WASHINGTON (JTA) — Donald Trump announced his third presidential campaign on Tuesday night, kicking off the 2024 presidential primary preseason and setting up a showdown over the future of the Republican Party.
American Jews likely need no reminders about Trump: After all, he was president less than two years ago, and he didn’t exactly disappear after leaving office after voters replaced him with President Joe Biden after one term. In fact, his unusually early declaration appears aimed at curbing multiple investigations into his efforts to stay in power after being voted out in 2020, including into his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by his supporters who wanted to stop the transfer of power and into meddling with state election results.
Still, Trump’s complicated relationship with American Jews — some love him, but more reject him and he is baffled as to why — is worth recapping as he tries to stage a comeback. Here’s a reminder of the big themes of Trump’s first term, the tumultuous years since and what might lie ahead as he runs again.
Trump initially had little Jewish backing, even among Republicans.
In 2015, at Trump’s first major Jewish event as a presidential candidate, he told people attending a Republican Jewish Coalition forum that they bought politicians, and he was not about to be bought.
“You’re not going to support me even though you know I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel,” Trump said at the time. “And I’ll be that. And I know why you’re not going to support me. You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. Isn’t it crazy?”
If that wasn’t enough, Trump went on in early 2016 to refuse to disavow the support of David Duke, the onetime Ku Klux Klan leader, and then finally did so half-heartedly.
That was too much for Norm Coleman, a Jewish Republican who once was a U.S. senator from Minnesota and who chaired the RJC. In a hometown newspaper op-ed, Coleman called Trump “a bigot. A misogynist. A fraud. A bully” and added for good measure: “Any man who declines to renounce the affections of the KKK and David Duke should not be trusted to lead America. Ever.”
Now, Jewish Republicans see him as one of the most pro-Israel presidents ever.
Three years after Trump’s first appearance at an RJC event, he was back again as president and repeating familiar tropes about Jews and money — and Coleman was singing a different tune this time, literally. He chanted “dayenu” counting all the promises Trump had kept: moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, pulling out of the Iran deal, cutting assistance to the Palestinians and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
“There were some doubters in this room, and I was foolishly among them,” Coleman said.
Trump’s Israel track record appears to have convinced many among the small portion of American Jews who make Israel a top issue at the voting booth. This week, the Zionist Organization of America gave Trump an award for his Israel achievements that only seven others have been given in history.
“If your worldview is such that these things are unbelievable accomplishments and things that you’ve waited your whole life to see happen, this president is a dream come true,” Richard Goldberg, a former Trump administration official, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2020.
That doesn’t mean Republican Jews necessarily want Trump to be president again.
Like many in their party, Jewish Republicans are looking for a presidential candidate not just to love but who can win. Last week’s midterm election results, in which many of the politicians backed by Trump fell short, have them thinking hard about whether Trump is that candidate.
Trump, so far the only declared candidate in 2024. won’t be appearing at this week’s gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition, but several other likely contenders for the Republican nomination will be, including Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence; Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who got a warm reception at a different gathering of Jewish conservatives in New York earlier this year.
The RJC says Trump was invited and demurred, citing a “conflict.” Last year, he sent a video message.
The RJC has not openly criticized Trump, but its donors have shown signs of fatigue at his drama. At last year’s gathering, Trump acolytes who remain close to him chided Jewish donors who once reveled in all he did for Israel but who now were distancing themselves from him.
“I don’t think that we should shy away from laying down the facts that Donald Trump’s pro-Israel presidency was sandwiched between Barack Obama’s and Joe Biden’s,” said Kellyanne Conway, a top White House adviser who is on the team advising him about his next run.
Miriam Adelson, who with her late husband Sheldon, has been a major funder of Republican Jewish causes, has pledged to stay neutral in the 2024 presidential primary.
Liberal Jews — and President Joe Biden — believe Trump emboldened antisemitism.
Political liberals have a long list of reasons to oppose Trump’s candidacy; the vast majority of American Jews are among them.
But when it comes to the particular issue of Jewish security, Jews have special concerns. Polls show that American Jews are more concerned about right-wing antisemitism than left-wing antisemitism, and Trump’s single term in office included three of the most shocking incidents of antisemitism in U.S. history, all perpetrated by right-wing extremists.
In 2018, a gunman who killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Pittsburgh was spurred in part by notions of an “invasion” of migrants, a conspiracy theory Trump himself had peddled. Pittsburgh’s Jews identified Trump with the attack and many joined protesters who turned their backs on him when he visited the synagogue.
The next year, a white supremacist attacked a California synagogue, killing one.
Both incidents followed a deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that quickly became synonymous with the rise of far-right hate groups in the United States. Trump equivocated endlessly about condemning the marchers, and his both-sidesing an event in which the only victims were counterprotesters and in which the perpetrators were neo-Nazis reportedly earned rebukes from Jewish members of his Cabinet and his Jewish daughter, Ivanka. It also became a theme of Biden’s presidential campaign, starting from his announcement and extending to his final appeal to voters.
Among the Jan. 6 rioters, one man wore a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt; the judge who sentenced him to prison said he was wearing a Nazi SS shirt underneath. The sweatshirt became a symbol of ties to white supremacist movements by the rioters, all supporters of Trump.
He really doesn’t understand why American Jews don’t support him.
Trump looks at polls closely, and one result continues to irk him: his poor showing among American Jewish voters. He keeps saying, most recently this week at the ZOA gala, that American Jews aren’t sufficiently loyal to Israel, otherwise they would not overwhelmingly back Democrats (and oppose Trump).
“No president has done more for Israel than I have,” he said on Truth Social, the social media platform he owns, last month. “Somewhat surprisingly, however, our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S.”
While his Jewish backers tend to agree, others say Trump is insinuating that Jews hold dual loyalty, an antisemitic trope that has been used to justify hate against Jews in other times and places. Those critics include the Anti-Defamation League, the nonpartisan watchdog group.
“Let me be clear: insinuating that Israel or the Jews control Congress or the media is antisemitic, plain and simple,” ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt said in late 2021, after one (but not the most recent) set of Trump’s comments. “Unfortunately, this is not the first time he has made these offensive remarks.”
He has Jewish friends and family — many of whom have worked for him.
Two of Trump’s top advisors were his Jewish daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who brokered the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab countries.They brought to the White House a proud and open sensibility about Jewish practice, although things did not always go swimmingly between the couple and their D.C.-area Jewish community.
The couple remain personally close to Trump, but have distanced themselves from his politics. Kushner took a leading role in both presidential campaigns and Trump blames him in part for losing 2020. For their part, Kushner and Ivanka Trump have notably not endorsed the elder Trump’s falsehoods about winning that election. They now live in Florida, where their governor, DeSantis, decisively won reelection last week and quickly vaulted into frontrunner status for 2024.