Show Hide image

Anti-Semitism in the time of Trump

How hatred and conspiracy have been normalised in American political life.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

In 2016, US presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted out a graphic featuring Hillary Clinton and a pile of money. Next to her face was what appeared to be a Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, emblazoned with the words, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”

I remember this story because it caused a flurry of media coverage, tweets and discussion. The image was condemned as anti-Semitic. Yet Trump responded with a statement railing at the "dishonest media" and claiming that the star was a sheriff’s badge. The original graphic was deleted and replaced with one that featured a circle, not a star.

In 2017, Trump, now the president, said of a protest in which people were marching in Charlottesville, Virginia for and against white supremacy, that there were “very fine people on both sides” (Joe Biden has since said that this is what made him decide to run against the president).

In 2018, Trump suggested that George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish financier and philanthropist, was behind protests against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and also, possibly, the arrival of a caravan of Central American migrants at the US border.

In 2019, he claimed that American Jews who vote Democratic, which was about 80 per cent of American Jews in the 2018 midterms, were guilty of “disloyalty”. That same year, Trump also told a Jewish audience in Florida that some Jews don’t “love Israel enough”. And he has repeatedly referred to Israel as “your country” when speaking with American Jews, which has been condemned as an allusion to the old dual loyalty trope.

As we near the end of the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump has repeatedly described Biden as a “servant of the globalists” – a term that, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has explained, is “used as an ethnic smear and long-running conspiracy theory about Jewish populations not being loyal to the countries they live in and cooperating through secret international alliances”.

Making a single anti-Semitic statement is a one-off, offensive, outlandish story. But make one enough times and it stops being any of those things. Anti-Semitism starts being normalised and then, eventually, normal. And that is what is happening in American politics during the time of Trump.

I am not alone in thinking so. The American Jewish Committee is a non-partisan group that, far from demonstrating anti-Trump bias, has been criticised for not standing up firmly enough to his administration (as have many other longstanding Jewish institutions). But according to its own 2020 survey, 88 per cent of American Jews believe anti-Semitism is a problem, and 82 per cent think it has increased over the past five years.

[see also: “They did a Nazi salute”: How anti-Semitism is rising in Britain]

***

This is not the first time there has been widespread expression of anti-Semitism in the US. According to Hasia Diner in A New Promised Land (2003), it previously reached a high point in 1944. But then anti-Semitism, or at least public and political expressions thereof, decreased. (It did not disappear, of course. When I started writing this piece, I thought back to one incident in high school, in which I chased a classmate down the hallways asking him what he meant when he said, “I could see the Jewish in their eyes.” But anti-Semitism, for decades, was not at the levels that it is now, and certainly not in American political life.)

Today, there are particular conditions that have made this normalisation – or renormalisation – of anti-Semitism possible. In the US at present there is “a normalisation of hatred”, said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who noted that although there is anti-Semitism on the left and the right, the far right has been the most open in expressing it, and has “done the most damage in recent years”.

According to Lipstadt, politics today is so polarised that some on the political right can’t or won’t admit that there are many people who hear “George Soros” as a sign for “Jew” and who won’t acknowledge that the politicians saying his name know that to be the case. “They refuse to acknowledge it.”

Such hatred is also spreading more easily than ever, Lipstadt, author of Antisemitism: Here and Now (2019), told me. In the past, if someone wanted to read about Holocaust denial, “you got a plain envelope [delivered] to a PO box”. Now a person can go online, plant a piece of vitriol, and watch it grow.

Linked to this spread is the rise of conspiracy theories, many of which either centre or prominently feature anti-Semitism. “We have also witnessed the troubling emergence of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has many of the characteristics of classical anti-Semitic tropes that have motivated violence against Jewish communities for centuries,” said Vlad Khaykin, national director of programmes on anti-Semitism at the Anti-Defamation League. Khaykin added that QAnon, in addition to the normalisation of terms like “globalist” and the use of Jewish philanthropists like George Soros as scapegoats, “makes for a dangerous resurgence of political anti-Semitism”. One Republican congressional candidate, who is expected to win her election and join the House of Representatives, is an open believer in QAnon.

White supremacist and hate groups are also newly empowered in this environment. The Proud Boys, a far-right group that encourages political violence, includes some members who are openly anti-Semitic. The group received what many understood to be affirmation from Trump at the first presidential debate. Asked if he would tell the Proud Boys to stand back, Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

“You can't equate the president with, frankly, anyone else. No one else's words resonate quite like the president's. His words have been scathing and damaging and extremely dangerous for our community,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. Soifer also noted that Trump’s fellow Republicans would not condemn him. In fact, she said, “They go as far as defending it.”

Some leading Republican figures have also trafficked in what are widely understood to be anti-Semitic tropes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took out a YouTube advert for his Senate race this year in which he says “they” (presumably referring to the Democrats) “have” Soros and his fellow Jewish billionaire, Michael Bloomberg. (McConnell’s opponent is in fact Amy McGrath, not Soros or Bloomberg, and neither Soros nor Bloomberg is the largest donor in the Kentucky race).

Senator David Perdue, facing a tight re-election campaign in Georgia, ran a digital ad against his opponent Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, in which Ossoff appeared with Chuck Schumer, a Jewish senator from New York. Ossoff’s nose in the image had been enlarged and the advert said the Democrats were trying to “buy Georgia”. After Ossoff called the ad anti-Semitic, the Perdue campaign responded that depicting the incident as “anything other than an inadvertent error is intentionally misrepresenting Senator Perdue's strong and consistent record of standing firmly against anti-Semitism and all forms of hate”. It also said that the enlarged nose was the fault of an outside vendor that had applied a filter that changed how Ossoff looked in the picture (an explanation that does not account for why Schumer was featured). The ad was taken down.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, tweeted in October that "George Soros and his left wing media outlets" had been smearing newly confirmed Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett. At the time of writing, that tweet had not been deleted. (The Trump, McConnell, and Perdue campaigns did not respond to requests for comment; Blackburn’s office also did not respond.)

***

There are three defences one often hears in response to all of this. The first is that Trump has Jewish grandchildren, a line that Mike Pence offered at the vice-presidential debate in October to refute the idea that Trump is anti-Semitic. That one can be an anti-Semite and have Jewish family members and friends should, at this point, be so self-evident that the argument is not worth elaborating. 

The second defence is that Trump specifically, and the Republican Party more generally, are good for American Jews because they are "pro-Israel".

One can argue that the Trump administration’s policies – including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, negotiating diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, strongly supporting embattled Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cutting all aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, arguing Palestinians are currently incapable of self-governance, and closing the Palestinian mission in Washington, DC – are either good for Israel or ultimately shortsighted actions that will hurt Israel’s future. But one cannot argue, because it is untrue, that Israel is the United States, or that providing security for Netanyahu is the same as providing security for American Jews.

“Differing with Israel's policies, even differing in the extreme, that’s not anti-Semitism,” Lipstadt said. “It's when you differ and then rely on stereotypes.” Similarly, taking a particularly pro-Israel or pro-Netanyahu stance is not the same thing as rejecting anti-Semitism. According to Khaykin, “There is no position on Israel that inoculates one against or exculpates one from anti-Semitism.”

And the third defence is an attempt at offence: that is, the allegation that Democrats are the real anti-Semites. Trump, for example, has said Representative Ilhan Omar is an anti-Semite and “hates Jews.” That was in summer 2019; in winter that year Omar tweeted that support for Israel among US politicians was “all about the Benjamins”. She apologised and wrote in her book, This Is What America Looks Like, “I quickly apologised for using what I learned was an age-old anti-Semitic trope about Jewish control through money. I want the ability to be heard and have my full humanity recognised. In return, I do everything I can to make sure that is true for others, too. So I apologise when I denigrate others or make anyone feel invisible.”

It is true that anti-Semitism knows no one party or ideology. And there are, to be sure, some on the far left who also assert, for example, that Soros is responsible for funding regime change in Venezuela and Hong Kong. But what Democratic Jewish lawmakers have noted is that Republicans appear to be interested in combating anti-Semitism not for its own sake, but as a partisan issue, which makes matters worse, not better.

In September, Jewish Democrats in the House of Representatives, led by the most senior Jewish member, Eliot Engel, the outgoing chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, sent a letter to Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

“If we are to prevail against anti-Semitism, we need allies to join us – both Democratic and Republican. The fight against anti-Semitism must be seen by those who traffic in attacks against Jews as a bipartisan fight. It actually hurts our efforts to make this a partisan issue. Jews are not a political football, and to treat Jews as such devalues Jewish lives and makes it more difficult to fight the dangerous and deadly trends of growing anti-Semitism,” the letter read.

“There are these repeated efforts in Congress by Republicans to inflame conflict over anti-Semitism and Israel,” said Congressman Jamie Raskin, one of the signatories of the letter. “They never want to call out Donald Trump for neo-Nazis, but they have an endless appetite to go after Ilhan Omar, for example. If you really care about stopping anti-Semitism and racism, then you don't use these as polemical weapons in a partisan way.”

American Jews themselves don’t see an equivalence between the two sides at this particular moment in US history. That same survey by the American Jewish Committee found that 69 per cent of American Jews felt that the Republican Party holds anti-Semitic views; 37 per cent said the same of the Democratic Party. Similarly, 75 per cent of American Jews felt that the extreme right represents a very or moderately serious threat, whereas 32 per cent said the same of the extreme left (if one adds in how many felt anti-Semitism was a slight threat, the gap between the far right and far left closes to 89 per cent and 61 per cent, respectively).

***

The consequences of this increase in perceived anti-Semitism is not just words and discomfort and hurt feelings. According to the ADL, in 2019 there were more anti-Semitic incidents recorded than ever before in the US. American Jews feel they are increasingly being targeted online because they are Jews. And on 27 October 2018, 11 Jewish Americans were shot and killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the gravest act of anti-Semitic mass violence in American history. Their killer, who yelled “all Jews must die” before shooting a synagogue on the Sabbath, reportedly told a law enforcement officer that Jews were “committing a genocide”. He had previously posted about his displeasure with Jews helping immigrants, writing on a pro-hate-speech social media site, “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people”, a reference to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which resettles refugees.

American Jews, like all groups, are not a monolith, and do not all experience anti-Semitism the same way. To take one example, black Jews and Jews of Asian and Hispanic descent are also made to deal with racism and xenophobia – sometimes, it must be said, from within the Jewish community itself. In its report on anti-Semitic and anti-black content on Facebook and Telegram, the ADL found, “one in every 81 messages sent to the Telegram channels we tracked were derogatory towards black people in America, and about one in every 54 messages were derogatory towards Jewish Americans”. To be black and Jewish in America is to be a potential recipient of either or both.

[see also: Why Donald Trump’s brazen violations of democratic norms are a continuation of a political culture built on racism]

To take another example, strictly observant Orthodox Jews were blamed and harassed for rising Covid-19 infection levels in parts of New York earlier this year. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted in April  “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups.” (The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.) Yet formal censure and public harassment of the traditionalist Orthodox ignores that the common factor among places in Brooklyn where Covid cases were rising was not residents' religious affiliation, but their support for Trump (whereas roughly 70 per cent of all American Jews have said they will support Biden, around 85 per cent of Orthodox Jews are Trump supporters). It also further stigmatises an already vulnerable minority group.

These situations are not equivalent, and American Jews’ perceptions, interpretations and experiences are not the same. And so I am speaking only for myself when I write: regardless of the particular manifestation, anti-Semitism hurts Jewish people. It also degrades the society in which it is allowed to foster. A society in which anti-Semitism is a normal part of political life is also a society in which hate, conspiracy and vengeful suspicion are normal. A society in which anti-Semitism is normal is a society in which anti-Semitism is used not only to villainise Jews, but to delegitimise others. When people baselessly claim that George Soros is behind the Black Lives Matter protests, they are not only playing on the trope of the wealthy Jewish puppeteer, but also saying that those protesting police brutality and state-backed violence against black Americans are not out there of their own accord.

All of which raises the question as to whether there is a way back – a way to make what is becoming normal abnormal.

“Yes,” wrote Khaykin, “but it will take all of us – civil society, elected leaders, the tech leaders, law enforcement – to roll back the tide of bigotry and conspiracy theories that threaten to overtake our social and political life.”

And what if not all of us are willing to do this?

“I don't want to offer you an easy, ‘oh, if we only did this’,” Lipstadt said, later adding: “Anybody who has an easy answer, don't believe them.”

“I think it's very tough,” agreed Raskin. “When I was in college in the 1980s and went to law school, it looked like virulent anti-Semitism was a thing of the past in America. It was not a constant in people's political lives. And now suddenly anti-Semitism – and racism – are a matter of daily conflict and contest.” He concluded: “It’s going to be a long walk home.” 

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor