President Trump’s State of the Union address last week was both glossy and dark, with heroes and victims saluted and dire warnings of invasions from our southern border. And into the mix of hope and fear Trump stirred the Jews — a proud moment, or a disconcerting one, depending on what you think of Trump.
Jewish victimhood and heroism shook hands in the State of the Union in the form of Joshua Kaufman, once a prisoner at Dachau concentration camp, and Herman Zeitchik, a Jewish World War II vet who stormed the beaches of Normandy before helping to liberate Dachau. “He was one of the Americans who helped rescue Joshua from that hell on earth,” Trump said of Zeitchik, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Almost 75 years later, Herman and Joshua are both together in the gallery tonight — seated side by side, here in the home of American freedom.”
Trump went on to address the evils of the Iran regime: “We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants death to America and threatens genocide against the Jewish people,” he declared. “They do bad, bad things. To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons, I withdrew the United States from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal.”
Turning to the massacre last fall at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the president said, “We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism, or those who spread its venomous creed.”
And he lauded his administration’s “principled realism” when it recognized “the true capital of Israel and proudly opened the American embassy in Jerusalem.” In response, the Republican Jewish Committee offered only lukewarm acknowledgment of Trump’s “messages on the economy, national security, and infrastructure,” as well as “messages the president and members of Congress sent through their choices of guests for the event.” But the Zionist Organization of America was more effusive, praising Trump “for the bold, principled stand he has taken supporting Israel, confronting the challenge posed by an Iranian regime seeking nuclear weapons, and in opposing the shocking growth of anti-Semitism.”
Liberal groups countered that Trump has fostered anti-Semitism among his followers, with the progressive Bend the Arc saying: “Trump has consistently utilized anti- Semitic tropes … all while advancing a white nationalism that puts Jews and so many other Americans in danger.”
And Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, challenged Trump’s insistence upon building a “big, beautiful wall,” saying: “There is no onslaught of immigrants or security crisis on our southern border.”
So far, the president’s record on issues of concern to the American Jewish community is decidedly mixed. But given the tragic events of last year, it was important that he condemned “the vile poison of anti-Semitism” in this speech. That was significant because even if it seemed like pandering to some, it was a message that certain elements of his base needed to hear.