Opinion

The Trump Administration’s Abetting of anti-Semitism Will Be Passive, Not Active

Trump doesn't present Jews as a dangerous group the way he describes Muslims or Mexicans. But don't expect him to take vigorous action to identify, shame and punish the perpetrators of anti-Semitic incidents.

Vandalized tombstones are seen at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery, February 26, 2017, in Philadelphia, PA.
Vandalized tombstones are seen at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery, February 26, 2017, in Philadelphia, PA. DOMINICK REUTER/AFP

Has “The Jewish Question” returned in Donald Trump’s America?

The term “The Jewish Question” was widely used in Europe from the 1840s until the end of World War II. The “question” asked whether Jews should be accepted, and if so, on what terms. As anti-Semitism became more virulent, what had been a mere “problem” was perceived as an existential threat. After 1917 this threat was articulated in terms of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” which conceived of Jews as the spearhead of the greatest danger to the survival of the western world. For the Nazis as for many anti-Semites in other lands, the Jewish Question was the world’s most dire problem, and it called for the most extreme of solutions.

After World War II, did the “Jewish Question” disappear, or did it go into hiding? Do elements of it survive in the United States today?  

On the one hand, anti-Semitism is not a widely-employed cultural code as it was in nineteenth-century Europe. Anti-Semitism was a kind of shorthand for anti-modernism as such, but today, most political reactionaries in the United States are not anti-Semitic. Nor is anti-Semitism accepted, let alone preached, by political and cultural elites. 

It’s precisely the low levels of American anti-Semitism, and the sympathy that Jews receive when they are targeted, that infuriates the anti-Semitic fringe. After Vice-President Mike Pence toured the desecrated Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, an irked David Duke tweeted: “Showing up every time Jews get upset about anonymous threats only plays into their agenda.” 

Trump is not an anti-Semite – that is, he does not fear or dislike Jews as a collective. He has no problem consorting with Jews so long as they are supportive of him. Examples include senior advisor Stephen Miller, staff aide Boris Epshteyn (who wrote the controversial statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which did not mention Jews), billionaire Stephen Feinberg, who will review the nation’s intelligence agencies as part of what many fear will be an attempt to curtail their independence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and, of course, Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner and Trump’s own daughter Ivanka, a convert to Orthodox Judaism.

True, history is filled with anti-Semites who associated with Jews. Karl Lueger, the wildly popular mayor of fin de siècle Vienna, had Jewish friends and business associates. But he came under fire for those associations and had to defend himself, leading to his notorious phrase, “I determine who is a Jew.”  

Unlike Lueger, Trump does not articulate anti-Semitic beliefs. Classic anti-Semitism blamed Jews for rapacious capitalism, but Trump epitomizes it. Nor does Trump present Jews as a dangerous group the way he describes Muslims or Mexicans. Similarly, for the vast majority of Trump’s supporters, the alleged problem of cultural difference in the United States is caused by Muslims and Hispanics, not Jews.

On the other hand, thanks to Trump’s splenetic xenophobia and racism, throughout the election campaign, and especially since, anti-Semitism has been expressed more frequently and openly by alt-right political activists and pundits. Trump’s unrestrained put-down of the Orthodox Jewish correspondent Jake Turx at the February 17 press conference was a source of great joy for the neo-Nazi web site The Daily Stormer. 

Trump lacks the ideological consistency to be an anti-Semite. In this sense he is unlike a bona fide anti-Semite like Richard Spencer. If there is a conduit between them, it is Steve Bannon. Bannon, however, has no problem with Jews who promote his project of destroying American liberal democracy and replacing it with a regime combining strident nationalism, authoritarian rule, and unregulated capitalism.  

To the extent that Bannon dislikes Jews, it is because of their association with liberalism, yet there is no sign that Bannon subscribes to a Judeo-Liberal myth equivalent to the Judeo-Bolshevik myth of a previous era. A decade ago, he described American Jews as unwitting “enablers” of jihad,  but he meant that they, like the liberal media and organizations like the ACLU, were jihad’s dupes, not its avant garde. 

Over the course of the election campaign, and especially since November, anti-Semitism has become much more visible, is expressed more openly and is at times taking on threatening, intimidating and even violent forms. But the Jewish Question as it was known for over a century has not roared back in the form of Trumpism. Like fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany on the eve of and immediately following the seizure of power, the Trump administration is creating chaos and catalyzing violence in order to lead Americans to accept, and even long for, authoritarian rule. But this time around, the victims of government-sponsored violence are not Jews.

Before World War II, European anti-Semites at times flirted with Zionism, as they were excited about any project to get the Jews out of Europe, but they invariably rejected Zionism as impracticable and/or a Jewish trick for the concentration of awesome political power in the spiritual center of the Christian world. In 1892, the notorious anti-Semite Eugen Dühring wrote that in a Jewish state in Palestine, Jewish inherent malevolence would cause the country’s inhabitants to “eat each other alive.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that a Jewish state, “endowed with sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states” would become “a haven for convicted scoundrels and a university for budding crooks.”

In contrast, although Spencer would ideally see Jews excluded from a white ethnic state in America, he has no grudge against the State of Israel. In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party has until recently spoken harshly of Israel, but Jobbik supporters have told me of their admiration for Israel as, like their vision of Hungary, a small country struggling for survival against enemies on all sides. Similarly, the Trump administration has shown no animosity to Israel.  

So long as the Israeli government remains militantly hawkish and a staunch ally of the United States in the so-called war against terror, Trump is likely to continue to offer Israel virtually unqualified support. He is just as unlikely, however, to take vigorous action to identify, shame, and punish the perpetrators of anti-Semitic incidents. The Trump administration’s abetting of anti-Semitism will be passive, not active; and in this sense it will depart from anti-Jewish policies in European states in the 19th through mid 20th-centuries. 

Derek Penslar is the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto and a Visiting Professor of History at Harvard.