Flanked by evangelical Christian leaders, Jewish members of his administration, and even a few House Democrats, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order on December 20 that would target alleged anti-Semitism — primarily in the form of Israel boycotts — on college campuses.
At the annual White House Hanukkah Party, Trump put into place an order that will apparently require the US Department of Education to effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion. That will force the US government to withhold funding from colleges and universities if they fail to confront discrimination against Jewish students.
There is no doubt that Trump has been one of the most consequential and polarizing presidents for American Jews in history.
He has been willing to take action on issues pertaining to Israel and the broader Jewish community that past presidents had shied away from, creating a fervent right-wing Jewish fan base. At the same time, his brash commentary directed at Jews in various speeches and interviews — stylistically carried over from his days as a real estate mogul and reality TV star — has led some to believe that he traffics in anti-Semitic tropes.
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism before marrying Jared Kushner, himself the scion of a prominent real estate family. Among the small coterie of advisors Trump is said to implicitly trust are two Orthodox Jews with close Israel ties: Jason Greenblatt, who was the chief legal officer of the Trump organization, and David Friedman, his bankruptcy lawyer. He rewarded each with their dream jobs: Greenblatt was until late 2019 Trump’s top Middle East peace envoy, and Friedman is the US ambassador to Jerusalem.
Here’s a breakdown of Trump’s record on Jewish issues.
What has Donald Trump said and done to address anti-Semitism?
After two years of leaving the position empty, Trump filled the congressionally mandated position of State Department Anti-Semitism monitor, naming former prosecutor Elan Carr to the job earlier this year. Carr has been an aggressive presence on the world scene since his appointment and has made it a point to label and attack anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitism.
Speaking to Jewish groups, Trump has forcefully condemned anti-Semitism. “My administration is committed to aggressively challenging and confronting anti-Semitic bigotry in every resource and using every single weapon at our disposal,” he told the Israeli-American Council in December 2019, noting his decision to pull the United States out of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is known for regularly singling out Israel for criticism. His Justice Department dedicated a day to combating anti-Semitism in the summer of 2019.
While his @POTUS account has never tweeted about anti-Semitism, Trump has tweeted about anti-Semitism from his @realDonaldTrump account at least three times — once to condemn the Pittsburgh massacre as “an assault on humanity” and twice in March to call out the Democratic Party for not taking “a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism.”
…This evil Anti-Semitic attack is an assault on humanity. It will take all of us working together to extract the poison of Anti-Semitism from our world. We must unite to conquer hate.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2018
What about domestic anti-Semitism?
Some Jewish groups have accused Trump of excusing and even promoting white nationalism, partially through the ideas of his adviser Stephen Miller. Some have accused him of directly stoking domestic anti-Semitism since his presidential campaign, when he posted a picture of his rival, Hillary Clinton, with a pile of cash and a six-pointed star. An election eve ad that warned of conspiracies to keep Americans down, starring Jewish “villains” exclusively, didn’t help.
Critics also slammed Trump for not renouncing the support of the prominent anti-Semite and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke quickly enough during the 2016 campaign.
In August 2017, Trump equivocated instead of initially condemning the deadly neo-Nazi violence at a rally in Charlottesville. A year or so later, he peddled a baseless theory that George Soros, the liberal Jewish billionaire philanthropist, was behind what Trump termed a migrant “invasion.” Then a gunman massacred 11 Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh, citing the same theory.
While Trump condemned the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, he also shrunk Department of Homeland Security programs that track white supremacists. In September 2019, the DHS said it would restore some of the programs.
Then there’s the language he has aimed at American Jews, especially ones who vote for Democrats, that has made many of his detractors squirm. He has called all Democrats disloyal to Jewish people. At the recent Israeli-American Council’s conference, he called Jews in the audience “brutal killers” in the real estate business.
“So many of you voted for the people in the last administration. Some day you will have to explain that to me because I don’t think they like Israel too much,” the president said at the conference.
What does he say about the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — commonly referred to as BDS?
How much does Trump hate BDS? Even more than Israel’s government does, apparently.
In the summer of 2019, Israel was set to override its own laws banning entry to the country to BDS backers by letting in two US congresswomen who back the movement, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Trump intervened, and Israel ended up banning the visit, garnering harsh criticism from other American lawmakers in the process.
What is Trump’s relationship to Jewish groups?
While liberal ones write off almost anything he does, Trump at times has had issues with more conservative ones too. AIPAC rebuked him for mocking a sitting president, Barack Obama, when he addressed its 2016 gathering. The Republican Jewish Coalition had a fraught encounter with Trump in 2015 when he mocked those present for wanting to buy candidates with their money. Its chairman, Norm Coleman, said he could never vote for Trump.
By April of 2019, however, Coleman introduced Trump at the RJC conference with a rendition of “Dayenu,” for all Trump has done for Israel.
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was also leery to fully support Trump in the early stages of his surprise presidential run, but he has now been contributing financially to Trump’s campaigns for quite a while. So it was not a huge surprise that Trump in December of 2019 made time to speak to the group Adelson most favors, the Israeli-American Council.
More right-wing groups adore the president — the Zionist Organization of America, for example, frequently showers him in praise.
Getting in-depth about Trump’s thoughts on Israel and its policies
If there was one phrase to summarize what Trump’s actions on Israel imply, it might be nonstop love.
Here’s a list of his most momentous moves in relation to the Jewish state:
- Recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital
- Moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
- Recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights
- Sent a fierce Israel defender, Nikki Haley, to the United Nations, where she used her office to bash the institution for anti-Israel bias
- Slashed US funding for the Palestinians
- Pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despises
Those all add up to arguably, depending on whom one asks, the most pro-Israel and most controversial Middle East policy agenda ever.
There’s one area of disagreement between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, but the Israeli prime minister will never say it out loud: Israel is wary of Trump’s actions in Syria. In September 2019, Trump abandoned the US’ Kurdish allies there, leaving room for Turkey and the Assad regime to cement their influence on the region. Other Israeli politicians were not shy to call out the move, and said that the United States abandoning a trusted Middle Eastern ally was not a good precedent for the US-Israel relationship.
Where does he stand on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Trump soon after his inauguration tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with coming up with a peace plan, saying that if Jared couldn’t do it, no one could. Almost three years later, we don’t know what the plan is, except that Kushner keeps saying his peace-brokering predecessors were failures. Palestinians were all in at first, when Jason Greenblatt, the top negotiator, appeared to be serious about taking opinions from all sides. Then they were out when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Kushner released the economic portion of the plan this summer, and it offered some hints about its political portion: No mention of two states, for instance.
Where does Trump stand on the settlements and aid to Israel?
Trump in November of 2019 lifted the decades old US designation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as illegal. He’s notoriously stingy with foreign aid, even when it’s congressionally mandated, and said during his election campaign that Israel may not be spared his cuts. As president, however, he has not touched Israel aid.
How does Trump feel about Netanyahu?
One word: bromance. Trump has twice made major pro-Israel announcements on the eve of Israeli elections to boost Netanyahu: In March of 2019, announcing the decision to recognize the Golan Heights as under Israel’s sovereignty, and in September of 2019 saying he was considering a US-Israel defense pact. Netanyahu often returns the favor, lavishing him with praise and giving Trump cover by saying that he does not stoke anti-Semitism.
Jewish fun fact
In July of 1988, Trump loaned his plane to an Orthodox Jewish family whose ailing child, Andrew Ten, needed emergency care. “Commercial airlines refused to fly the child because he could not travel without an elaborate life-support system, which includes a portable oxygen tank, a suction machine, a breathing bag and an adrenaline syringe,” JTA reported then of the Los Angeles to New York flight. “Mr. Trump did not hesitate when we called him up. He said ‘yes, I’ll send my plane out,’” 29-year-old Harold Ten said then.
Shortly after Trump announced his candidacy in June of 2015, JTA noticed a huge spike in traffic to the decades-old story.
With contributions by Eric Cortellessa.