Much as one tries to tune out his racist nonsense, sometimes it is impossible. At a press conference on Tuesday, President Donald Trump released a tirade of nonsensical statements after he was asked whether the United States should reconsider its policies toward Israel after the country refused entry to two Muslim American U.S. congresswomen. His reply? “I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation. Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone where they are defending these two people over the state of Israel?” Trump said. “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
Media accounts suggest it wasn’t exactly clear to whom Jews voting for a Democrat would be disloyal, but in context it appears that he was suggesting that Jews owe their first loyalty to Israel and that any choice to defend Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota—freshman Democrats who were first granted entry to Israel by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and then denied it after Trump suggested they be barred—is a choice not to defend Israel, where, according to Trump, Jews’ principal loyalty should lie.
Trump’s intervention in Israel’s foreign policy last week was decried by commentators across the political spectrum, regardless of their position on Tlaib and Omar’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. But Trump’s unmistakable invocation of a Jewish “dual loyalty” trope goes beyond his usual tendency to bully foreign allies in order to punish his personal foes. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that this trope is the exact sin for which Omar was initially tagged as an anti-Semite last spring—she had intimated in a tweet that Congress’ support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins, baby,” before, by way of apology, calling into question the “allegiance” of supporters of Israel. All of these remarks tap into a centuries-old anti-Semitic canard about the ways in which Jews can never be fully loyal to their homelands because they always place their religious loyalties first. To be sure, claims that “outsiders” and “others” can never be loyal to America have swept in Catholics and Muslims over time, but they will always have a special salience for Jews, dating back to the original fake news that was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, used to cast doubt on Jewish “loyalty” for decades.
So when Trump claims that Jews have not just dual loyalties, but that, in fact, their primary loyalty lies elsewhere, it’s hard to ignore. IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish group that has been protesting Trump’s immigration policies, told Newsweek that “this is an explicit dual loyalty charge wielded by the President of the United States against 80% of American Jews who voted against him. It is not [merely] an antisemitic dog whistle—it’s a bullhorn to his white nationalist base.” Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, again attempting to decipher what exactly Trump was talking about, while knowing it was nothing good, told the Hill: “At a time when anti-Semitic incidents have increased—due to the president’s emboldening of white nationalism—Trump is repeating an anti-Semitic trope. If this is about Israel, then Trump is repeating a dual loyalty claim, which is a form of anti-Semitism. If this is about Jews being ‘loyal’ to him, then Trump needs a reality check.”
Trump really appears to be of the view that American Jews actually owe primary loyalty to Netanyahu and only secondary fealty to himself. It isn’t even the first time he’s said something like this. In April, Trump referred to Netanyahu as “your prime minister” when talking at a conference of Jewish Americans. In 2015, he told a room full of Jewish Republicans that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” continuing, “You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”
This emphasis on Jewish primary loyalty is even more pernicious than the dual loyalty claims that have been directed at Jews for generations. It is what Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017—the folks whom Trump once described as the “very fine people” on one side of the Unite the Right protest—were arguing for as well. They think Jews don’t belong in America because they have their own ethno-nationalist state.
Trump has been trying mightily to bring Jewish voters home to the GOP, but according to a Pew study, 79 percent of Jewish voters broke for Democrats in the 2018 midterm. So Trump’s charge that any Jews who vote for any Democrats are “disloyal” is an accusation against … the vast majority of American Jews. And not only is he imputing ill motives and un-Americanism to vulnerable minorities again, he’s doing so amid a climate of unprecedented personal fear and insecurity.
There has been a surge in anti-Jewish violence and threats across the country and the world. These remarks come just days after a pickup truck accelerated into Jewish protesters outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Rhode Island. The driver, a correctional officer at a prison that works with ICE, sent several protesters to the hospital.* Trump didn’t tweet about this attack. But Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs did weigh in to say that the protesters “had it coming.”* Which is of course, the terrifying other side of the coin: Jews who are not loyal, well, they deserve whatever they get.
As Steven Waldman notes in the Atlantic, “dual-allegiance charges go much further than offering a polite disagreement on policy. They imply not only that a group is un-American, but that its adherents have no agency. They cannot be patriotic, because they are thoroughly under the influence of a foreign power or code.” It’s a way of suggesting not just that one is an “other” but also that one is brainwashed, hypnotized, or lacking in moral agency as a result of nefarious foreign forces. It’s a suggestion that you are a pawn, and lucky to have a protector. This is a slur and a scandal in which the president of the United States is invoking an age-old, blood-soaked, anti-Jewish trope. And, ever the narcissist, Trump is also warning all American Jews that he will not protect them if they are disloyal to him.
Correction, Aug. 21, 2019: This story originally misstated that Lou Dobbs works for Fox News. He works for Fox Business Network.
Correction, Aug. 22, 2019: This story also originally misstated that the driver of the vehicle who ran into protesters worked for ICE. He works for a prison that works with ICE.