(Reuters) - President Donald Trump beat back criticism of his comments accusing American Jews who vote for Democrats of “great disloyalty” and went a step further on Wednesday, saying any vote for a Democrat is a vote against Israel.
“I think that if you vote for a Democrat you are very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House.
The Republican president drew outrage on Tuesday from Democratic presidential candidates and U.S. Jewish groups after accusing American Jews who vote for Democrats of “great disloyalty.”
Critics said Trump’s comments echoed an anti-Semitic trope accusing American Jews of dual loyalties to the United States and Israel.
Trump initially responded on Twitter on Wednesday by quoting a conservative columnist as saying American Jews “don’t know what they’re doing.” The Republican president thanked the commentator, Wayne Allyn Root, who likened Trump to the “king of Israel” and said Israelis “love him like he is the second coming of God.”
The comments about Israel followed Trump’s attacks on a group of first-term Democrats in Congress, U.S. Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who were denied entry to Israel last week after Trump pressured the government.
“Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone where they’re defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” Trump said on Tuesday, without specifying what or who they were being disloyal to.
Those remarks sparked a swift backlash.
“My message to Trump: I am a proud Jewish person and I have no concerns about voting Democratic,” Senator Bernie Sanders, a leader in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and an independent, wrote in a Twitter post late on Tuesday.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current front-runner to challenge Trump in November 2020, called the president’s comments “insulting and inexcusable” and urged him to stop dividing Americans.
“The Jewish people don’t need to prove their loyalty to you, @realDonaldTrump - or to anyone else,” said Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former U.S. congressman from Texas who has called Trump a racist over his immigration rhetoric.
American Jews lean Democratic. Roughly 70 percent of American Jews have typically supported Democratic candidates in recent U.S. presidential elections.
J Street, a liberal lobbying group based in Washington, was among the many U.S. Jewish organizations that expressed outrage or alarm at Trump’s comments.
“It is dangerous and shameful for President Trump to attack the large majority of the American Jewish community as unintelligent and ‘disloyal,’” the group said on Tuesday.
Said Anti-Defamation League leader Jonathan Greenblatt, “It’s unclear who @POTUS is claiming Jews would be ‘disloyal’ to, but charges of disloyalty have long been used to attack Jews.”
The American Jewish Committee called Trump’s comments “shockingly divisive.”
“American Jews – like all Americans – have a range of political views and policy priorities. His assessment of their knowledge or ‘loyalty,’ based on their party preference, is inappropriate, unwelcome, and downright dangerous,” said committee Chief Executive David Harris.
The Republican Jewish Committee sided with Trump, saying, “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.”
Trump is popular in Israel. He delighted many Israelis - while appalling other world powers - by recognising Jerusalem as their capital, moving the U.S. Embassy there, withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and recognising Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has particularly close ties with the Trump administration, declined to comment on his remarks.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top U.S. elected Democrat, about strong U.S.-Israel relations he said were “not dependent on the links with either party.”
Trump has for weeks been attacking Tlaib and Omar, accusing them of hostility to Israel and anti-Semitism. He repeated his attacks on Tlaib on Wednesday, accusing her on Twitter of wanting to cut off aid to Israel, a U.S. ally that has long enjoyed bipartisan support.
In February, Omar, who along with Tlaib supports a boycott of Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians, said U.S. Jews have divided loyalties. She apologised for those remarks after being widely condemned by many in her own party.
Most Democrats disagree with Tlaib and Omar’s views on Israel, but Trump’s attacks on them have rallied support for the two within their party.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Mayaan Lubell; additional reporting by Jeff Mason; editing by Jonathan Oatis