Under Trump, the Old anti-Semitism Is Making a Comeback

The GOP candidate sent an inane tweet about Disney’s Frozen to score points on the controversial Clinton ad. Is he playing stupid or something worse?

U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd during a campaign rally at the Sharonville Convention Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, July 6, 2016.
U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd during a campaign rally at the Sharonville Convention Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, July 6, 2016. John Sommers, AFP

The motto “Always Fight, Never Apologize” was bequeathed to Donald Trump by his late lawyer and presumed mentor, Roy Cohn. The repulsive mastermind of the McCarthy hearings could also answer Trump’s claim that he can’t be an anti-Semite because he loves his converted daughter and his Jewish son-in-law and grandchildren: Cohn was a full-fledged Jew, yet he hated Jews with a vengeance and persecuted them with undisguised zeal. So it can be done.

But even if we accept Jared Kushner’s assertion, in response to the brave essay posted in his own Observer newspaper by Dana Schwartz that “my father in law is an incredibly loving and tolerant person who has embraced my family and our Judaism since I began dating my wife.” And even if we take at face value the factually-challenged statement of Trump’s adviser and advocate Jason Greenblatt that Trump “has refuted anti-Semitism, loudly and publicly”. his follow up rhetorical question remains unanswered: “Why would Mr. Trump countenance the support of any Jew hater, when he is one of the most pro-Jewish, pro-Israel candidates ever to seek national office?” 

Why indeed. Greenblatt claims that Trump hasn’t countenanced such support, but things may seem different outside Trump Tower. The facts are that Trump tried to avoid denouncing David Duke for as long as he could; that he has said nothing about the racists and anti-Semites coming out of the woodworks in droves under his umbrella; that he refused to criticize the anti-Semitic trolls who hounded journalist Julia Ioffe after her magazine portrait that Trump’s wife Melania did not like and that he has said nothing about the vicious anti-Semitic social media bombardment of any Jewish journalist who happens to write a bad word about him; that he has refused to let go of the slogan “America First” even though he must surely realize by now that it carries a specific anti-Semitic historical connotation; that he repeatedly lauds tyrants and dictators that are problematic for Jews, including Benito Mussolini and Saddam Hussein; and that he himself has been known to release the occasional anti-Semitic remark, including his assertion to the Republican Jewish Coalition,  more relevant today perhaps than it was back in March, that Jews won’t support him because they can’t control him because they can’t buy him with money. You know, like Hillary Clinton in the star-studded ad that Trump insists has nothing to do with Jews.

But instead of simply apologizing and moving on, as Jewish leaders have begged him to do, both publicly and privately, Trump has persisted in doubling down and making things worse. He asserted on Wednesday that critics who see a Star of David where there is only an innocent sheriff’s badge are “sick”. He insisted that he wouldn’t have removed the offensive ad in the first place, as his staff did, because there’s nothing offensive about it. He completely ignored the fact that the ad was lifted directly from a neo-Nazi website. And then he added insult to injury with an inane tweet that compared the Clinton ad to a poster of a Disney book of Frozen that also featured a six-pointed star. So which is it? Is Trump playing stupid? Pandering to what he assumes is the lowest common denominator of his supporters? Or is there something more sinister at play?

Even if you stipulate that you agree with Trump 100% that the Star of David ad is completely innocent, why is he so totally unresponsive to protests that have come from Jews and non-Jews alike, including Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives? Why is such a self-proclaimed lover of Jews allowing anti-Semitism to rear its head in the middle of his election campaign instead of nipping it in the bud so that it goes back under the rock from which it emerged? How is it rational for Trump to antagonize and alienate so many Jews for no good reason?

Perhaps it’s truly because he never apologizes and always hits back “ten times harder,” as Cohn taught him. Perhaps he thinks that standing tall against the media and refusing to bow to political correctness was, is and will forever be essential to his success. Perhaps he’s counted and then realized that there are far more racists than Jews, who aren’t going to vote for him anyway, because they can always a buy a Democrat like Clinton, as the ad states and as he once implied.

And perhaps, in a worst-case scenario, Trump is keeping the Jews in reserve as an emergency scapegoat, if his campaign doesn’t go well. It’s a long-standing tradition in American politics, though not one usually kept by mainstream candidates of the two big parties. From the manipulative Rothschild bankers of William Jennings Bryant in 1896, through the Bolshevik agents in the 1920’s, the international Jews who pushed Franklin Roosevelt to fight the Nazis and implement the Jew Deal in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Roy Cohn’s 1950’s communists, George Wallace’s liberals in the 1960’s, Jesse Jackson’s hymies in the 1980’s and Pat Buchanan’s neocon Israel-Firsters, pushing America into a war of civilizations in the 1990’s, anti-Semitism is always just around the corner, if anyone needs it. 

The situation is laced with irony. It was only a short while ago, no more than a year or two, when the era was being touted as a golden age for American Jews, in which they are more than prosperous, their culture permeates throughout the land and they are the most admired and sought after religious group of all. In any case, if anyone was going to unleash a new wave of anti-Semitism, it was going to be the Jewish Democrat Bernie Sanders, rather than the candidate of the party that in recent years has been portrayed as absolutely philo-Semitic as well as completely supportive of Israel. 

This was supposed to be the year that the GOP would hit the jackpot with the Jews. Jewish Republicans had hoped to use the 31 per cent that Mitt Romney extracted from the Jews in 2012 as a launchpad to try and match the previous records of 39 per cent for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and 40 per cent for Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Instead, they should now fear plummeting to John McCain’s 24 per cent in 2008, George W. Bush’s 19 per cent in 2000 and even, heaven help them, his father’s measly 11 per cent in 1992.

While the government of Israel and its constituent Jewish organizations have been waging a crusade against new anti-Semitism that is fueled by hostility to Israel from Islam and the left, the far older and more entrenched anti-Semitism that requires hatred for Jews alone has reared its head on the right. Reservations about Barack Obama’s attitude towards Israel and fear that Clinton will follow in his path will now have to compete with far more primeval fears that Jews have known throughout the ages. And after several years in which it may have seemed that Jews in America and in Israel are growing closer and facing common enemies, the particular Diaspora experience suddenly reappears, driving a new wedge between them. Israelis have grown accustomed to a dichotomous worldview in which the left is the root of all evil while the right, racist as it is, is a kindred spirit. A resurgence of anti-Semitism from the right will be disconcerting for many Israeli Jews, reminding them that support for Israel and animosity towards Jews are not mutually exclusive.

Jewish groups that are not identified with the left have kept mainly silent until now, with the notable exception of the Anti Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt, who has been urging Trump to apologize and get the Star of David affair over with. Several Jewish groups united yesterday to issue a call against anti-Semitism in the campaign, without mentioning Trump by name. You can imagine that some of the groups were concerned about their right wing donors, while others insisted that Sander’s demands for changes in the Democratic platform also merit a mention.

“It’s like a bad dream that we need to wake up from,” one Jewish leader told me this week. Which reminded me of a “nightmarish fantasy” I wrote in March in which anti-Semitism exploded during the campaign, Trump won the elections and liberals found refuge in Israel. That last part remains wishful thinking, of course, but of the “nightmarish fantasy” that existed three months ago, I suspect only the nightmare remains today.