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Roytenberg: Jews, Democrats, Trump and divided loyalties

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(JINIPIX photo)

Loyalty is an important trait in any person. We value loyal friends and colleagues. We feel loyalty to family, friends and country, to our community and to ideas and values that in turn shape our political loyalties. For most Jews, loyalty to the State of Israel is important.

Recently, I shared an article on social media from the Jerusalem Post, which reported that Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties in Israel, had stated in an interview that he would be open to serving as part of an Israeli government under the right circumstances. When I shared the article, I wrote that the participation of a predominantly Arab party in an Israeli government would be a step toward the normalization of Arab-Israeli participation in Israel’s democracy.

In response to that post, an online friend who lives in Israel cited it as an example of why the loyalty of North American Jews to Israel might be brought into question. While I was surprised that someone who knew my writing would question my loyalty to the State of Israel, the issue of loyalty was certainly in the air, due to some comments made by U.S. President Donald Trump recently.

As many people will know, two freshman Democratic members of Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, declined an invitation to travel to Israel with 41 of their congressional colleagues. Instead, they planned a visit focussing on the situation of Palestinian Arabs living in the territories.

These women have previously expressed support for the BDS campaign, which calls for an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel. They have also made remarks about Israel and American Jews that many have found offensive and anti-Semitic.

Although Israel has a law that permits it to ban anyone who supports BDS from entering the country, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. announced on July 19 that the ban would be waived and that Omar and Tlaib would be allowed to visit “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the alliance between Israel and America.” This changed on Aug. 15, just days before the planned visit. After President Trump tweeted that Israel showed great weakness by allowing the women to visit, Israel’s interior minister announced that the two congresswomen would not be allowed into the country after all.

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A debate sprang up among Jews and other supporters of Israel about the merits of the decision. The two congresswomen responded by holding a press conference in which speakers depicted the conditions of Arabs living under Israeli military rule as harsh and humiliating, and in which Omar compared Israel to apartheid South Africa.

That’s when Trump jumped in, tweeting that American Jews who voted for the Democratic party showed “great disloyalty,” by which he meant disloyalty to Israel. This tweet caused a furore, with some accusing the president of repeating an anti-Semitic trope by depicting Jews as having divided loyalties. Since over 70 per cent of American Jews are thought to be supporters of the Democratic party, this accusation of disloyalty was taken by many as a personal attack on their integrity.

There are many ways in which Jews can demonstrate their loyalty, both to America and to the Jewish state. Since Israel and the United States are allied democracies, these loyalties need not conflict. Since 1967, Israel has been supported, through arms sales and strategic co-operation, by both parties. While Israeli prime ministers have had their differences with U.S. presidents on some issues, notably under Barack Obama, the alliance has held firm.

America’s bipartisan support for the Jewish state has been of great value to Israel. Trump’s statement that Jews who support Democrats are disloyal to Israel may serve his political interests, but not those of Israel or Jews.

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