish denomination in which Trump enjoys approval ratings over 50 percent.
“The ‘send her back’ chants were wrong, vile, and don’t reflect who we are as Americans. I strongly oppose @IlhanMN views and policies but those chants have no place in our society,” wrote Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, in a tweet the morning after the rally.
In an interview published the same day, Brooks seemed to defend the president to the Washington Examiner: “This is the week that’s going to define the campaign going forward,” he said in an interview with the paper’s podcast “Behind Closed Doors.” “The most important thing here is the contrast between where the president and the Republicans are and where the center of gravity is in the Democratic Party, which is moving more and more progressively left.” A spokesman for RJC said Brooks was unavailable for interviews.
Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, criticized Brooks for condemning the chant while failing to name the president. “What we saw from the Republican Jewish Coalition was a condemnation of those chanting, but they stopped short of condemning the inciter-in-chief,” Soifer told The Jewish Week. “They didn’t condemn the president himself, despite the fact that those chanting were repeating the president’s own words and remarks and racist sentiments.”
Some of the president’s supporters have argued that his comments about the congresswomen were not racist, but instead focused on the question of loyalty to America. Trump’s opponents said that, apart from being racist, he was confusing dissent with disloyalty.
While the Jewish Democratic Council of America issued a strong response — calling the president a racist — they were not the only Jewish organization to condemn the president’s rhetoric last week. Other organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, issued statements of their own.
“This is the sound of illiberalism [sic], intolerance. Listen closely: it’s a danger not just to immigrants and minorities but to all Americans. Put politics aside. Time for leaders from all parts of society, people from all walks of life, to step up and say: enough,” wrote Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, in a tweet hours after the rally. The ADL had condemned the president’s tweets targeting the four congresswomen in a statement earlier in the week, calling the tweets “racist.”
“This horrifying chant does not make America great. In fact, it is eerily reminiscent of a darker time in our nation’s history,” wrote the AJC in a tweet the night of the rally.
In response to the president’s remarks and his supporters’ chant, Jewish organizations tried to balance their condemnation of the president with their past disagreements with and condemnations of Omar. The Minnesota representative has been accused of making anti-Semitic statements in the past (she has apologized) and has become a polarizing figure in parts of the Jewish community since her election to the House in November.
Bernstein of the JCPA said that Jewish organizations could address the president’s rhetoric about Omar and Omar’s own statements separately, saying, “We don’t have to do it in the same breath.
“There’s been demands of our groups; why are you speaking up about Trump and not about Ilhan Omar?” said Bernstein. “Because it was Trump who fomented the chant at his rally, it was Trump who issued those tweets, and when we’re dealing with Ilhan Omar or others, we’ll deal with them at that time and in the manner that most makes sense at that moment.”
He continued: “Just because they both made anti-Semitic remarks doesn’t mean that we should treat them both in precisely the same way. One is a newly elected member of Congress, one is the president of the United States,” said Bernstein.
Further complicating the responses to his tweets was the way the president repeatedly invoked Israel throughout his critiques of the congresswomen.
“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 in a tweet Sunday night in response to the backlash against his first tweets about the congresswomen.
“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,” he wrote on Monday.
Soifer accused the president of using Israel as a justification for his rhetoric. “We don’t want to be used as an excuse for his racism, we don’t want Israel to be used as a political pawn or a political football.”
Said Bend the Arc’s Cotler: “What this is telling us is that there is a play right now to try and pull American Jews more to the political right appealing to the Jewish community’s fears and needs for safety and security.”
Whether the events of the past week will change any voters’ minds remains to be seen.
“From what I’ve seen of this controversy, it hasn’t changed anything; Trump’s approval rating is pretty much where it’s always been,” said Lichtman. “No one’s mind ever seems to change about Trump.”