The hard-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) on Sunday held its annual dinner—and its featured guest was none other than newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson, who received the organization’s Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Defender of Israel Award.
The crowd, markedly smaller than in previous years, was notably subdued and somber. A mixture of anger, fear, and defiance filled the room. Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack reverberated, just as its repercussions continue to play out in Israel, Gaza, and the broader Middle East.
Those gathered were decidedly pro-Trump. The Biden administration was taken to task for its Iran policy, and former President Barack Obama (who left office almost seven years ago) was scorned. Yet at the same time, the unstated hope was that the current U.S. administration would embrace ZOA’s agenda—which is essentially complete deference to Israel’s right-wing government. It was as if pummeling your adversaries would be taken as welcomed persuasion by those on the receiving end. (Usually, things don’t work that way.)
Johnson was warmly received and announced that he had been invited to speak before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and would do “that as soon as possible.” Johnson stuck to the script, reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance and stressed America’s Judeo-Christian tradition.
And he made no mention of democracy and shared liberal values—which makes sense given Johnson opposed certifying the results of the 2020 election and seeks to separate the American experiment from democracy. Likewise, within Israel, the Netanyahu-led government takes a dim view of liberal democracy. In the months before Oct. 7, the ruling coalition had placed the judiciary in its crosshairs and some of the most hard-right figures in Israeli politics were elevated to major positions in Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
Johnson, in 2016, said “…we don’t live in a democracy” but, rather, a “biblical” republic. On a night when he received an award co-named for the late Sheldon Adelson, a major funder of ZOA, it’s worth remembering that Adelson said in 2014, “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy.” Adelson added that God “didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state,” and, “Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state—so what.”
For her part, Dr. Miriam Adelson, Sheldon’s widow, spoke Sunday via pre-recorded message. She lauded Johnson’s love of the Bible and his support for the Jewish State. “In your short time as speaker—and may you have a long and lasting tenure—you moved fast to secure the aid Israel needs.”
Uh, not exactly. The House’s Israel aid bill is actually laden with conditions and remains in legislative limbo. Channeling the evening’s mood, she lamented that the “Jewish homeland is not yet the secure haven it was meant to be.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the third-ranked Republican in the House, thanked Miriam Adelson and introduced Speaker Johnson as a “deeply respected constitutional lawyer.”
Stefanik’s deposed predecessor in House GOP leadership, former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), tells a different story about Johnson’s law work and fealty to the Constitution. In her forthcoming book, Oath and Honor, Cheney writes that Johnson spearheaded an effort among congressional Republicans to have the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the 2020 election. Specifically, Cheney says Johnson’s supposedly self-authored amicus brief to the Court was actually written by Trump’s acolytes. Even worse, it was laden with fiction, strewn with errors, and advocated “positions that were constitutionally infirm.”
At Sunday night’s ZOA dinner, Johnson also noted the global rise of antisemitism, and compared the moment to World War II. He rightly castigated unnamed members of the House to task for regurgitating Hamas’ line about liberating Palestine from “the river to the sea” and making other excuses for Hamas’ depraved violence.
Hours earlier, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a leading congressional progressive, had hedged on condemning Hamas’ sexual violence against women in Israel. “I think we have to be balanced about bringing in the outrages against Palestinians,” she declared. “You don’t see Israeli soldiers raping Palestinian women,” CNN’s Dana Bash tartly countered. “I don’t want this to be the hierarchies of oppressions,” Jayapal replied.
“It is unacceptable for any political leader in this nation to give credence to dangerous antisemitic rhetoric,” Johnson also intoned. He’s right about that. And if he actually meant it he would have condemned the Texas GOP rejecting efforts to ban associating with Nazi sympathizers and Holocaust deniers. Ties between Texas Republicans and Nick Fuentes, the Holocaust-denying white supremacist, had motivated the failed resolution.
Last year, ZOA gave Trump its Theodor Herzl Medallion—the group’s highest honor. Morton Klein, ZOA’s president, said the ex-POTUS was the “best friend Israel ever had in the White House.”
Shortly thereafter, Trump met with the antisemitic Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and Fuentes. All that twisted Klein into a human pretzel. “Trump is not an antisemite,” he announced. “He loves Israel. He loves Jews. But he mainstreams, he legitimizes Jew hatred and Jew haters. And this scares me.”
No need for Klein to worry any more. As Sunday night’s ZOA dinner got underway, Ed Lewis, a major Republican donor, assured the audience that God had chosen Trump to lead the U.S. and protect Israel. Lewis also made a point of referring to Obama, including his middle name, “Hussein,” in a well-worn method by certain Republicans to otherize the 44th president.
The dinner convinced those who didn’t need convincing. But it also showed a certain incoherence.
While condemning progressives who run interference for Hamas as antisemitic, they play coy with antisemites on the right and, in the case of Trump, do everything they can to excuse or ignore it. Beyond that, they appear to be using support for Israel as a cloak for tolerance for right-wing antisemitism. As ever, consistency is not in great supply on both sides of the aisle.
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