The 2020 U.S. presidential election brought into sharp relief the contrast between the American and Israeli Jewish communities, the two main centers of the Jewish world. According to post-election surveys, American Jewish support for the Democrats remains extremely high, at 77 percent (up from 70 percent in 2016). President Donald Trump was estimated to have received a mere 21 percent of the Jewish vote. In Israel, however, surveys have shown that Israeli Jews prefer Trump to Biden by 70 percent to 13 percent.
Much has been written on the growing gap between American Jews and Israel in terms of values and Jewish identity. In particular, the entrenchment of the occupation and the growing authoritarianism of the Benjamin Netanyahu regime has provoked growing disillusionment with Israel, especially among young Jewish progressives in North America. On the one hand is Israel’s unmistakable shift to the nationalist right; on the other, American Jews’ commitment to liberal, pluralistic, and progressive ideals, exemplified by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The liberal icon symbolized for many the role that Jewish “Tikkun Olam” can play in the struggle for universal social justice.
Now, the two communities find themselves not only drifting apart, but also increasingly at loggerheads. Most American Jews see Trump as a clear threat, while most Israeli Jews view him as an ally who offers security and hope. This divergence has to do not only with the two communities’ different values, but also their structural positions.
For a relatively prosperous and largely white minority, the extent of American Jewish backing for the Democrats is striking. A 2015 study found that Jewish support for Democrats was 40 percent higher than that of non-Jews in similar socio-economic positions. And while some of it can be explained in Jewish levels of education and concentration in metropolitan areas, this is clearly far from the whole story.
The Democratic Party’s model of inclusive citizenship fits American Jewish aspirations to cultivate a cultural and religious minority identity alongside civic participation. In such a model, Jewish particularism and universal American citizenship reinforce each other as two sides of the same coin. The Republican Party’s overwhelmingly white Christian character, on the other hand, is far less accommodating in this regard. The GOP’s strong Evangelical base, and its Christian-infused social conservatism, have dissuaded most Jews from considering it a political home.
In the last four years, Trump’s connections with the extreme right have added an explicit antisemitic dimension to this equation. Trump has repeatedly refused to denounce white supremacist groups and the antisemitic QAnon conspiracy. GOP politicians routinely invoke conspiracies regarding the Hungarian Jewish financier George Soros, while using their support for Israel to deflect charges of antisemitism.
The shift in the GOP’s rhetoric under Trump has revealed that the general assimilation of white Jews into whiteness has clear limits. Trump’s comments to American Jews, in which he referred to Israel as “your country” and Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister,” betrayed his understanding of U.S. Jews as not fully American, in keeping with his overall exclusivist notion of citizenship.
The 2018 deadly attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue by a white nationalist who subscribed to GOP-amplified conspiracy theories involving Soros and immigration, meanwhile, showed in the starkest terms the dangers of Trump’s normalization of white supremacy. The place of Jews in a nativist America is far from secure, and it is clear why they reject overwhelmingly this political vision.
Israeli support for Trump is similarly rooted in structural realities, and is tied to the transformation of Israel’s political system in the last 20 years. The slow but sure demise of the two-state solution, and the effective incorporation of the occupied West Bank into Israel, mark the emergence of a one-state political system in which Jewish dominance is secured through the erosion of Israel’s democratic features. If American Jews are a minority, Israeli Jews are in the opposite position. They constitute a hegemonic group of about 50 percent of the population in Israel-Palestine.
As Raef Zreik recently wrote on +972 Magazine, the 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law spells out the new model of Jewish political dominance, with the downgrading of citizenship for Palestinians in Israel and commitment to Jewish settlement as a “national value.” As the permanence of the occupation becomes increasingly obvious, Israel can no longer maintain its democratic credentials and present itself as an island of liberalism in the Middle East.
This explains why Israel has sought in the last decade to position itself as a strategic ally of the rising global authoritarian, revanchist, and Islamophobic right, headed by Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and, of course, Trump. For now, this alliance appears to be working in Israel’s interests, in an increasingly illiberal world. Israeli right-wing commentators supportive of Trump have adopted alt-right rhetoric, and have spoken in disparaging and even antisemitic terms about U.S. Jews’ support for liberal values. Key Netanyahu surrogates have described J Street as “Jew boys,” referred to American Jews as “suburban rich people with private police,” and routinely circulated Soros conspiracies.
Could this change under a Joe Biden presidency? It is almost certain that Biden’s White House will try to revert, at least rhetorically, to previous patterns. No doubt the administration, very much like the EU, will try to revive the charade of the “peace process” and “two-state solution.” This will not change any of the existing dynamics, but it would enable international actors to continue ignoring the reality of effective Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Yet it is doubtful that this could work for much longer.
For Israel, the global hard right is now a natural and perhaps inevitable choice. Israel’s preference for a Trumpist GOP is therefore a logical conclusion, while for most American Jews, Trumpism is an anathema and a threat. Under these conditions, the rift between the communities could deepen and become about much more than values or disillusionment. It represents the clash of radically different alignments, rooted in the political trajectories and positions of both communities. This is no longer only about the future of Israel, but also about the future of Jews in the United States.