by Yousef Munayyer
President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and messaging about Israel are aimed at a very specific audience, one that he has cultivated since his presidential campaign: his base of white Evangelical Christians. Trump’s positions come at a time of a growing partisan divide on support for Israel in the United States, highlighted by the Evangelical community’s increasingly prominent role in defining the criteria of support for Israel. This central role is likely to further entrench and expand the partisan divide over time, in the process making American foreign policy toward the Middle East more difficult to manage.
A Racist Attack
“Go back to where you came from!” has long been an epithet routinely deployed by racists around the globe. Such thinking lay at the essence of the tweets by the president of the United States on July 14, in which he attacked four duly elected members of Congress: Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota). All are women of color. The first three were born in the United States while Omar was a refugee from Somalia who became an American citizen. That President Trump, who rode a wave of nativist and xenophobic fervor to the Oval Office in 2016, would choose to direct a racist attack at these four Congresswomen is no surprise. What is interesting, though, is how Trump has made Israel, a foreign country, central to his continued attacks.
Since those tweets, Trump attacked the same Congresswomen multiple times, but in his attacks, he conflated the United States with Israel as if they were the same country. He also accused the four US representatives of being anti-Israel and harboring hatred to Israel and its people, demanding that they apologize, and labeled them racists. On July 19, in a press conference before boarding his helicopter, Trump elaborated:
If you go back to the four congresswomen, the things they’ve said about our country are terrible. What they’ve said about Israel are just terrible. I don’t know—I can’t say for sure—but certainly a lot of people say they hate our country. And I think it’s a disgrace what they’ve said. I think you can’t talk that way about the United States. So I think, frankly, to say that about Israel—you know, we just gave the embassy in Jerusalem, making Jerusalem the capital of Israel. I just gave Golan Heights—recognized Golan Heights for Israel. I’ve done all of this for Israel. And then you have these people—I think that Omar—I find it hard to believe—but I hear Omar today put in, or yesterday put in a sanctions bill against Israel, and other things beyond sanctions. So, when I hear that, you just can’t talk about our country that way.
Representative Omar of course did not “put in a sanctions bill against Israel” but introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that protects Americans’ right to join boycott efforts “in pursuit of civil and human rights.” However, from the typically indecipherable “Trumpese,” what was most striking about his answer was just how interchangeable he makes the United States—the country of which he is president—and Israel, a foreign country altogether. At the end of his response he even seems to refer to Israel as “our country.” This may not simply be another instance of an unpolished blowhard playing the role of president; rather, it is a calculated message to a very specific audience that does not discern a clear distinction between Israel and the United States but instead sees them as inseparable twins on the same side of a global divide.
Israel as a Tool to Legitimize Racism and the Trump Project
Trump is increasingly deploying Israel in two intertwined ways domestically. The first is classic whataboutism. As Trump’s political project and rhetoric are increasingly criticized for racism and varied attacks on people of color, claims of anti-Semitism levied against Trump’s critics are revived to distract and diminish the critique of his policies.
But Israel is also being used in another way: as a dog whistle. In Israel, the American right under Trump has come to understand a number of useful things. First, it sees a model of ethno-nationalism in Israel as a Jewish state that lends credence to the right wing’s political project of establishing a White Christian nation. Second, it views Israel as a partner in the “clash of civilizations,” the anti-Muslim narrative that has become highly toxic during and since the years of the “global war on terror.” Third, the in-gathering of Jews in Israel is understood in apocalyptic terms in the context of advancing the second coming of Christ, which is essential to Evangelical Christian theology. Thus, Israel becomes a useful messaging tool that lies at the intersection of key components of Trump’s political base, the Evangelicals, and the alt-right.
This is why Trump’s immigration policy advisor and speech writer Stephen Miller defends the president’s attacks on the four Congresswomen of color as an effort to safeguard the principles of “Western Civilization.” To Trump’s base, this is simultaneously a racial and religious concept that puts people of color and Muslims outside the mainstream.
Trump deploys Israel because, to his base, it resonates strongly. More than any other group, Evangelicals are supportive of Israel. Recent polling has shown that no religious group has been more supportive of Trump’s policy toward Israel/Palestine than Evangelicals. In fact, 72 percent of them say that Trump’s policy has the right balance. US Jews, on the other hand, are the religious group polled that, interestingly, is most likely to say that Trump has been too favorable toward Israel.
This base has also supported the president’s other policy positions and political rhetoric. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” approach found fertile ground among this group as they have been more likely than others to express intense patriotic feelings. More than just extreme patriotism though, there is also support for the belief that “God has granted the US a special role in history,” a throwback to the problematic underpinnings of the “white man’s burden.” Likewise, white Evangelicals are most likely to say that the United States should not accept refugees, with 75 percent of white Evangelicals voicing support for expanding the border wall with Mexico to further limit immigration into the United States. Further, despite Trump’s rhetoric targeting marginalized people, his unprecedented public use of slurs and attacks, his alleged history of sexual violence and harassment, and salacious lifestyle, white Evangelicals—more than any other group—are likely to say that Trump has not damaged the dignity of the presidency. Unlike most other groups, only 26 percent of white Evangelicals believe Trump has emboldened white supremacists. And “with the exception of white evangelical Protestants, all other major religious groups believe that the country’s racial and ethnic realignment will be mostly positive … A majority (54%) of white evangelical Protestants say that becoming a majority-nonwhite nation in the future will be mostly negative.”
This group remains more loyal to Trump politically and more supportive of his different policy positions than any other. Additionally, they are increasingly playing a defining role in shaping US policy on Israel. Importantly, however, religiosity is not exactly what drives support for Israel. As a recent Gallup report notes, probing further into the numbers,
Although religion is related to views of Israel among both political groups, even the least religious Republicans are significantly more positive about Israel than the most religious Democrats. The impact of religiosity is swamped by the power of partisanship. Looked at differently, if we take the group of Americans who attend religious services very frequently and separate them by politics, we find a yawning chasm: 85% of these highly religious Republicans are more sympathetic to Israel, compared with 55% of highly religious Democrats. Clearly, Americans’ political identity is a dominant correlate of their attitudes toward Israel.
As has been well documented, bipartisan support for Israel among the American public has been decreasing for years and today stands weaker than at any point in 40 years. Because of this, Evangelicals have come to play a defining role in support for Israel in the United States.
An Unholy Alliance
It was only a little over a decade ago that the Republican Party nominee for the presidency, John McCain, was forced to denounce and distance himself from Pastor John Hagee after the latter suggested that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan. The remarks, seen as an anti-Semitic legitimization of the white supremacist genocide of European Jews, put Hagee on the margins. Today, however, Hagee is welcomed by Israel and President Trump himself, not at the expense of disavowing white supremacy but in a political climate where the president and leader of the Republican Party is widely seen as Israel’s biggest supporter.
Hagee was invited last May to the opening ceremony for the US embassy in Jerusalem. When his organization, Christians United for Israel, held its annual conference this year, the Trump Administration sent several top ranking officials as speakers, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Several Republican senators attended, but no Democrats were present.
The prominence of white Evangelicals in defining support for Israel suggests that the partisan divide is likely to grow. Such support has come to be seen as part of a set of issues that Democrats oppose in Trump’s agenda. Aside from human rights concerns conditioning Democratic views on support for Israel, the alliance between Israel’s government and forces opposed to a wide set of Democratic priorities may very well diminish sympathy toward Israel by the Democratic Party over time.
Support for Israel is part of the agenda pushed by white Evangelicals backing President Trump; increasingly, they are defining the terms and direction of this support. At the same time, Trump is instrumentalizing Israel to keep his base energized and supportive as he comes under attack for other policies in his national project. He did so most recently with attacks on the four Congresswomen and earlier with his policies on the border wall and the Muslim immigration ban.
This leaves the question of how deeply and strongly the overall support for Israel can continue, even among the white Evangelical constituency, if it is not being used as part of a broader political project in which they are engaged. What happens to this support—which is becoming increasingly tied to the broader Trumpist project of “Making America Great Again”—if and when that project fails? It is not clear how significant this issue will continue to be among Republicans as their party reorients itself after Trump’s tenure as president. Indeed, the chasm between the Republicans and Democrats is only growing wider, making it more and more unbridgeable in the long run.