By Lisa Lerer and Elizabeth Dias
A rabbi in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, was more than 6,000 miles from Jerusalem when he heard that the Israeli government decided to bar two Muslim members of Congress from making an official visit to the Jewish state.
But within minutes, his phone was flooded with calls from congregants, local Jewish agencies and lay leaders who plunged into what had become a familiar routine: Figuring out how to respond to yet another political battle over their congresswoman, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and Israel.
“There was very much an attitude of, ‘Oh, here we go again,’ ” said Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky. “The pendulum keeps swinging left and right, left and right. It’s dizzying and exhausting and distracting. Emotions are raw.”
For months, American Jews in Omar’s district and beyond have found themselves enmeshed in a deeply uncomfortable debate over the growing distance between traditional liberal American Jewish values and the political realities of an Israeli government that’s embraced hard-line policies and a deep alliance with President Donald Trump. On Thursday, in one of Trump’s most audacious moves yet, he successfully urged Israel to deny entrance to Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who planned to tour the West Bank.
At Shabbat dinner tables, in synagogue sanctuaries and even at summer camps, the new political firestorm in Washington and Jerusalem — and Trump’s fierce determination to turn anti-Semitism and support for Israel into partisan issues — have forced a series of emotional conversations over the place of Jews in American political life. It’s a conversation that comes at a particularly fraught moment, less than a year after deadly attacks on synagogues in Poway, California, and Pittsburgh, and as support for Israel divides the Democratic Party as never before.
To some Jews, the president’s attacks on the congresswomen are a fierce renunciation of anti-Semitism and a defense of Israel. But many others see their identity being used as a pawn for the political ambitions of Trump and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a dynamic they fear could undermine the historically strong alliance between the United States and Israel and increase the security risks for their community at home.
“If Israel equals Trump, then there is a concern that opposition to Trump will transition, God forbid, into opposition to Israel,” Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads Ohev Sholom, an Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., said a few hours before shabbat Friday. “It is very dangerous.”
In a striking sign of united concern, major American Jewish organizations largely opposed the Israeli government’s decision to block the congresswomen Thursday, even as some condemned the women for what they described as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic positions. Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the bulwark Israel lobbying organization, took the unusual step of breaking with the Netanyahu government.
Sheila Katz, who leads the National Council of Jewish Women, called Israel’s ban “undemocratic and shortsighted.” “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position, and we don’t think it is actually helpful for Israel either,” said Katz. “We’d ask the president to not influence and pressure the prime minister of Israel to be carrying out what feels like bullying because of issues he has with congresswomen here in the U.S.”
In Houston, congregants at United Orthodox Synagogues discussed the situation at breakfast after Friday morning services. Some people wondered why Trump would get involved, some suggested Israel’s decisions were connected to the September election there, and some thought it was an opportunity for Trump to energize his own electoral base, said Rabbi Barry Gelman.
He said he did not think the entire debacle was good for relations between the United States and Israel. “I’d like to think that both the president and the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are all allies of the American Jewish community,” he said.
In Omaha, Nebraska, a purple dot in a red state, Rabbi Steven Abraham spent time Friday considering how to address the latest controversy at services this weekend. “Right now, in the Jewish community, this is becoming a left-right issue; support for Israel, the settlements, all those conversations are becoming a huge divide,” said Abraham, who leads Beth El synagogue, a Conservative congregation. “There is a real wedge being created in the Jewish community.”
Some worry that the implicit effort to exploit Democratic Party divisions over Israel for political gain will only worsen as the presidential campaign season unfolds, pointing to Jewish populations in key swing states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan as a reason for both sides to keep Jews in the political spotlight.
“We fear that in places like Florida over the campaign the weaponization of Jews and of Israel could become totally out of control,” said David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, a nonpartisan pro-Israel advocacy organization. “You have a very substantial Jewish voting population, that’s to some degree older and perhaps more vulnerable to these kinds of anti-Israel, anti-Zionism fears.”
For other Jewish voters and activists, this political moment has roused both ancient fears and modern security concerns. Hate crimes against Jews have risen for three years, according to the FBI, accounting for a majority of all religion-based hate crimes at 58.1% of incidents. Muslims were the second most frequent target, at 18.6%. Armed guards and metal detectors in synagogues and schools have become more prevalent at Jewish institutions in the United States.
Jewish Republicans are standing by a president that they see as a strong supporter of Israel, pointing to steps taken by his administration, including breaking with decades of American policy to relocate the U.S. Embassy last year from Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem.
“I don’t think our president did anything wrong at all. He has a First Amendment right to say what he thinks,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based Republican donor who sits on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, “My God, when I look at what he’s done for Israel, I’m not going take issue with anything he’s said or done.”
But Democrats fear that Trump’s alliance with Netanyahu will further politicize support for Israel, driving liberals away from backing the Jewish state and driving more observant Jews away from backing the Democratic Party. While Jews still vote overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party, polling reflects a partisan divide that tracks along levels of religious observance.
Seventy-nine percent of Jews voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms, according to exit polls. But 8% of ultra-Orthodox and 33% of modern Orthodox Jews consider themselves Democrats, compared with 64% of reform Jews and 58% of self-identified secular Jews, according to the annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion released in June.
The political dynamics haven’t made it any easier for Jewish leaders forced to confront political concerns along with their security challenges. At the politically divided Conservative congregation in Los Angeles led by Rabbi David Wolpe, a humanitarian drive for families at the border led to a debate over immigration policy.
“I’m trying to depoliticize the conversation in my own congregation,” he said. “To say not everything is about Trump and not everything is about ‘the squad.’ There is so much more to life.”
And in Minnesota, in Omar’s district, Olitzky is still thinking about a call he joined with local Jewish leaders, the congresswoman and members of her staff a week ago. Local Jewish leaders suggested places to visit in Israel and offered to arrange meetings during her trip.
“Ms. Omar represents a district that has a great number of friends of Israel, so some of us were actually hopefully that she’d go to Israel and maybe the ball would begin to move a bit,” he said. “Instead, we’re back to just emboldening the extremes on both sides. It’s bad for the Jewish community in the U.S., and it’s bad for the world.”