If you listened earlier this month to Republican responses to Donald Trump’s call for Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley to “go back” to the “places from which they came,” you noticed something odd. Trump’s defenders kept mentioning Israel.
“They hate Israel,”replied Lindsey Graham when asked about Trump’s attacks on The Squad. Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin called Omar and Tlaib “anti-Israel.” Trump himself responded to the controversy by declaring that Omar “hates Israel.”
This is strange. As reprehensible as it is to demand that an American politician leave America for allegedly expressing insufficient patriotism, the demand is at least familiar.
“America, love it or leave it,” has been a conservative slogan since the 1960s. What’s virtually unprecedented is demanding that an American politician leave America because they’ve expressed insufficient devotion to a foreign country. Can anyone imagine Republicans defending Trump’s calls for expelling Omar and company by accusing them of hating Canada, India or Japan?
Of course not. The reason is that Republicans no longer talk about Israel like it’s a foreign country. They conflate love of Israel with love of America because they see Israel as a model for what they want America to be: An ethnic democracy.
Israel is a Jewish state. Trump and many of his allies want America to be a white, Judeo-Christian state. Israel, despite its free elections and parliamentary institutions, structurally privileges one ethnic and religious group over others. That’s what many Republicans want here.
In the press, commentators often overlook the right’s affinity for ethnic democracy in favor of other explanations for GOP support of Israel. But those other explanations are at best incomplete. One common argument is that Republicans love Israel because of its commitment to democracy and human rights.
But in the Trump era, democracy and human rights are not Republican foreign policy priorities. It’s not just Trump who admires authoritarian leaders. Rank and file Republicans do too. They hold a more favorable view than Democrats of both Russia and Saudi Arabia. And when The Economist and YouGov asked Americans last December whether “Human rights abuses should be a principal concern in our dealings with countries,” Republicans were only half as likely as Democrats to say yes.
Most Republicans also want Israel to rule the West Bank, where Palestinians live under military law without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives. If you support Israel’s undemocratic control of the West Bank, democracy is probably not the reason you support Israel.
Another common argument for why Republicans love Israel concerns theology. Journalists often note that many evangelical Christians — most of whom vote Republican — see Jewish control of the holy land as necessary to bring about the second coming of Jesus. But it’s easy to exaggerate religion’s role. According to a 2019 Gallup study, “even the least religious Republicans are significantly more positive about Israel than the most religious Democrats. The impact of religiosity is swamped by the power of partisanship.”
A primary reason for this is race. Many religious Democrats are African American or Latino, and African American and Latino Christians — even African American and Latino evangelical Christians — are far more critical of Israel than their white counterparts. This spring, according to the Pew Research Center, members of historically black churches disapproved of the Israeli government by a margin of 34 points.
Republican support for Israel, in other words, isn’t driven by American Christians as a whole. It’s driven by conservative white Christians, whose political identity sits at the intersection of religion and race. In the Trump era, conservative white Christians have grown increasingly obsessed with preserving America’s religious and racial character, and they see Israel as a country that’s doing just that.
Most Republicans fear a less white, less Christian America. Earlier this year, Pew asked Americans whether it would strengthen or weaken “American customs and values” if whites ceased being the majority. By a margin of 46 points, Republicans said America would become weaker. And if Republicans fear America becoming less white, they also fear it becoming more Muslim. A New America poll last November found that 71 percent of Republicans believe Islam is incompatible with American values and 74 percent, according to an Economist/YouGov survey last June, think Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the United States.
These racial and religious fears form the backbone of Republican opposition to immigration. As Clemson University’s Steven V. Miller has shown, Americans who want less immigration are almost six times more likely to be motivated by racial resentment than by economic anxiety.
So it’s a measure of the power of racial resentment inside the GOP that immigration is now, by far, the issue that Republicans care about most. Last December, when Quinnipiac College asked Americans what Congress should make its top priority, more Republicans answered immigration than all the other choices combined.
In June, when Reuters asked Republicans to name their top political concern, immigration again trounced the second most common answer by a factor of more than three to one.
For Republicans who want to preserve America’s demographic character, Israel — which makes immigrating and gaining citizenship easy for Jews but extremely difficult for non-Jews — represents a model. In her 2016 book, Adios America, which shaped Trump’s immigration rhetoric, Ann Coulter wrote that “Israel says, quite correctly, that changing Israel’s ethnicity would change the idea of Israel. Well, changing America’s ethnicity changes the idea of America too.”
In 2017, in response to a news article about Israel’s plan to deport African migrants, she tweeted, “Netanyahu for President!”
When the New York Times reported in 2018 on Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinians who were marching towards the fence that encloses the Gaza Strip, she asked, “Can we do that?”
It’s not just Coulter. “Everybody acts like ‘Oh what Trump has said is so amazing,’” exclaimed Mike Huckabee, in defending Trump’s Muslim ban. “It’s not that amazing in Israel. You don’t have open borders to Muslims here.”
Rick Santorum has cited Israel to justify profiling Muslims who come to the United States.
Last December, in a monologue arguing for Trump’s wall on the southern border, Tucker Carlson declared that, “Israelis know how effective walls are.”
This view isn’t confined to Republican elites. Public opinion surveys suggest a strong correlation between hostility to immigration, hostility to Muslims and support for Israel. When University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami, at my request, crunched the data from polling he conducted last fall, he found that Americans who said the United States government should “lean toward the Palestinians” in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict supported making immigration to the US easier by a margin of 60 points.
Americans who said the US should “lean toward Israel,” by contrast, supported making immigration to the United States harder by a margin of 20 points. Similarly, almost 70 percent of respondents who said the US should “lean toward Israel” had an unfavorable of Islam compared with less than 33 percent of respondents who said America should “lean toward the Palestinians.”
But the right’s admiration for Israel’s ethnic democracy extends beyond immigration. Israel doesn’t just maintain Jewish dominance by keeping non-Jews out of the country. It also delegitimizes and limits political participation by the non-Jews under its control.
On Election Day in 2015, Netanyahu warned that, “Arab voters are coming out in droves.” This year, Likud activists placed 1200 hidden cameras in polling stations in Palestinian areas in an effort to intimidate Palestinian citizens of Israel from voting.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party also asked Israel’s election committee to bar a Palestinian party, Ram-Balad, from running for the Knesset on the grounds that it supports terrorism and does not want Israel to be a Jewish state. (Under Israeli law, parties that reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish or a democratic state, or support racism or violence, cannot participate in elections.