President Donald Trump’s latest remark about American Jews—that the 79 percent of us who support Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty”—isn’t just anti-Semitic. It’s anti-American.
On the one hand, obviously, accusing Jews of disloyalty is an age-old anti-Semitic canard, dating back not only hundreds of years in Europe but literally to the dawn of the Jewish people itself. In Exodus 1:9, the Egyptian Pharaoh tells his followers: “Let us deal wisely with them… lest they join themselves unto our enemies and fight against us.”
On the other hand, the way that accusation is normally phrased is the way Pharaoh put it: that Jews are more loyal to their own interests than to the nations in which they find themselves. That’s why left-wing accusations against AIPAC, Sheldon Adelson, and the “Israel Lobby” must carefully avoid that ancient canard, and are called out when they fail to do so. As in the case, most recently, of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comment that American support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins.”
Trump, however, has inverted this accusation.
“If you vote for a Democrat, you’re very, very disloyal to Israel and the Jewish people,” he reiterated on Wednesday.
His claim—besides being absurd, offensive, manipulative, and reprehensible—is that American Jews are being disloyal by not supporting Israel enough. The problem isn’t that we’re betraying America. The problem is that we’re betraying Israel.
American Jews, long suspected of “dual loyalty,” are now being accused of not being dual-loyal-enough.
Yes, as everyone has noticed by now, Trump’s remarks are the latest salvo in a half-canny, half-mad attempt to peel Jews away from the Democratic Party by associating the party with its most critical-of-Israel members, who just so happen to be Muslim and young women of color.
But the comments reveal something much more profound. It’s not that Trump doesn’t understand American Jews. It’s that he doesn’t understand America.
In the nationalist mind, nation equals ethnicity equals race equals language equals (more or less) religion. Jews should put Israel first, and fight for our group’s interests (as defined by the nationalist right-wing, of course), because that’s what groups do. Judaism isn’t a system of ethical values that, among other things, condemns the oppression of foreigners and marginalized people (see Exodus 22:21-22). It’s a volk, a national-religious-ethnic people, in competition with others for dominance and power.
The same is true for Britons, (Hindu) Indians, (Jewish) Israelis, Russians, (non-indigenous) Brazilians, and other national groups now governed by nationalists. The Steve Bannon-Vladimir Putin world is one in which selfish national groups compete against one another externally and purify themselves internally. That’s how they make their countries great again.
This is a reflexive, gut-level identification. Trump can deny being a white supremacist because, on a conscious level, he probably isn’t one. Ethno-nationalism is more of an unconscious, almost primal understanding of what it means to be an American that erupts in various “tells”: chanting “Send her back!” about a Muslim member of Congress; describing non-white communities as “infested”; looking out at a nearly all-white stadium of supporters and saying that they are the real America.
This is why the debate about whether Trump is a racist or not is so misguided. To many people, especially conservatives, “racist” means having conscious, negative beliefs about racial minorities: believing people of color are less intelligent than white people, for example.
But nationalist racism is different. It’s about the gut-level sense that non-whites (and non-English-speakers) are not really American in the first place. Real America is the imagined white, suburban ideal of the '50s. The people oppressed by Jim Crow at the time are simply invisible. They’re not part of America.
Jews, of course, used to be “othered” in the same way. Sometimes Jews were explicitly racialized as non-white, while other times they—like Catholics—were depicted as disloyal “others” who placed foreign interests above American ones. So, ironically enough, were Trump’s German ancestors.
This still happens today: The far-right marchers in Charlottesville two years ago, some of whom Trump described as “very good people,” chanted “Jews will not replace us” in reference to the slander that Jews were scheming to replace whites with non-white migration.
But it tends to happen only on the fringe. The conservative mainstream now includes Jews, including, of course, Trump’s own family, as well as Catholics, Germans, Irish, Italians, Cubans, and even a handful of African Americans, as long as they don’t talk too much about four centuries of slavery and Jim Crow.
Yet the logic of Trump’s nationalist worldview has no place for American Jews. As we’ve seen before, Trump is an anomaly: an American nationalist with Jews in his family. In principle, if nations are defined as ethno-religious-linguistic units, then Jews have no place in a Christian nation. Indeed, some anti-Semites have said as much: that Jews should go live in Israel, where we belong.
What’s anti-Semitic in Trump’s latest remark isn’t its invocation of Jewish disloyalty. What’s really anti-Semitic is the worldview it reveals, in which nations are defined monolithically by their majority groups.
That worldview is profoundly anti-American, even as it wraps itself in the American flag and preaches America First. Because just as Trump misunderstands the essence of Judaism, he misunderstands the essence of America. America isn’t a volk. It is something different, and better. It’s a radical, often-failed experiment in civic democracy whose ideals—as yet un-realized—are the exact opposite of Trumpist nationalism: a multicultural nation defined not by race but by values like democracy, the rule of law, and the basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To say it plainly, Representatives Omar and Tlaib are better Americans than Donald Trump. They understand America. He does not. They are our future. He is a dark, last gasp of our racist past.