Israel muted as Trump says Democrat Jews are "disloyal"
JERUSALEM - Israeli officials on Wednesday offered a muted response to remarks by US President Donald Trump who said American Jews who vote for the Democratic Party were "disloyal."
Referring to Democrat Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who under pressure from Trump were denied entry to Israel last week, the president told reporters on Tuesday at the Oval Office:
"Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone where they're defending these two people over the state of Israel. And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."
Jewish groups in the United States were outraged by Trump's comment, some noting that accusations of disloyalty have long been made against Jews, including in Europe during the 1930s.
Ann Lewis and Mark Mellman of Democratic Majority for Israel called it "one of the most dangerous, deadly accusations Jews have faced over the years. False charges of disloyalty over the centuries have led to Jews being murdered, jailed and tortured."
But the Israeli government, which has particularly close ties with the Trump administration, appeared to hold back on criticism of a key ally.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office declined to comment on Trump's remarks. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, when asked about Trump's statement, told Reshet Bet Radio:
"We must not intervene in the political disagreements in the United States. We keep good relations with both the Democrats and Republicans and we must continue to do so.
We have supporters and friends in both parties, among the Democrats and Republicans, Jews and non Jews and we embrace them all," he said.
The Republican Jewish Coalition argued that Trump was speaking about people being disloyal to themselves rather than to Israel.
"President Trump is right, it shows a great deal of disloyalty to oneself to defend a party that protects/emboldens people that hate you for your religion," the group said in a tweet.
The US president delighted many Israelis - while appalling Palestinians and other world powers - by recognizing occupied Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moving the US Embassy there, withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
The current US administration's stance on Israel is also widely supported by evangelical Christians, who are a key voter base for Trump as the country heads into the 2020 elections.
On Wednesday, Trump responded to criticism of his comments in a series of tweets, quoting praise from conservative radio host Wayne Allyn Root who referred to him as the "King of Israel".
Trump and Netanyahu have been in lock-step over policies towards Iran and Palestine, and the Israeli leader has touted their close ties as he heads to a national election on Sept. 17.
Netanyahu has also been accused of embracing other right-wing nationalist world leaders who support Israel but have been accused of anti-Semitic rhetoric and policies, such as Hungary's Viktor Orban and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.
'Proud Jewish person'
"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," said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
This is not the first time Trump has been criticized for remarks seen by some as anti-Semitic. In 2015, Trump, then a candidate, spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition and made a similar comment.
"You're not going to support me because I don't want your money," he said then. "You want to control your politicians, that's fine."
Later in the campaign, he tweeted a graphic critical of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, that featured a six-pointed star, a pile of cash and the words "most corrupt candidate ever." The star was believed by many to be the Star of David, which is featured on the Israeli flag. The campaign denied that the star carried any special meaning.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current front-runner to challenge Trump in November 2020, called the president's most recent comments "insulting and inexcusable" and urged him to stop dividing Americans.
"The Jewish people don't need to prove their loyalty to you, @realDonaldTrump - or to anyone else," said Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke, a former US congressman from Texas who has called Trump a racist over his immigration rhetoric.
American Jews don't necessarily support everything that Israel does, nor are they the most single-issue voters. Recent polling shows that a majority of Jews identify as Democrats.
According to AP VoteCast, a survey of the 2018 electorate, 72% of Jewish voters supported Democratic House candidates in 2018. Similarly, 74% said they disapprove of how Trump is handling his job.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted in April found that among Jewish Americans, 42% said Trump is favoring the Israelis too much, 6% said he's favoring the Palestinians too much and 47% said he's striking the right balance. Jews were more likely than Christians to say Trump favors the Israelis too much, 42% to 26%.
US Jewish group, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) said it was outraged by Trump's comments.
"The president's comments are shockingly divisive and unbecoming of the occupant of the highest elected office," said AJC CEO David Harris.
"American Jews - like all Americans ' have a range of political views and policy priorities. His assessment of their knowledge or 'loyalty', based on their party preference, is inappropriate, unwelcome, and downright dangerous," Harris said.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a leader in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and an independent - who has said he favours an even-handed Middle East policy that respects Palestinian civil rights - also rubbished Trump's comments on Twitter.
Trump targets 'The Squad'
Trump has for weeks been attacking Tlaib and Omar, along with lawmakers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley - all women of colour known as "The Squad." He has accused them of hostility to Israel in a barrage condemned by critics as racist.
He repeated his attacks on Tlaib on Wednesday, accusing her on Twitter of wanting to cut off aid to Israel, a US ally that has long enjoyed bipartisan support.
While Trump says he is not a racist his comments have drawn widespread criticism, including from Republicans.
At Trump's urging, Israel last week blocked Omar and Tlaib from entering the country. Israel later agreed to a humanitarian visit for Tlaib to visit her grandmother, who lives in the West Bank. Tlaib declined, saying her grandmother had ultimately urged her not to come under what they considered to be humiliating circumstances.
Trump called Omar a "disaster" for Jews and said he didn't "buy" the tears that Tlaib shed Monday as she discussed the situation. Both lawmakers support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a global protest of Israel.
Most Democrats disagree with the views of Tlaib and Omar on Israel. Omar was roundly criticized by members of both parties for saying during a town hall earlier this year that she wanted to discuss "the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country." She has since apologized for those remarks.
However, Trump's repeated attacks have rallied support for both Tlaib and Omar among their party. The president in turn has tried to paint that support as an endorsement of the two lawmakers' position and sought to make them the face of the Democrats.
J Street, a liberal Jewish-American lobbying group, said in a statement on Tuesday: "It is dangerous and shameful for President Trump to attack the large majority of the American Jewish community as unintelligent and 'disloyal.'"
"But it is no surprise that the president's racist, disingenuous attacks on progressive women of color in Congress have now transitioned into smears against Jews," J Street said.
Tlaib and Omar represent districts in states Trump is aiming to win in his 2020 re-election campaign: Michigan, which he narrowly won in 2016, and Minnesota, which he narrowly lost.