When hundreds of hours of tapes from the Nixon White House became public, two decades ago, the full extent of Nixon’s prejudices, including his contempt for Jews, came into sharp focus. “The Jews are all over the government,” he told his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, at an Oval Office meeting, in 1971. What’s more, “most Jews are disloyal.” Nixon made allowances for some of his useful advisers, including Henry Kissinger and William Safire, but, he said, “generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards.”
I thought about those tapes a few nights ago while listening to “Unholy,” a weekly podcast hosted by Yonit Levi, the anchor of Channel 12 news in Israel, and Jonathan Freedland, a longtime columnist for the Guardian. Their guest was Barak Ravid, a veteran Israeli journalist who has just published a book in Hebrew, “Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East.” Ravid brought Levi and Freedland an audio treat: excerpts of an interview he’d conducted with Donald Trump for the book. One tumbling rant was especially revealing: “People in this country that are Jewish no longer love Israel,” Trump told Ravid, at Mar-a-Lago last April. “I’ll tell you, the evangelical Christians love Israel more than the Jews in this country. It used to be that Israel had absolute power over Congress and today I think it’s the exact opposite, and I think Obama and Biden did that. And yet, in the election, they still get a lot of votes from Jewish people, which tells you that the Jewish people—and I’ve said this for a long time—the Jewish people in the United States either don’t like Israel or don’t care about Israel. . . . When you look at the New York Times, the New York Times hates Israel, hates them, and they’re Jewish people that run the New York Times—I mean the Sulzberger family.”
In Israel, this soliloquy was hardly a sensation. What made headlines and led the evening news programs there earlier this month was Trump’s admission to Ravid that he had fallen out with Benjamin Netanyahu. For years, Netanyahu relied on his close relationship with Trump as proof of his stature and his influence in the U.S. During his last run at the premiership, his campaign put up billboards of the two men shaking hands with the slogan “Netanyahu: In a League of His Own.” Netanyahu made the case that he was the only politician who could have persuaded Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Golan Heights as its territory; to abandon Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; and to cast aside the Palestinians, concentrating instead on the Abraham Accords, which have helped Israel normalize relations with the U.A.E. and Bahrain. But Netanyahu “made a terrible mistake,” Trump told Ravid, by congratulating Joe Biden on his victory in the 2020 election. It was unforgivably disloyal. “Fuck him,” Trump said, of Netanyahu.
It’s no surprise that Trump is willing to trash foreign leaders in the most vivid terms. What seems to have shocked some American readers is that he trafficked so fluently in traditional tropes about Jewish power, conspiracy, and disloyalty. Doesn’t he have a Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner? A daughter who converted and Jewish grandchildren? Didn’t he have Jewish lieutenants in both business and government, to say nothing of close relationships with Sheldon Adelson and the like?
Ravid told me that he did not emerge from his interview, or his over-all analysis of Trump, believing that the former President is an anti-Semite: “I think his state of mind is similar to the state of mind of many people here in Israel.” He pointed out that Trump’s comments about American Jews, Christian evangelicals, and the Times might as well have come out of the mouth of Netanyahu himself.
Ravid is no outlier. Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem, told me, “In judging a President’s relationship to the Jews, I take a pragmatic Israeli view. What matters aren’t a few thoughtless or even hateful comments but a President’s policies. Some of the most pro-Israel Presidents—Truman, Nixon—made anti-Semitic comments. F.D.R. is still beloved by many Jews even though he was a disaster for European Jewry. The Trump paradox is that he was a blessing for Israel and a curse for American Jewry. His Administration negotiated the Abraham Accords, Israel’s first genuine normalization agreement with Arab countries. And he existentially threatened the liberal order that allowed American Jewry to thrive as no other diaspora. That’s Trump’s Jewish legacy.”
Yonit Levi, of Channel 12 and “Unholy,” pointed out that the “default position” of Israelis is “to love the American President.” This was as true for Bill Clinton, who tried to forge a two-state agreement, as it was for Trump, who shared Netanyahu’s contempt for Palestinian aspirations. The exception was Barack Obama, who lost favor among Israelis partly because he failed to visit Israel on his early trip to the Middle East, partly because of the Iran deal, partly because of his insistence on pressing for progress with the Palestinians––and partly, Ravid said, because of his race. Netanyahu’s “smear campaign” against Obama, Ravid said, was successful to some extent because of its racist undertones. “There are some Israelis who still call him ‘Barack Hussein Obama,’ and not because of his middle name,” he told me. “We have a racism problem in Israel, just like in America.”
Some voices on the Israeli left, a diminishing tribe, told me that they did recognize distinct and troubling notes of anti-Semitism in Trump’s remarks to Ravid. Avishai Margalit, a philosopher and an early initiator of Peace Now, started our conversation by invoking an old joke. “I subscribe to Isaiah Berlin’s definition of an anti-Semite as someone who hates Jews beyond necessity,” he said. Trump, Margalit believes, qualifies: “I think we can allow that having negative stereotypes of other groups is, like it or not, a rather normal vice. But when the stereotypes become an obsession, and they are repeated again and again by someone, this is something else. And this is the case with Trump. His interview with Ravid shows him voicing a recurring theme of Jews as betrayers—Jews betraying Israel, Jews as betrayers by voting Democrat, and now saying ‘fuck Bibi’ because he thinks Bibi betrayed him by congratulating Biden for his win. This is really an obsession of his.”
The philosopher Moshe Halbertal, a professor at both Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, and the N.Y.U. School of Law, agreed. “That’s anti-Semitic,” he told me. “You can say that Congress supports Israel. But, when you ascribe that support, for whatever reasons, ideological or political, as a matter of control, that’s a fully anti-Semitic trope. Basically, what you’re saying is that this accomplished group of politicians is ‘in the hands of the Jews.’ And that’s anti-Semitic.”
Trump’s gestures of contempt for Latinos and Black Americans are so numerous that they have tended to eclipse his other prejudices. But he has not failed to shower his occasional attentions on Jews. In the 2016 campaign, Trump ran an ad attacking a “global power structure” showing images of three Jews: the financier George Soros, the then chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen, and the investment banker Lloyd Blankfein. One of Trump’s tweets aimed at Hillary Clinton (“Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”) deployed images of the six-pointed Star of David and stacks of currency. Trump rebuffed the criticism; his social-media director said the star was that of a “sheriff’s badge.”
Is Donald Trump an Anti-Semite?