Why Do Israeli and American Jews See Trump So Differently?
The latest American Jewish Committee poll, which found a huge gap in the way American Jews and Israeli Jews perceive Donald Trump, should come as no surprise to any member of the American Jewish community who has tried in the past year to have a conversation with Israeli friends, colleagues or family members about the American president. These conversations, at least as far as anecdotal evidence indicates, turn the 43 percent gap in approval of Trump’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations into a reality of disagreements, shouts, angry tweets and the occasional slamming phone.
In the nearly 20 months since the 2016 elections, two competing images of Trump have emerged in the Jewish world. One, shared by an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, is of no less than a national savior. Seventy-seven percent of Jewish Israelis believe in his approach to U.S.-Israel relations, and 59 percent approve of Trump in general (the numbers are much higher among Orthodox Jews). With a warm embrace of the Netanyahu government, an all but abandonment of the two-state solution, the symbolic, yet historic, relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the unilateral decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, Trump cemented his stature as Israel’s great friend, perhaps the greatest ever. In gratitude, Israelis have compared him to Cyrus the Great and named the train station adjacent to Jerusalem’s Old City after him. A blue collar suburb of Haifa now has a Donald Trump Park playground.
In contrast, the perception most American Jews have of their president is quite the opposite. Only 34 percent hold a positive view of the way he has dealt with U.S.-Israel relations. And as low as this figure may sound, it is better than Trump’s general approval rating among American Jews. A whopping 71 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Only 26 percent see Trump favorably, and a mere 19 percent said they had voted for him in 2016. For this majority, the exaltation of Trump by Israeli Jews is inexplicable or even outright offensive.
The past two years have left little room for calm discussion in American politics, but it’s still worthwhile to take a step back to try and understand how two Jewish communities, one living in its ancestral homeland, the other residing in the world’s most successful democracy, have grown so far apart in their perception of the American president.
Much of it has to do with the very different set of issues Israeli Jews and American Jews look at when judging Donald Trump. American Jews look at the person occupying the White House and see Trump the bully, the misogynist, the promoter of xenophobia and Islamophobia. Israelis can see this, but to be perfectly frank, couldn’t care less. Trump’s personality, which has put off so many Jewish Americans, is of little interest to Israeli Jews. After all, Trump is not their president, and they don’t have to live with his antics.
The same is true when it comes to the issues. The largely liberal American Jewish community cares deeply about immigration, the environment, healthcare and about social justice as it plays out in economic decisions taken by the government. Israelis take little interest in these issues. What liberal Americans see as a death blow to everything they value in public policy, Israelis view as an internal American political dispute that has no bearing on them.
Israelis, for their part, judge world leaders, and especially American presidents, by their foreign policy and the way they view and treat the Middle East. Polls of American Jews, however, have consistently shown for years that foreign policy and the question of Israel rank very low on the list of factors determining Jewish Americans’ ballot decisions. In other words, even if Donald Trump was crowned king of Israel (as some in Israel may secretly wish for) and succeeded in bringing eternal peace to the Middle East, American Jews would still judge him primarily on healthcare, taxes and immigration.
But that’s only half of the story. While part of the gap between American Jews and Israeli Jews regarding Trump stems from the different prisms each community looks through, there are also deeper sentiments that could perpetuate the divide.
Trump’s views and actions on most foreign policy issues echo those of Netanyahu, who has been in power in Israel for almost ten years consecutively. Many of Trump’s positions, from promoting a nationalistic agenda, to preferring a muscular approach to international relations and espousing deep disdain for global organizations such as the United Nations, fit perfectly well with those of Netanyahu and of a majority of Israelis who have kept him in power so many years. A survey conducted by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution in May found that while Israelis are divided on many issues, their views of Trump and his Middle East policies are in consensus. His decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem, for example, won almost equal support from haredi, national religious, traditional and secular Jews.
And this is where the Trump gap becomes more than just a passing breach in relations between Israel and the largest Jewish diaspora. Trump, as a unique phenomenon in American politics, may come and go, but as long as Israelis keep up their trend to the nationalistic right and American Jews continue clinging to the liberal left, American domestic politics will remain a reason for disconnect between the two communities.