1. The politics of Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism
With a single stroke of his presidential sharpie, Donald Trump sent the entire Jewish world into a frenzy, debating whether America’s 45th president had just changed the definition of Judaism in America from a religion to a nationality or race. He did not. The executive order Trump had signed on Wednesday includes nothing to indicate such a shift. The only change that could result from Trump’s executive order, which adopted a broader definition of anti-Semitism, is an easier time for those wishing to go after colleges for creating a hostile environment for pro-Israel students.
There’s a heated debate still simmering within the Jewish community regarding the merits of Trump’s orders, which can roughly be divided into three camps: Liberals who view the measure as an attempt to stifle pro-Palestinian opinions on campuses; pro-Israel conservatives who view it as yet another brilliant Trump move; and pro-Israel liberals (frankly, the majority of the Jewish community) who see the merit in providing tools to counter extreme anti-Israel expressions that cross into anti-Semitism, but question the need to focus on this specific aspect of anti-Semitism, while little is done to take on more dangerous forms of hatred impacting the community, namely white supremacy, and, as recently seen in Jersey City, some Black Hebrew Israelite groups.
So, what does Trump have to gain politically from taking on the issue of campus anti-Semitism right now?
For a hint look back at Trump’s Florida speech to the Israeli-American Council last Saturday.
Remember who he mentioned on stage? It was Adela Cojab, a recent New York University grad who, according to Trump, “courageously stood for Israel in the face of hostility and bigotry” and took on the university by filing a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. With Trump’s new order, it will be easier for others to make similar claims, potentially threatening a withholding of government funding from the college.
This has been a priority for the Israeli-American Council, which was quick to send out an email to supporters praising Trump’s “courageous step in the battle against the epidemic of anti-Semitic crime and discrimination fueled by the BDS movement.”
In political terms, the move will help Trump lock-in American-Israeli voters, and the main patrons of their movement, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.
2. Trump’s Orthodox Jewish base
Trump, apparently an avid reader of the ultra-Orthodox Ami Magazine, boasted on Twitter last week about the publication’s poll results, which showed an 89 percent approval rating among Orthodox Jews.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 11, 2019
Trump knows where his base is within the Jewish community and knows how to keep them happy. At Wednesday’s White House Hanukkah reception, the president invited Moshe Margareten, a Hasidic rabbi from the Skverer branch, to do the honors of lighting the menorah (well, the symbolic menorah—after all, it was two weeks before Hanukkah). His other Hanukkah candle lighting events also featured members of the Orthodox community.
It’s not uncommon to use these festive receptions to highlight issues and members of the community that are dear to the president. Barack Obama, in 2015, gave the honor of lighting the menorah to Rabbi Susan Talve, a progressive activist who supported the Black Lives Matter movement and equality for women in Israel.
3. Trump’s Jewish strategy is proving to be quite effective
For a president who got off on the wrong foot with the Jewish community and was met with animosity pretty much from day one, Trump learned to identify openings in the community and work his way into several Jewish subgroups.
The vast majority of liberal Jews are a lost cause, and Trump understood early on that there’s nothing he can do to bring them on board. As such, they’ve been ignored and were basically denied access to his administration. As is the case with Jewish neoconservatives and foreign policy-minded Republicans who dared criticize his policies and conduct. They, too, lost their place at the table.
But then Trump found the constituencies that can work with him within the Jewish community: ultra-Orthodox Jews who loved his policies on church-state separation, Orthodox Jews who cherish his pro-Israel, pro-Likud moves, and top donors who care about both Israel and lowering taxes.
When dealing with these subgroups within the Jewish community, Trump has shown his willingness to invest time and attention. He may be the least-liked president American Jews have known for decades, but that doesn’t really matter. He is there for the minority of Jews who approve of him, and this minority, thanks to Trump’s TLC, is now energized, enthused and ready to take its place on the frontlines of the 2020 campaign.
4. Did Trump prove there’s no need for a liaison to the Jewish community?
Breaking with tradition, Donald Trump chose not to appoint an official liaison to the Jewish community. The position, which dates back to John F. Kennedy, is meant to both provide a point person for the Jewish community in the White House, and to help the president convey his ideas and thoughts to Jewish Americans.
At the time, Trump took some heat for refusing to appoint a Jewish liaison.
Three years into his presidency, has he proven his critics wrong?
Trump seems to be doing quite well with the faction of the Jewish community he’s chosen to communicate with. The Hanukkah receptions are packed, as are his brief High Holiday conference calls with rabbis, and he always has his daughter and son-in-law at his side at any Jewish or Israel-related event.
Orthodox Jewish activists have noted they’ve encountered no problems in communicating with the White House, and are thrilled by the responses they’ve been getting.
5. But what about the rest of the community?
And here’s the catch.
Previous presidents made an effort. During the tough days of passing the Iran nuclear deal, Obama and his team endured hours of complaints, criticism and lobbying from many in the Jewish community who strongly disagreed with the deal. Obama didn’t let these concerns change his mind, but he listened. George W. Bush, clearly not the first choice for most Jewish Americans, made a point of speaking at Jewish events, marking holidays and taking calls and meetings with Jewish leaders. True, each side always focused on his own base within the community, but they paid attention to the other as well.
Trump may have a winning tactic in dealing with a hostile Jewish community, but there’s only so much you can achieve by talking only to a quarter of the community.