Op-ed by Peter Beinart, published in The Forward on July 29, 2019.
If you listened earlier this month to Republican responses to Donald Trump’s call for Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley to “go back” to the “places from which they came,” you noticed something odd. Trump’s defenders kept mentioning Israel.
“They hate Israel,”replied Lindsey Graham when asked about Trump’s attacks on The Squad. Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin called Omar and Tlaib “anti-Israel.” Trump himself responded to the controversy by declaring that Omar “hates Israel.”
This is strange. As reprehensible as it is to demand that an American politician leave America for allegedly expressing insufficient patriotism, the demand is at least familiar.
“America, love it or leave it,” has been a conservative slogan since the 1960s. What’s virtually unprecedented is demanding that an American politician leave America because they’ve expressed insufficient devotion to a foreign country. Can anyone imagine Republicans defending Trump’s calls for expelling Omar and company by accusing them of hating Canada, India or Japan?
Of course not. The reason is that Republicans no longer talk about Israel like it’s a foreign country. They conflate love of Israel with love of America because they see Israel as a model for what they want America to be: An ethnic democracy.
Israel is a Jewish state. Trump and many of his allies want America to be a white, Judeo-Christian state. Israel, despite its free elections and parliamentary institutions, structurally privileges one ethnic and religious group over others. That’s what many Republicans want here.
In the press, commentators often overlook the right’s affinity for ethnic democracy in favor of other explanations for GOP support of Israel. But those other explanations are at best incomplete. One common argument is that Republicans love Israel because of its commitment to democracy and human rights.
But in the Trump era, democracy and human rights are not Republican foreign policy priorities. It’s not just Trump who admires authoritarian leaders. Rank and file Republicans do too. They hold a more favorable view than Democrats of both Russiaand Saudi Arabia. And when The Economist and YouGov asked Americans last December whether “Human rights abuses should be a principal concern in our dealings with countries,” Republicans were only half as likely as Democrats to say yes.
Most Republicans also want Israel to rule the West Bank, where Palestinians live under military law without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives. If you support Israel’s undemocratic control of the West Bank, democracy is probably not the reason you support Israel.
Another common argument for why Republicans love Israel concerns theology. Journalists often note that many evangelical Christians — most of whom vote Republican — see Jewish control of the holy land as necessary to bring about the second coming of Jesus. But it’s easy to exaggerate religion’s role. According to a 2019 Gallup study, “even the least religious Republicans are significantly more positive about Israel than the most religious Democrats. The impact of religiosity is swamped by the power of partisanship.”
A primary reason for this is race. Many religious Democrats are African American or Latino, and African American and Latino Christians — even African American and Latino evangelical Christians — are far more critical of Israel than their white counterparts. This spring, according to the Pew Research Center, members of historically black churches disapproved of the Israeli government by a margin of 34 points.
Republican support for Israel, in other words, isn’t driven by American Christians as a whole. It’s driven by conservative white Christians, whose political identity sits at the intersection of religion and race. In the Trump era, conservative white Christians have grown increasingly obsessed with preserving America’s religious and racial character, and they see Israel as a country that’s doing just that.
Most Republicans fear a less white, less Christian America. Earlier this year, Pew asked Americans whether it would strengthen or weaken “American customs and values” if whites ceased being the majority. By a margin of 46 points, Republicans said America would become weaker. And if Republicans fear America becoming less white, they also fear it becoming more Muslim. A New America poll last November found that 71 percent of Republicans believe Islam is incompatible with American values and 74 percent, according to an Economist/YouGov survey last June, think Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the United States.
These racial and religious fears form the backbone of Republican opposition to immigration. As Clemson University’s Steven V. Miller has shown, Americans who want less immigration are almost six times more likely to be motivated by racial resentment than by economic anxiety.
So it’s a measure of the power of racial resentment inside the GOP that immigration is now, by far, the issue that Republicans care about most. Last December, when Quinnipiac College asked Americans what Congress should make its top priority, more Republicans answered immigration than all the other choices combined.
In June, when Reuters asked Republicans to name their top political concern, immigration again trounced the second most common answer by a factor of more than three to one.
For Republicans who want to preserve America’s demographic character, Israel — which makes immigrating and gaining citizenship easy for Jews but extremely difficult for non-Jews — represents a model. In her 2016 book, Adios America, which shapedTrump’s immigration rhetoric, Ann Coulter wrote that “Israel says, quite correctly, that changing Israel’s ethnicity would change the idea of Israel. Well, changing America’s ethnicity changes the idea of America too.”
In 2017, in response to a news article about Israel’s plan to deport African migrants, she tweeted, “Netanyahu for President!”
When the New York Times reported in 2018 on Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinians who were marching towards the fence that encloses the Gaza Strip, she asked, “Can we do that?”
It’s not just Coulter. “Everybody acts like ‘Oh what Trump has said is so amazing,’” exclaimed Mike Huckabee, in defending Trump’s Muslim ban. “It’s not that amazing in Israel. You don’t have open borders to Muslims here.”
Rick Santorum has cited Israel to justify profiling Muslims who come to the United States.
Last December, in a monologue arguing for Trump’s wall on the southern border, Tucker Carlson declared that, “Israelis know how effective walls are.”
This view isn’t confined to Republican elites. Public opinion surveys suggest a strong correlation between hostility to immigration, hostility to Muslims and support for Israel. When University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami, at my request, crunched the data from polling he conducted last fall, he found that Americans who said the United States government should “lean toward the Palestinians” in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict supported making immigration to the US easier by a margin of 60 points.
Americans who said the US should “lean toward Israel,” by contrast, supported making immigration to the United States harder by a margin of 20 points. Similarly, almost 70 percent of respondents who said the US should “lean toward Israel” had an unfavorable of Islam compared with less than 33 percent of respondents who said America should “lean toward the Palestinians.”
But the right’s admiration for Israel’s ethnic democracy extends beyond immigration. Israel doesn’t just maintain Jewish dominance by keeping non-Jews out of the country. It also delegitimizes and limits political participation by the non-Jews under its control.
On Election Day in 2015, Netanyahu warned that, “Arab voters are coming out in droves.” This year, Likud activists placed 1200 hidden cameras in polling stations in Palestinian areas in an effort to intimidate Palestinian citizens of Israel from voting.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party also asked Israel’s election committee to bar a Palestinian party, Ram-Balad, from running for the Knesset on the grounds that it supports terrorism and does not want Israel to be a Jewish state. (Under Israeli law, parties that reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish or a democratic state, or support racism or violence, cannot participate in elections.
Since many Palestinian citizens of Israel don’t want Israel to be a Jewish state, the Israeli right regularly uses this law to challenge their parties’ ability to run. So far, these efforts at barring them have failed in the Israeli Supreme Court.)
These efforts aren’t primarily about race. After all, roughly fifty percent of Israeli Jews hail from North Africa and the Middle East, and thus themselves would not qualify as white by American definitions. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see parallels between the Israeli right’s attempt to limit political participation by Palestinians and the Republican Party’s efforts to impede — or at least delegitimize — political participation by people of color, whether by claiming that Barack Obama was not a United States citizen, by passing laws that make it harder for minorities to vote, or by adding a citizenship question to the census in the hopes that fewer Latinos would then fill it out.
Even Trump’s attack on The Squad echoes an argument that Netanyahu has long employed. In his tweet, Trump argued that the four non-white members of Congress should leave the United States because they hail from “countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.”
The insinuation is that because Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley hail from supposedly uncivilized cultures, they lack the right to participate politically in the United States. That claim has deep roots in American history: It was central to the argument for denying blacks and other non-whites American citizenship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it has also been central to Netanyahu’s argument for why Palestinians in the West Bank lack the right to citizenship either in Israel or in a state of their own.
In his most important book, A Durable Peace, Netanyahu quotes former British officials as declaring that, “Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine” and that “The Arab is a poor fighter, though an [sic] adept at looting, sabotage and murder.” The implication is the same as Trump’s: People from uncivilized cultures don’t deserve political rights.
Understanding that Israel serves as a model for the ethnic democracy that many Republicans wish to create in the United States is crucial to understanding the way contemporary Republicans discuss anti-Semitism.
Trump and his defenders have not only called Omar and other members of The Squad anti-Israel, they’ve also called them anti-Semitic. The irony is that Trump has trafficked in exactly the same stereotypes that Omar has.
Omar got in trouble for saying AIPAC’s influence was “all about the Benjamins”; Trump in 2015 told the Republican Jewish Coalition, “You’re not going to support me, because I don’t want your money.”
Omar exacerbated her woes by suggesting that pro-Israel groups “push for allegiance to a foreign country”; speaking to the RJC this April, Trump called Netanyahu “your prime minister.” Of the two, in fact, Trump has the much longer and more egregious history of Jew-baiting. The key to understanding the GOP’s outrage, then, is not what Omar said but who she is: A black Muslim immigrant woman.
Since Omar is black and most Jews in contemporary America are considered white, making her the face of anti-Semitism furthers the right’s contention that most discrimination in contemporary America is reverse discrimination: By people of color and Muslims against whites, Christians and Jews.
In addition to calling members of The Squad anti-Semitic, Trump has called them “very Racist,” presumably against whites. This weekend he called African American Congressman Elijah Cummings a “racist” too. On Fox News, Democrats are frequentlycalled “anti-white.”
Republicans also emphasize what Rush Limbaugh has called the “Democrats’ War on Christianity.” Ralph Reed has called hostility to evangelicals “the last acceptable bigotry.” Trump’s Justice Department has made battling discrimination against Christians a centerpiece of its work, even as it defends his Muslim travel ban.
These arguments shape public opinion. According to an April 2019 Pew Research poll, Republicans are more likely to say that whites face “a lot” of discrimination than do blacks. They’re more likely to say Christians face “a lot” of discrimination than do Muslims. This belief that reverse discrimination is the dominant form of discrimination in contemporary America has enormous implications. It allows Republicans to cast their efforts to limit the free speech and political participation of Muslims and people of color not as acts of bigotry but as responses to bigotry.
If boycotting Israel is anti-Semitic, as Trump officials say, then criminalizing Palestinian activism in the US, as many Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have tried to do, is a necessary defense against discrimination.
If Sharia is inherently anti-Semitic and anti-Christian, then passing laws against it — as 14 states have done — doesn’t infringe upon the rights of Muslims. It protects the rights of Christians and Jews. And if Omar — the first Muslim woman ever to sit on the House Foreign Relations Committee — is anti-Semitic, then removing her from that committee, as Vice President Mike Pence has demanded, is simply a way of safeguarding Jews.
People of color are, of course, capable of all kinds of bigotry, including anti-Semitism. But the right’s effort to make Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory and Marc Lamont Hill the face of contemporary American anti-Semitism — despite Trump’s long history of invoking anti-Jewish stereotypes and despite the recent synagogue massacres by white nationalists in Pittsburgh and Poway — constitutes an effort to draw American Jews into the ethnic democracy project.
By calling America a “Judeo-Christian” nation, conservatives offer Jews full inclusion in a national identity that excludes Muslims. It’s an offer some Jews are eager to accept. The Zionist Organization of America’s Mort Klein, for instance, has justified Trump’s ban on admitting Syrian refugees by explaining that, “We’re opposed to bringing in people who have enormous antipathy toward Jews and Israel.”
But to the consternation of many conservatives, most American Jews have spurned the offer and continued voting Democratic, thus allying themselves with the very people of color who Republicans insist threaten them. While most American Jews believe that in a post-Holocaust world it’s important that Israel remain a country with a special obligation to represent and protect Jews, they don’t consider Israel’s ethnic democracy a model for the United States.
Instead, since at least the civil rights movement, American Jews have considered the struggle for equality by America’s most historically oppressed groups integral to their own equality. That continues in the Trump era. By clear majorities, Jews opposeTrump’s immigration policies and hold a favorable view of Muslims.
This helps explain the right’s obsession with George Soros. His high-profile activism on behalf of immigrant and Muslim rights epitomizes American Jewry’s rejection of the right’s invitation to help build a white, Judeo-Christian republic. And it helps explain the strange phenomenon of conservative Christians calling progressive Jews anti-Semitic. If people of color are the real anti-Semites, and limiting their numbers and influence is the way to combat anti-Semitism, then Jews who oppose doing that are complicit in anti-Semitism.
Republican attacks on Omar and her colleagues as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic aren’t ultimately about Israel or Jews. They’re an effort to use Israel and Jews to further the central goal of the Trump-era right: Maintaining white Christian dominance in the face of demographic change.
Rejecting that project may spawn more white nationalist anti-Semitism. The Pittsburgh shooter loathed Jews for supporting the rights of Central American refugees. Ann Coulter earlier this year castigated “Jews who think they’re black.” But most American Jews know in our bones that narrow, exclusive definitions of Americanism only leave us more vulnerable. By contrast, the more America welcomes Somali immigrants and Guatemalan asylum seekers not only into the country but into the political process — the more it truly becomes a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-faith liberal democracy — the safer we will be.