You don’t have to agree with the politics of the four Democratic congresswomen targeted in this week’s presidential tweetstorm to be offended and more than a little scared by the outburst. As a community with deep immigrant roots — and a grim history as a favorite target of racists, xenophobes, and ultra-nationalists — we Jews know all too well where this kind of angry scapegoating and political incitement can lead.
And President Donald Trump’s attempt to use Israel as justification for his comments was hardly a gesture of friendship to a Jewish state he has done much to support. That led the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, to rebuke the president for “using Israel to defend his blatant racism.”
Over the weekend Trump, responding to their harsh criticism of his presidency, said that the four — believed to be Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) — “originally came from countries” outside the United States, and added that they should “go back” to the “places from which they came.” In fact, all of the congresswomen besides Omar were born in the United States, and all, of course, are U.S. citizens.
The president was essentially accusing the legislators — all women of color — of being something less than genuine Americans, echoing age-old xenophobic and white supremacist tropes. Ominously, that may have been his intent, setting the tone for a re-election campaign that many believe will seek to mobilize some of the most extreme elements in American politics.
We don’t agree with the rhetoric, and much of the agenda, of the four legislators, and we have strongly condemned the anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic rhetoric of Omar, but they have a right to state their opinions, and we have a right — indeed, a duty — to speak out against them. Trump, too, has a right to respond forcefully to criticisms of his policies; that’s what democracy is all about.
But Trump’s effort to frame their criticisms of his leadership — criticisms shared by many in the Jewish community, we should add — as disloyalty to America, and suggesting that the liberal lawmakers should “go back,” can only further legitimize the overt racism and xenophobia that is spreading across the American political landscape.
It is also troubling that in doubling down on his attack, the president demanded that the four “apologize to our country, the people of Israel, and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said.”
We have welcomed Trump’s strong support for Israel in these difficult times. But associating Israel with comments widely seen as racist and xenophobic can only damage its standing around the world and further weaken ties between the Jewish state and an American-Jewish majority that sees racial tolerance, civil rights, and a welcoming stance toward those fleeing oppression and violence as core values.
American politics has always been a rough game, but there are lines that cannot be crossed without great peril. By echoing an extremist fringe as he mounts his re-election campaign, Trump is deliberately crossing that line.
With the tragedies of Jewish history seared into our collective consciousness, we understand all too well that bigotry is a virus not easily contained. Those who try to exploit these feelings — whether out of political expedience or genuine belief — put all of us, and the democratic system that has traditionally protected endangered minorities like the Jews, at grave risk.