By Emily Gian
I have thought about how I would write this for over two weeks now.
I know it is important to cover the US Elections in terms of what it means for the world and for Israel and the Jewish people, but given that the American public itself is so divided on the outcome, this has not been an easy task.
I spent seven days and nights in New York City on a private visit before the elections. My flight out of the country was at 9:30am on election day.
Before that trip, I had not been to the United States since I was five years of age and Ronald Reagan was the outgoing President. I am told that on the very day we returned home, Reagan handed over the reins of Presidential office holding an incredible approval rating of sixty-eight percent, but I remember very little of that time. To me, America was Disneyland, a place of fantasy that wasn’t real.
The 2016 elections were something of an experience close-up. Coming from Australia, where the build-up to election day is relatively short, and advocating for Israel, where the campaigning time is even shorter, the year and half spent listening to talk about the US elections had made me weary. From the coverage it gets on our own cable news channels, I was certain that I would land at the airport and find myself knee deep in election hysteria.
The reality was very different. I hopped into a cab to my hotel in SoHo, downtown New York, and was surprised that I did not hear a single word about the elections for the first few days.
My first glimpse of election fever came while walking through mid-town near Trump Towers, five days before the election. On one street corner, women were rallying for Hilary Clinton. Around the corner, I came upon a small group of Trump fans. There was absolutely no interaction between the two groups. No shouting or swearing. Not even any heated words. Nothing remotely like what I had imagined it would be on my arrival.
Perhaps having spent my days in a blue (Democrat) state skewed my view of how the election was going to turn out. In the seven days I spent there, I only spoke to one person planning on voting Republican.
I left New York convinced after a 15-hour flight over the Arctic Circle and through to Hong Kong, that Hilary Clinton would be the next occupant of the White House (nor was I aware of the passing hours earlier of one of the great Jewish songwriters of our time in Leonard Cohen).
You can imagine my surprise therefore that when we landed, my iPhone was full of images of a victorious Donald Trump – during the brief time I was in transit, Hilary delivered her concession speech.
Since the election, a lot has been said about Hilary’s failures, about Trump and his capability of being leader of the free world. There has been talk about him surrounding himself with people who will be able to guide him in the right direction, and there has been plenty of chatter about his choices so far.
Much discussion has centred around his choice of Steve Bannon as his chief strategic advisor. Many have called him an anti-Semite, while others, such as Alan Dershowitz have vehemently denied this.
For me, two interesting points have come out of this, and my comments should not be dependent upon which side of the divide one stands.
Firstly, the number of people outraged at the thought that Bannon is allegedly an anti-Semite. If only so many of these people cared about the growing trend of anti-Semitism that is not US-Elections related. The sort of anti-Semitism we have seen recently in alarmingly large numbers in Britain’s Labour Party and about which its leader Jeremy Corbyn is in total denial. Similarly, with some of the racist attacks on Jews coming from avowedly anti-Zionist groups on American and other campuses aimed at stifling the dissemination of any views other than their own and including physical intimidation of Jewish and other pro-Israel students.
Another worrying trend comes from those that claim Bannon is a Zionist. I came across an article, which in defending him, made mention of the fact that despite accusations of anti-Semitism, Bannon is an ardent Zionist. As if some sort of support for the State of Israel cancels everything else out. The same commentator said that “white nationalists… point admiringly to Israel’s character as a Jewish state and argue that it shows how the country is organized along ethnic and religious lines”. The ultimate straw man argument adopted to make Israel and the Jewish people look bad.
And what has worried me the most has been the small acts over the last few days, like the alt-right conference in Washington during which some members performed a Hitler salute and yelled “Hail Trump”, or the park in Brooklyn which was graffitied with swastikas and Trump endorsements.
The extremists that have aligned themselves with Trump are an enormous worry and even though Trump might not support these fringe groups, has he done enough to distance himself from them? He immediately condemned the booing that his running mate Mike Pence received from the crowd and cast at a Broadway musical over the weekend, but took three days to say he condemned those doing a Hitler salute in his name.
And on a broader level, is the concern that many American Jews (and a strong majority of around 70% supported the Democrats) hold about the consequences of the bitter rhetoric of a populist political campaign that has left many minority groups within the country fearful of their future.
Meanwhile, I was horrified, but not surprised, when I saw that an anti-Trump rally in Los Angeles was hijacked by pro-Palestinian activists. I must add that it seems these groups are increasingly making it their business to infiltrate other peoples’ causes and to use them to attack Israel – a tactic that does very little to aid the Palestinian people or to assist the cause of peace in the region.
During the rally in question last week, a young Palestinian woman took the microphone and said, “The fight is not easy back home and it’s not easy here now with Donald Trump as President… We do have a dictator back home, and his name is Benjamin Netanyahu”. The outrageous claim is a lie and much of what she spouted was false, illogical and irrational. Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu or Trump, both were democratically elected, which is more than one can say about how Palestine Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has managed to hold onto power 11 years into a four-year term. Or the thugs of Hamas, who came into power in the Gaza Strip by violently overthrowing the PA. This is not to mention the municipal elections which were supposed to take place in October, but never happened.
It would appear that Israel can expect a far warmer relationship with the President-Elect in the coming four years than it has in the previous right. This could entail the tearing up of the hated Iran nuclear deal, more support in the United Nations and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (a promise made by many former Presidents but never kept). The big question remains however, whether this change in dynamic will increase the possibility of reviving the moribund peace process, the prospects for which do not appear to be at the head of the agenda of the players in the region at the moment.
As I watch the news on the cable stations, I am seeing in America a divided country. I see people in the big cities seething at the outcome of the election, models and show biz people protesting, and I see the demonstrations, some of them violent. I also see the people in the rust bucket states clamouring for a better deal after years of being neglected. Nobody knows what will be but I cannot help thinking that while the world has certainly changed in between my two visits to the country, in many ways America is still Disneyland.
Emily Gian is the Media & Advocacy Director for the Zionist Federation of Australia.