THE WARM congratulatory message Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu sent US President Donald Trump after his inauguration last Friday – “Congratulations to my friend, President Trump” – highlighted the schism between Netanyahu and a major portion of world Jewry disgusted by the new president; for them, his message was cringeworthy. He was definitely not speaking for the whole of Jewry, nor the whole of Israel.
Trump expresses admiration for Israel, bemoaning its “unfair” treatment in the conflict with the Palestinians. He will discover the conflict is infinitely more complex than he imagines, and cannot be solved with his famous simplistic bombast. He is referred to as the great deal-maker in entertainment and hotels, without political experience. But he resembles an unpredictable pit bull begging the question: Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?
How will he react if the parties refuse his deal-making? The Middle East is not a hotel. When he comes up against the unceasing incitements from both sides – Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s settlement construction on Palestinian land – will he remain Netanyahu’s “friend”?
Trump’s election typifies the rise of nationalistic right wing leaders worldwide with xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes – although Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and would be outraged to be called anti-Semitic. His bellicose use of the “America first” slogan evokes memories of other populist leaders in history who pounded the table with such refrains while leading their countries to ruin.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organisation dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism which often speaks out on other forms of discrimination, pressed Trump last year to drop the slogan because of its tainted legacy from the America First Committee, the isolationist movement created in 1940 after Hitler invaded Poland. The America First Committee urged neutrality towards Nazi Germany, and even doing business with it because it didn’t threaten America directly. One openly anti-Semitic leader, aviator Charles Lindbergh, said Jews were a threat because of their control of the media, and that he was backed by a silent majority of Americans denied a voice by a hostile press. Trump, however, ignored the ADL plea.
At the over 500 000-strong anti-Trump women’s march in Washington on Saturday – part of two million demonstrators countrywide reported by AFP and CNN – a keynote speaker was Gloria Steinem, a founder of the 1960s feminist movement and daughter of a Jewish man whose family were immigrants from Germany and Poland. She challenged Trump’s assertion that he represents “the people” of America, saying: “I have met the people and you are not them!”
Trump supporters have mentioned a possible master registry of Muslim immigrants in America in response to radical Islamic terrorism. But the ADL’s head, Jonathan Greenblatt, said Americans must reject all forms of discrimination regardless of which minority group it targets. He pledged that “if one day Muslim-Americans are forced to register their identities, that is the day this proud Jew will register as Muslim… As Jews we know what it means to be forced to register.”
The Jewish world – as with broader society – is deeply split on Trump. Many conservative Jews in the United States and Israel back him, particularly in the Orthodox segment, hoping he will strengthen the Israeli right. His ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an Orthodox Jew on the far right of Israel’s political spectrum who opposes the two-state solution and strongly supports the settlement movement.
How will Trump react if anti-Semitism continues rising in the United States? Will he censure its perpetrators when many – the nationalists who hail “America first!” – will probably be people who voted for him? Will his recent nasty comments on the media’s negative coverage of him eventually translate into the old slogan that “the Jews control the media”?
Netanyahu did nothing diplomatically incorrect in congratulating Trump on his inauguration. It is normal diplomatic protocol. But his message’s obvious warmth was jarring to millions who believe Trump is a potential fascist.
Some argue Netanyahu is simply playing realpolitik and sees in Trump the opportunity to strengthen Israel. But many Jews are asking: Does Israel not endorse the humanistic values which two million women marched for on Saturday in defiance of Trump?
Nobody knows if Netanyahu’s warm words towards Trump will help the Israeli PM’s cause. They may return to haunt him when the pit bull turns vicious.