WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Tuesday said that any Jewish people who vote for Democrats are showing “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” prompting an outcry from critics who said the president’s remarks were promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Trump made the comment in an exchange with reporters in the Oval Office ahead of a meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
Trump began by lashing out at Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., questioning the sincerity of her tears at a news conference where she talked about her decision not to travel to Israel to see her elderly grandmother, who lives in the occupied West Bank.
“Yesterday, I noticed for the first time, Tlaib with the tears,” Trump said. “All of the sudden, she starts with tears, tears. … I don’t buy it for a second, because I’ve seen her in a very vicious mood at campaign rallies, my campaign rallies, before she was a congresswoman. I said, ‘Who is that?’ And I saw a woman that was violent and vicious and out of control.”
He then went on to attack Democrats more generally over the views of Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. Both women have long been fierce critics of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. They support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a global protest of Israel known as BDS.
“Where has the Democratic Party gone?” Trump asked. “Where have they gone, where they’re defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
Critics on both sides of the aisle immediately pointed out that Trump’s use of the word “disloyalty” had echoes of anti-Semitic tropes accusing Jews of dual allegiance.
Omar was roundly criticized by members of both parties for saying during a town hall earlier this year that she wanted to discuss “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Philip Klein, the executive editor of the Washington Examiner, condemned Trump’s remarks in a tweet Tuesday afternoon.
“This is a disgusting comment that indicates Trump has no idea why many of us have been so sickened by the anti-Semitism of Omar & Tlaib,” he said.
Omar responded to the president’s remark with a two-word tweet. “Oh my,” she said, followed by a facepalm emoji.
Some on Tuesday also noted that the overwhelming majority of American Jews have long voted Democratic. In 2016, for instance, 71 percent of Jewish voters voted for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, while only 23 percent voted for Trump, according to exit polls.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, a conservative Jewish group, rallied to defend Trump, arguing that the president was speaking about people being disloyal to themselves rather than to Israel.
“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 group said in a tweet. “The @GOP, when rarely confronted w/anti-Semitism of elected members always acts swiftly and decisively to punish and remove.”
That defense, however, stood in contrast to the group’s sharp denunciations of recent remarks made by Democrats.
Last week, for instance, Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks criticized Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., for saying that U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman “doesn’t seem to understand that his allegiance is to America, not to a foreign power.”
“The issue of ‘dual loyalty’ is classic antisemitism,” Brooks said in a tweet at the time. “@USAmbIsrael deserves an apology. Shame on you @RepTedLieu.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Brooks said “there’s a big difference” between Trump’s remarks and what Lieu and Omar have said in the past. Lieu, he said, was questioning whether Friedman was “making these decisions based on his being a Jew and his support for Israel as opposed to what is in America’s best interest.”
Trump, by contrast, was talking about “being true to yourself,” he said.
“I don’t think it invokes those tropes,” Brooks said, describing Trump’s message to Jewish people as, “You’re being disloyal to yourself to say, ‘Hey, I support somebody who is known to espouse anti-Semitic comments.’”
Tuesday was not the first time that Trump’s remarks about Jewish people have prompted criticism that he is invoking dual-loyalty tropes. During an April speech to the RJC, the president told the crowd that he “stood with your prime minister at the White House.” At another point, Trump warned that Democrats’ “radical agenda” in Congress “very well could leave Israel out there all by yourselves.”
And while Trump has condemned Omar for evoking stereotypes about Jews and money, the president had expressed similar sentiments to the RJC in 2015, when he was running for the GOP presidential nomination.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” Trump said then. “But that’s OK. You want to control your own politician.”
Speaking to reporters in Minnesota on Monday, Tlaib started to cry as she explained why she will not be making the visit under conditions demanded by the Israeli government, including a pledge in writing not to “promote boycotts against Israel” while there.
Since last month, Trump has repeatedly taken aim at the four minority congresswomen known on Capitol Hill as “the Squad,” including in a tweet in which he said they should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Only one of the four, Omar, was born outside the United States, and she became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
It was unclear what Trump was referring to in his statement Tuesday regarding violence by Tlaib.
Last week, Israel announced that it was banning Tlaib and Omar from entering the country on a planned trip, the bulk of which was to be centered in the Palestinian territories and in East Jerusalem.
Israel relented Friday on humanitarian grounds in response to a request from Tlaib to see her 90-year-old grandmother. Tlaib announced later that day that she would not make the trip after all because of the conditions Israel was seeking to impose.
At Monday’s news conference, where she appeared alongside Omar, Tlaib explained her reasoning.
“My grandmother said … I’m her bird. She said I’m her dream manifested,” Tlaib said as she started to cry. “I’m her free bird, so why would I come back and be caged and bow down when my election rose her head up high, gave her dignity for the first time?”
Israel’s initial decision to deny entry to Tlaib and Omar followed a tweet by Trump last week that said approving the visit would “show great weakness” on Israel’s part.
Israeli law bars visitors who support the boycott from entering, one of the prime reasons Israeli officials cited for stopping the two congresswomen from visiting Israel and the neighboring Palestinian territories to learn about settlement expansion and humanitarian conditions.
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