As he surveys the impending election season and the array of Democratic candidates lining up to challenge his reelection, President Donald Trump has lately opted for an uncharacteristic display of magnanimity, making a concerted effort to celebrate Jewish accomplishments and point to his support of Israel. It’s an ironic twist for a man who has a long and documented history of deploying anti-Semitic tropes.
In last week’s 2019 State of the Union address, for example, Trump linked a pet policy initiative — pulling out of the Iranian nuclear agreement — to the security of Israel, as he lavished attention on the Jewish-American veterans who helped liberate Europe during World War II, as well as Holocaust survivors who were freed by American fighters.
“We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants death to America and threatens genocide against the Jewish people,” Trump said in his speech, referring to his administration’s efforts to roll back the 2015 deal made by the Obama administration. “We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism, or those who spread it’s venomous creed.”
Even by Trump’s shameless standard of hubris and mendacity, this effort reaches an abounding level of — well…chutzpah — as Trump has a long and documented history of spreading that venomous creed himself.
While Trump occasionally boasts of his strong ties to Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel, since his arrival on the political scene in 2015 he has more often boldly revealed himself to be not so much a friend to the Jews as he has been sympathetic to the repugnant views held by racist and anti-Semitic white nationalists.
In December of 2015, Trump gave a speech in front of the Republican Jewish Coalition, where he dipped in to the well of anti-Semitic trope, telling those assembled, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” before adding, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.”
During the election season, Trump tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton alongside a pile of money and a Star of David, emblazoned with the words, “Most corrupt candidate ever.”
His closing argument in the 2016 presidential campaign was a television commercial that targeted investor/philanthropist George Soros, former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, and senior chair of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein — all prominent Jewish Americans — as individuals who have crippled the working class in the United States.
And as president, Trump has tended to be slow to condemn anti-Semitic violence, so much so that Steven Goldstein, who heads the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, was once forced to opine that the president’s occasional “acknowledgment of anti-Semitism is a Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration.”
The way Trump has happily mined anti-Jewish rhetoric in the past makes his most recent effort to portray himself as a protector of Jewish interests seem transparently phony and grotesque.
Nevertheless, he has persisted of late. This gambit was on full display during the State of the Union address, where Trump invited Pittsburgh police officer Timothy Matson to sit in the gallery and recognized him for chasing the suspect in the Tree of Life attack on a synagogue in the city. Trump also saluted Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor who also survived the attack. Trump also praised three World War II veterans — Irving Locker, Joseph Reilly and Herman Zeitchik — who were among the D-Day forces that landed in France in 1944, and helped defeat Nazi Germany. Zeitchik and Locker are Jewish.
More recently, Trump joined in the criticism of Ilhan Omar, who recently apologized for her comments about the Israel lobby’s influence in Washington’s political circles, today calling for her resignation.
“I think she should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” Trump said during a White House Cabinet meeting. “What she said is so deep-seated in her heart, that her lame apology, and that’s what it was, it was lame, and she didn’t mean a word of it, was just not appropriate. I think she should resign from Congress.”
By contrast, Trump has never called for the resignation of any of the many Republican members of Congress, who have made insensitive, racist, or antisemitic comments. In particular, Trump has been supportive of Rep. Steve King, who has been censured by congressional colleagues for his support white nationalism, and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who once allegedly described himself as “David Duke without the baggage.”
But Trump’s recent deflections of his own anti-Semitic past have thus far failed to deceive many within the Jewish-American community.
Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs for HIAS, a Jewish-American nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees, said in a statement following the State of the Union that Trump’s showmanship shouldn’t be construed as real concern for Jewish and other refugees.
“Stories of Holocaust survivors are reminders that we should welcome the stranger and protect the refugee,” Nezer said. “Making the U.S. great means upholding our commitment to international law and asylum seekers. Blocking people from applying at ports of entry and forcing asylum seekers at our southern border to remain in Mexico to await their hearing is illegal, dangerous and unprecedented in American history.”