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Trump's Attack On 'The Squad' Finds Nuanced Support Among Some Jewish Americans

Jul 20, 2019
Originally published on July 21, 2019 8:57 am

After President Trump attacked four progressive congresswomen in racist remarks last week, Republicans defending him often base their support on what they say is anti-Semitism — a familiar line of attack for the president as well.

In a Tuesday appearance on Fox News, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., echoed Trump's anti-Israel accusations against the self-described "squad" of Democratic lawmakers.

Referring to Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan in particular, Zeldin said, "their hearts are filled with darkness" and their legislation "is filled with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred."

However, the conversation among Jews is much more nuanced than that.

At the B'nai Israel Reform Temple on Long Island, where Zeldin is a member, congregants Karen Connor and Jerry Kessler are in a debate about Trump's rhetoric, often interrupting and finishing each other's sentences.

"He's allowed to free speech," Connor said of the president.

Kessler interjects to say that it's not presidential.

On the topic of Omar, an American citizen who moved to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia, the two are even more divided.

"She's so anti-Israel and anti-Jewish people," Connor said.

Omar's previous comments questioning a pro-Israel lobby's influence in U.S. politics had been widely condemned as anti-Semitic. Critics also frequently fault her for not distancing herself from Hamas' threats to harm Jews.

On Wednesday, Trump continued his charge of anti-Semitism against the congresswoman, saying, "Omar has a history of launching vicious, anti-Semitic screeds."

The debate between Kessler and Connor is friendly, but also forceful.

In the end, Connor supports their congressman and fellow templegoer, while Kessler said Zeldin's refusal to disavow Trump's attacks against Omar could cost him the election.

In response to criticism against Trump's remarks that the congresswomen, all U.S. citizens of color, should "go back" to where they came from, the president said, "So sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country and who, in addition, hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion."

Josh Franklin, a rabbi at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, also located in Zeldin's district, said, "You ask two Jews, as that joke goes, you'll get three opinions."

Franklin supports Zeldin's confrontation with Omar, specifically after she made comments condemned as anti-Semitic, for which she later apologized.

After her apology, the House passed a nonbinding resolution that condemned "anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry."

Franklin said that resolution was "watered down" and turned Omar into "the victim" when she was supposed to be directly condemned for her anti-Semitic rhetoric. Twenty-three Republicans, including Zeldin, voted against the measure.

"I actually think he got it right and most of Congress got it wrong," Franklin said of Zeldin. "I think that was a shameful day in Congress, and I think most of the Jewish community would agree with me."

But Franklin also called the president's rhetoric offensive and inappropriate, and said that Jewish leaders need to step forward and say so.

At the synagogue across the street, however, the opposite is happening. No one is talking.

Several men and boys have gathered for afternoon prayers at the Chabad of the Hamptons. Most of them have strong views on the issue, but they are reluctant to say anything publicly. Some said speaking will only invite more hate. Another said the issue of Trump divides friendships.

But Marc Ringel breaks the silence: "Why are you so worried about tweets?"

He said the tweets are the problem. Trump's tweets, Omar's tweets — everyone is tweeting instead of having a thoughtful discussion.

"You got to have a debate," he said. "One hundred and fifty characters is not a conversation."

Copyright 2019 WSHU. To see more, visit WSHU.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We're going to hear now how one community is responding to President Trump's continued attacks this week on Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and other progressive women. WSHU's Charles Lane reports from the home district of one of President Trump's supporters on Long Island.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: At Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin's temple, the conversations about Trump's Twitter attack against the congresswoman is nuanced.

KAREN CONNOR: He's allowed to free speech.

JERRY KESSLER: It may be protected.

CONNOR: But he's not presidential.

LANE: Karen Connor and Jerry Kessler are both members of B’nai Israel Reform in Oakdale. They're talking specifically about Omar, who is Muslim.

CONNOR: She's so anti-Israel and anti-Jewish people.

KESSLER: Well, yeah because - see, I don't know. Lately I've been looking at the whole thing. When you look at Israel...

LANE: They're friendly about it, but they disagree whether or not their fellow temple-goer and congressman should disavow Trump's attacks against Omar. Connor supports Zeldin but wants him to continue supporting Trump. But Kessler says it could hurt him.

KESSLER: He may be down maybe just enough to lose the election maybe.

CONNOR: These tweets and all that for this particular thing, this is going to be gone next week.

LANE: Zeldin ignored interview requests, but he went on "Fox & Friends" this week to denounce Representatives Omar, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

LEE ZELDIN: Well, the thing is with these members, especially Omar and Tlaib, honestly, I feel like their hearts are filled with darkness. AOC's heart might be filled more with cotton candy and unicorns.

LANE: Zeldin and some other Jews call these Democrats anti-Semitic for supporting boycotts and divestment of Israel. Not all Jews agree, of course.

JOSH FRANKLIN: You ask two Jews, you'll - as that joke goes - you'll get three opinions.

LANE: Josh Franklin is the rabbi at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, also located in Zeldin's district. Franklin himself calls the president's rhetoric offensive and inappropriate, but he does support Zeldin's confrontation with Omar, specifically after she made comments condemned as anti-Semitic for which she later apologized.

FRANKLIN: And when Congress went to condemn her statements in anti-Semitism and condemn anti-Semitism in general, a bill came out that essentially watered down what the bill was about.

LANE: It was a resolution which passed. It condemned all hatred, including Islamophobia.

FRANKLIN: It made her a victim, where she was actually supposed to be the one who was being condemned for her anti-Semitic rhetoric.

LANE: Franklin says, on this point, Jews are united.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR KNOCKING)

LANE: Across the street is a much more conservative synagogue, Chabad of The Hamptons. Several men and boys are gathering for afternoon prayers. Most of them have strong views on the issue, but they are reluctant to say them publicly. Some of them say it will only invite more hate. Others say Trump divides friendships. Finally, Marc Ringel speaks up. He says the tweets are the problem - Trump's tweets, Omar's, everyone's.

MARC RINGEL: Unless you have a conversation, you know, which a tweet - 150 character's not a conversation. Unless you have a conversation, it's not going to do - you got to have a debate.

LANE: Ringel goes on to say that America is the greatest country for both Jews and Muslims right now so long as free speech continues to be protected. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane on Long Island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.