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St. Louis Jewish voices on president’s ‘disloyalty’ comment

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President Donald Trump walks at the White House, Aug. 20, 2019. Later he said at a news conference that Jews who vote for Democrats show "great disloyalty." (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last week, during a response to a question about U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s statement calling for a rethinking of U.S. government aid to Israel, President Donald Trump portrayed the Democratic party as defending Omar and fellow freshman Democrat Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who both support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Trump then said, “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” 

A majority of American Jews support the Democratic Party. In the recent midterm elections, 79 percent of Jews voted Democrat, according to a CNN exit poll. 

Democratic leaders had expressed support for Israel despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to deny entry to Omar and Tlaib over their support for the BDS movement. The Israeli government later granted Tlaib a humanitarian exception to visit her grandmother in the West Bank, but she decided not to go under what she described as “oppressive conditions.”

Some leaders of national Jewish organizations condemned the president’s remarks regarding Jewish support for the Democratic party, describing them as “divisive” and “textbook anti-Semitism.”

The claim that Jews have “dual loyalty” has been used throughout history — including since the founding of the State of Israel — to fuel the idea that Jews are traitors or care more about Israel than their own country. 

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said in a statement that the president’s comments were “shockingly divisive and unbecoming of the occupant of the highest elected office. American Jews — like all Americans — have a range of political views and policy priorities.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition defended the president’s statement, writing on Twitter, “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 @GOP, when rarely confronted w/anti-Semitism of elected members always acts swiftly and decisively to punish and remove.”

The Light asked St. Louis Jews to share their responses to the president’s remarks. Here are selections of what they said:

• Irl Solomon, member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, docent at Holocaust Museum & Learning Center: “I believe that although as usual he puts his foot in his mouth, in this particular case people who were very quick to criticize and accuse him of charging treason and very quick to say some other things that have no reality — like he is an anti-Semite — those people need to reconsider, need to calm down….Basically what he is trying to say is that the people who attacked Israel and attacked the Jewish people — in other words the two congresswomen — are not worthy of any support from any Jew who believes in fairness or in the support of the State of Israel or the Jewish people. Since the Democratic party has done very little to sanction or punish the two [lawmakers] for their comments, his idea was that voting for the Democratic party was not a rational thing to do.”

• Gerry Greiman, attorney and board chair of Jewish Federation of St. Louis: “I think it’s highly unfortunate, and I think it’s a disrespectful and an insulting attack on the American Jewish community. I think it’s divisive. I think his use of the word ‘disloyalty’ raises the specter of memories of anti-Semitic tropes. I think it tends to make support of Israel a partisan issue rather than a bipartisan issue. I also think it shows a complete lack of understanding of the Jewish values that lead a large portion of the American Jewish community to vote Democratic.”

• Rabbi Seth Gordon, Traditional Congregation: “There may be some serious, legitimate differences with some elements of the Democratic party, as there will be from time to with some elements of the Republican party. However, the broad brush that he painted both the Democratic party and Jews who support Democrats is false and harmful and offensive. First of all, aside from the issue of being false, support for Israel has traditionally been best when it has been bipartisan, and I don’t think it serves the pro-Israel community — whether Jew or Christian or other — to turn it into a partisan issue.” 

• Susan Katzman, President of National Council of Jewish Women- St. Louis (statement): “Referring to American Democratic Jewish voters as disloyal to Israel is an anti-Semitic trope that authoritarian regimes have used for decades. Trump’s words weaponize anti-Semitism, fuel white nationalism and incite violence. Trump’s accusation that Jewish Democratic voters have a ‘total lack of knowledge’ undermines the American Jewish community in every way: our diverse opinions, robust political dialogue, education on social justice and foreign policy issues, and above all our commitment to civic engagement.” 

• Stuart Klamen, founder of The Bergson Group, a local pro-Israel organization comprised of Jews and Christians: “My feeling is that statement is absolutely not true. [There’s] historic Democratic support for Israel. [Omar and Tlaib] are a minority in the party, even though I do have concern that they seem to control the narrative or control the agenda that’s getting out there and publicize what their sides are. But I think that statement is way far-fetched. There is Democratic and Republican support of Israel, but what I do see happening is there is a very clear uneasiness among Democratic supporters about the leadership not coming out publicly against the remarks that Omar made about [AIPAC and the ‘Benjamins’], etc. I don’t think that’s going to make them leave the Democratic party — nor should they because of that —  but there is an uneasiness, and I am hoping that they will work within the party to make it clear that they like to hear statements disavowing some of the comments that have been made publicly.

• David Roberts, chair emeritus of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement: “My personal take is, it’s despicable. I have relatives who in some cases survived concentration camps and in other cases died in concentration camps. I served in the Peace Corps with a young Japanese woman whose family members had been interned in Japanese internment camps, so it’s a gut response, and there were images for me of Nazi Germany because that’s the same language that you can dig out of the ’30s.”

• Sally Altman, a founding member of the St. Louis chapter of J Street, a liberal Israel lobby group: “I was deeply offended that I could fall into one of two categories: I was disloyal — and I want to know to whom or what was I disloyal — or I was uninformed — and I consider myself well read, informed and not disloyal to anything that I value, which is Democracy, freedom of speech and a commitment to those who are in need.”