WASHINGTON (AP) — Showing a fresh willingness to play politics along religious lines, President Donald Trump said that American Jewish people who vote for Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
Trump's claim triggered a quick uproar from critics who said the Republican president was trading in anti-Semitic stereotypes. It came amid Trump's ongoing feud with Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Muslim.
Trump has closely aligned himself with Israel, including its conservative prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while the Muslim lawmakers have been outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tlaib is a U.S.-born Palestinian American, while Omar was born in Somalia.
"Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone where they are defending these two people over the state of Israel?" Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."
At Trump's urging, Israel last week blocked Omar and Tlaib from entering the country. Israel later agreed to a humanitarian visit for Tlaib to visit her grandmother, who lives in the West Bank. Tlaib declined, saying her grandmother had ultimately urged her not to come under what they considered to be humiliating circumstances.
Trump called Omar a "disaster" for Jews and said he didn't "buy" the tears that Tlaib shed Monday as she discussed the situation. Both congresswomen support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a global protest of Israel.
Trump's comments were denounced swiftly by Jewish American organizations.
"This is yet another example of Donald Trump continuing to weaponize and politicize anti-Semitism," said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. "At a time when anti-Semitic incidents have increased — due to the president's emboldening of white nationalism — Trump is repeating an anti-Semitic trope."
Logan Bayroff of the liberal J Street pro-Israel group said it was "no surprise that the president's racist, disingenuous attacks on progressive women of color in Congress have now transitioned into smears against Jews."
"It is dangerous and shameful for President Trump to attack the large majority of the American Jewish community as unintelligent and 'disloyal,'" Bayroff said. A number of groups noted that accusations of disloyalty have long been made against Jews, including in Europe during the 1930s.
Ann Lewis and Mark Mellman of Democratic Majority for Israel called it "one of the most dangerous, deadly accusations Jews have faced over the years. False charges of disloyalty over the centuries have led to Jews being murdered, jailed and tortured."
The Republican Jewish Coalition defended Trump, arguing that the president was speaking about people being disloyal to themselves rather than to Israel.
"President Trump is right, it shows a great deal of disloyalty to oneself to defend a party that protects/emboldens people that hate you for your religion," the group said in a tweet. "The @GOP, when rarely confronted w/anti-Semitism of elected members always acts swiftly and decisively to punish and remove."
American Jews don't necessarily support everything that Israel does, nor are most single-issue voters.
Recent polling shows that a majority of Jews identify as Democrats.
According to AP VoteCast, a survey of the 2018 electorate, 72% of Jewish voters supported Democratic House candidates in 2018. Similarly, 74% said they disapprove of how Trump is handling his job.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted in April found that among Jewish Americans, 42% said Trump is favoring the Israelis too much, 6% said he's favoring the Palestinians too much and 47% said he's striking the right balance. Jews were more likely than Christians to say Trump favors the Israelis too much, 42% to 26%.
Omar was roundly criticized by members of both parties for saying during a town hall earlier this year that she wanted to discuss "the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country."
This is not the first time Trump has been criticized for remarks seen by some as anti-Semitic. In 2015, Trump, then a candidate, spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition and made a similar comment.
"You're not going to support me because I don't want your money," he said then. "You want to control your politicians, that's fine."
Later in the campaign, he tweeted a graphic critical of his opponent Hillary Clinton that featured a six-pointed star, a pile of cash and the words "most corrupt candidate ever." The star was believed by many to be the Star of David, which is featured on the Israeli flag. The campaign denied that the star carried any special meaning.
The president first attacked Omar and Tlaib, and two other Democratic congresswomen of color, last month by telling them to "go back" to their home countries. All four are United States citizens.
Lemire reported from New York.
AP Polling Editor Emily Swanson contributed to this report.