Tel Aviv Diary: Muslim Ban Rattles Jewish Community

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Demonstrators at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on January 29, protesting President Trump’s executive order imposing a refugee freeze into the United States and a travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries. Marc Schulman writes that it was a weekend of rare unity in the American-Jewish community, when all three branches of Judaism condemned the administration’s immigration and travel bans. Scott Olson/Getty

On U.S. election night in Israel, at a celebration hosted by the American Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro, hours before the results became known, I ran into an old acquaintance, Bradley Burston, a regular columnist for Haaretz newspaper and a keen observer of the American-Jewish community.

We engaged in an animated discussion on candidate Donald Trump, and how he had divided the American- Jewish community and Israel. Of course, at that moment, we thought we were having a largely theoretical conversation, believing like many that by the end of the evening, the political career of Donald Trump would be over.  

That conversation came to mind on Saturday night, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted his support of Trump’s call to begin construction of the wall separating the United States from Mexico. That tweet made clear that Netanyahu was willing to get in Trump’s good graces without the least concern for the views of the American-Jewish community.

In the midst of one to the most contentious actions taken by any recent U.S. president (i.e. the announcement of the travel ban on citizens from seven nations), Netanyahu decided to indirectly insert himself into the fray by backing the ban.

The Jewish community have overwhelmingly opposed Trump’s travel- and immigration-ban policies. Leaving aside the damage that Netanyahu’s tweet of endorsement—which was immediately retweeted by Trump—placed on Israel-Mexican relations, the comment wholly enraged many in the American-Jewish community.

It was a weekend of rare unity in the American-Jewish community, when all three branches of Judaism condemned the Trump administration’s travel and immigration bans.

These prohibitions coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the liberation of Auschwitz, with President Trump’s statement not even mentioning Jews or their premeditated genocide. It propelled Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), one of the most right-wing American Jewish organizations, to declare:

Especially as a child of Holocaust survivors, I and Z.O.A. are compelled to express our chagrin and deep pain at President Trump, in his Holocaust Remembrance Day Message, omitting any mention of anti-semitism and the six million Jews who were targeted and murdered by the German Nazi regime and others.

Despite the backlash against Trump, Netanyahu refused to withhold his support. He even dismissed entreaties from Interior Minister Aryeh Deri suggesting that Netanyahu should apologize to Mexico.

Of course, this is not the first time that Netanyahu has inserted himself into American politics. His comments prior to the 2012 elections and his speech to Congress after the Iran deal were considered highly partisan and alienated many American Jews.

Netanyahu's actions have even resulted in a perceived drop in endorsement of Israel from parts of the American-Jewish community. As one politically engaged Chicago lawyer said to me, attempting to explain the fall in support:

Maybe it's partially generational, partly due to changing demographics and partly due to Bibi’s explicit partisanship.

However, Netanyahu’s support for Trump’s actions have taken his intervention into U.S. affairs to a whole new level. Theo Saal, who lived in Israel for a number of years and today serves a legal defense attorney in Queens, said:

I feel offended and I feel threatened by a country that I basically consider my homeland, advocating the spirit of separation and isolation that Jews have been subjected to through the ages.

It's none of Bibi’s damn business. Nor should Trump be looking for approval from Bibi. He should only be looking to the people he accidentally became in charge of.

In Israel, the reactions are divided. Among the American-expat community—regardless of one’s political views on the Arab-Israel dispute, with the exception of those explicitly tied to the Republican Party—there is a feeling of dread.

As one friend who considers himself right-of-center wrote to me last night:

Truth is, he’s (Trump) more dangerous for the rest of the world than for the U.S. They have federal judges there (in the U.S.) to prevent the worst. Though, everyone else is going to be left in a much more dangerous and cruel world—if that is at all possible. If I were anywhere near Russia, for instance, I’d be planning my evacuation.

Some Israelis continue to hail Trump as “strong and willing to take action.” Outside of Tel Aviv more people may share this opinion, while in Tel Aviv the feeling after the Trump administration’s first week is one of fear and wonder over how America could have gone so far off the rails.  

The relations between American Jews and Israel is complicated, and requires a book-length manuscript to fully explain all of the elements involved. However, it’s clear that the election of Trump—who is considered an anathema to much of the American-Jewish community, and a “savior” among some in the Israeli population, along with most of Israel’s current government—has only deepened the divide between American and Israeli Jews.

Now that President Obama is not in the White House, a green light has been given for the Knesset to pass legislation that ex post facto legalizes the seizure of private Palestinian lands—an act that will bring with it a torrent of international criticism but will make Netanyahu’s base happy.

With Netanyahu acting in “survival-mode,” hoping that his relationship with Trump might somehow save him from a police indictment, there is no way of knowing how much additional damage the prime minister might do to further fray the ties between American Jews and Israel.

Marc Schulman is the editor of HistoryCentral.com.