President Donald Trump has opened a new Jewish question. It has appeared like the taste of a forbidden fruit many times before but has never entered the white heat of American politics, and the same is happening in Europe: Why do Jewish citizens tend to lean to the left despite all the anti-Semitism harbored by the left-wing groups or parties under the guise of “criticism of Zionism” or of Israel? This problem has developed in several ways since the days of the Soviet Union and even before, when major theorists of the far left identified the Jews as defenders of capitalism. And why are left-wing Jews so ready to disregard, to cast aside, even the most evident support for Israel if it comes from conservatives?
A recent story exemplifies the situation. On August 19, 2019, Israel denied entry to a newly elected Democratic congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian origin, together with another newly elected Democratic congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. The reason: the two are exponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and have made several statements of clear hatred for Israel and Jews.
The Knesset, after a long and intensive debate, had passed a law permitting a ban on entry to any activist who “knowingly issues a call for boycotting Israel.” Such calls are not, as the law claims, mere criticism but an ideological ploy to conceal the goal of destroying Israel (for which there is massive evidence , but that is another article).
The two newly elected congresswomen had, with great fanfare, adhered to a group of members of the House and the Senate headed for the Middle East, but had also arranged for a separate trip so as to pursue their radical anti-Israeli agenda. It was no coincidence that their own trip had been arranged by the proterrorist Palestinian organization Miftah, one of whose leaders had even written on its website that Jews drink the blood of Christians for Passover.
After the initial denial, Tlaib was later allowed to enter Israel, which she referred to only as Palestine, for the purpose of visiting her grandmother. Although at first she declared that she would accept that offer and agreed not to preach hate, after being pressured by numerous tweets and comments on social media she decided to cancel her trip.
Other countries, which are judged by normal standards, deny entry to those who advocate their destruction. Yet, even with the humanitarian permission granted to Tlaib, as usual Israel was not forgiven by international public opinion and particularly not by the left-wing media; many deprecating statements were voiced from the right and the left. The most persistent accusation was that Israel had played into Trump’s game by blacklisting two members of the party opposing him in the next election. Moreover, most of the American Jewish organizations (including AIPAC) joined the choir notwithstanding the president’s especially friendly stance toward Israel – a phenomenon on which Trump has based his critique of American Jewish leftism.
“How can this be!” he might well think. “I’ve done great things for Israel, like moving the embassy to Jerusalem; recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights; undermining Iran’s aggressive plans by withdrawing from the nuclear deal and imposing sanctions; cutting U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority, which uses it to pay terrorists and their families; and stopping funding for UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency, which perpetuates the Palestinian refugee issue.” Moreover, he certainly thinks, “My daughter is Jewish, my son-in-law and my grandchildren are as well.” For a Jewish American to support the Democrats, Trump stated publicly, “shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” In turn, American Jews, who largely identify as Democrats and support the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – a bipartisan organization of U.S. citizens committed solely to strengthening, protecting, and promoting the U.S.-Israeli relationship – made an idiotic accusation, saying that Trump’s mention of the theme of loyalty meant he was expressing anti-Semitism.
Not long ago, Congresswoman Omar reinvoked the age-old dual-loyalty trope. Jews who adhere to the Democratic Party, however, did not get angry because she is Islamic and a Somali, therefore “oppressed” and worthy of many privileges. Trump, for his part, clarified that he meant American Jews were disloyal to Israel, not to the United States. But those who do not appreciate the fact that he now recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital do not even listen to his explanations, and this was no exception. Unfortunately, there is nothing here to be surprised about.
And why not? Because Trump has made a historical error by thinking that all Jews can appreciate good things that come to them from the right side of the political spectrum. As Israeli columnist Ruthie Blum has noted, he ignores the fact that – seemingly – among the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai, there is also an unstated one declaring that Jews must be on the left, or otherwise be silent. The era of neoconservatism in the United States has ended, and in Europe it never began. Those, like myself, who cultivate conservative thought, are not religious, but are strongly Jewish while upholding Israel with love for our tradition, are in the minority.
Contemporary Jewish identity is built on two cultural pillars: the memory of the Shoah and a complex vision of the spiritual role of Judaism, which I will briefly characterize here as tikkun olam – the improvement and mending of the world.
After the Holocaust, Jews saw Nazi fascism as their worst enemy, as indeed it was. This led them to search for an ideal home on the left, swimming against the antagonistic currents of history. There were so many, among them my own family, who – notwithstanding even personal suffering – ignored the stance of the anti-Semitic and homicidal communist left led by the Soviet Union. Communist persecution of Jews was not enough to awaken them even though the anti-Semitism was not much different from that of the Nazis: Jews were accused of betrayal and selfishness, of being alien to their country and the working class. In the 1952 Slánský trial in Prague, “Zionists” were called representatives of a “reactionary and chauvinistic” Jewish movement that opposed progress, and the accused had to “confess” and suffer the lethal consequences.
The forefathers of the left theorized the enmity to Jews unequivocally. Marx considered Jews to be the embodiment of capitalism and the manifestation of all its evils, and the Marxist critique of Zionism followed the same course. Zionism was seen as it is seen today by anti-Semites: a consequence of Jewish greedy love for power, this time identified with land – and someone else’s land. For Karl Kautzky among others, Bundism and socialist Zionism were both nationalist deviations from revolutionary Marxism, and Isaac Deutscher held to that view as well. For them, those movements were a hateful form of nationalism, deriving from an archaism destined to disappear: Judaism itself. This outlook was absorbed by international socialism, and by Jews from many countries. Jews who led the polemic against the Bund and called for the rejection of any Jewish ethnicity were socialists or communists.
Although the Zionist leaders who went on to found the state of Israel ascribed the “deviation” to the conflict with the Arabs and accentuated the socialist motives of Zionism, they did not escape the accusations of being capitalist, imperialist, and colonialist. As was made clear by the furious unleashing of the left against Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, a conciliatory approach did not work: like it or not, in a world divided between the U.S. and Soviet spheres of influence, Israel found itself situated on the right. And the Jews, in large part, have looked for a moral excuse for a severe sense of guilt – despite what they have suffered and the many wars the Arab and Muslim side has imposed on them. The memory of the Shoah has been kept alive under the rubric of the fight against anti-Semitism, and of course, rightly so. But it has been very difficult for the Jews of the world to recognize that anti-Semitism has moved very much from the right to the left-wing and Muslim domains.
How is it possible to work for tikkun olam at a time in which any decent Jew must be against Trump? Can his very friendly attitude toward Israel be accepted? The ideological answer overpowers the rational: You must reject him, though sometimes accepting his decisions! A difficult exercise. But the choice is clear: a true Jew must stand on the side of the poor and the homeless, of the wayfarers in search of refuge, of the “oppressed” – and there comes the ideological leap: you must stay on the side of the Palestinians. The Jews are still epitomized as the Luftmensch, the stranger and misfit, by a large bulk of the literature, cinema, and music – including, for instance, works by Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Bob Dylan, and in Europe, Natalia Ginzburg, who wrote that she preferred Jews who were bent over their books to tanned sabras. This is a cynical point of view, as the former, along with their children, were in many cases dragged to the ovens.
There is a big difference between Jews who are on the left in Europe and those in the United States. Up to the tenure of President Barack Obama, left-leaning American Jews and Democrats were not anti-Israeli like the European left. They may have sometimes been ambivalent, may have had a somewhat blind passion for the peace process even when it was infeasible, but American Democrats by and large were not socialists. The Jews could share with them the vision of a great country like the United States that had always basically stood with Israel. Russia was with the Arabs, America with Israel, even if nuances could be added.
But during the Obama administration everything changed. Jewish Democrats’ sense of guilt was augmented by the immense process of cultural contrition that was prompted by the accession of a black president.
The cultural and media industry, along with Hollywood and the universities, walked hand in hand with the United Nations and numerous derivative organizations and even with the European Union. Instead of praising the Jews’ ability to defend themselves against ongoing aggression, and to build a new future in their reborn state after millennia of fidelity to their endangered identity, the U.S. cultural, media, and academic elites applied all the labels of the left’s condemnation.
Obama has contributed much to the cultural hegemony of the sense of guilt, transforming American pride into persistent contrition in a way that happily coincides with European guilt over its colonial past. Regarding Israel, Obama laid the onus of guilt on the “territories,” forgetting that they are “disputed” according to the United Nations; instead they became just “occupied.”
Like Saint Francis, Obama tried to appease the wolf Iran, wholeheartedly ignoring its overt, genocidally anti-Semitic aspiration. What did he care? After all, it wasn’t a sin committed by the West. Iran could continue to pursue a genocidal policy, persecute homosexuals, ban religions, and abuse women. Like a European, he badgered Israel at every possible opportunity, breaking with the tradition of his own party. Obama called upon the world’s democratic elite to align themselves with his notion that Israel bears the greatest responsibility for the Middle East conflict, not seeing that constantly questioning its policies could shade into questioning its existence as the BDS movement gathered steam. The Democratic Party is certainly no longer what it used to be: its leaders would call it a “narrative” if today Yasser Arafat were to tell President Clinton at Camp David that there had never been any Jewish temples on the Temple Mount, that is, Haram al-Sharif. Although Clinton, in response, threatened to leave the room, many of today’s Democratic leaders would stay put.
With Obama, a turning point arrived: being Democratic meant the Jews needed to make a decision that many of them were unwilling to make, namely, to leave the ethical and social house of Woody Allen and to denounce anti-Semitism that had assumed the form of Israelophobia. It reminds me a bit of Italy when its former Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer put the “moral question” at the center, hypothesizing implicitly that the depositories of human ethics were the people of the left. Obama placed the Jewish question at the center of American politics, and his criticism of Israel and Trump now finds him in the midst of this reality. It is a new reality in which one is not a Democrat if one does not criticize Israel, and will be criticized oneself for not criticizing it. The same is true in Europe; if you are on the left, you must criticize Israel and have contempt for Netanyahu and his policies. Why? Because you defend the oppressed. “Oppression” is the key word: blacks, homosexuals, transgender people, women, people from the Third World, and Muslims become the protagonists of the current era and its destiny, and if you are on their side you will be dragged into a fight against Israel, the oppressor.
During a lesson on ancient Jewish texts that I attended in 2019 for Tisha B’Av, the day on which Jews remember the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, a rabbi-teacher was asked whether or not Jews should stop mourning the Roman conquest and devastation of Jerusalem now that Jerusalem is theirs. The view taken by most of the class was that one should still remember, and weep (as is customary), on Tisha B’Av because the sins of the world must still be addressed and remedied. In short, Mr. Trump, even if you have recognized Jerusalem, a great many Jews are engaged in tikkun olam and intersectionality and don’t want to be distracted by reality. At their own risk.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-2013) where she served as vice-president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she is the author of 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). She is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.