There has never been a Jewish presidential nominee in the United States. But that may change this year. Two leading candidates in the Democratic primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, are Jewish. If either of them win the nomination, it will be a landmark moment for Jewish people in the United States.
But with Donald Trump as the Republican incumbent, a Jewish nominee will also almost certainly mean that the 2020 election campaign will be awash in anti-Semitic tropes, slurs, and conspiracy theories. It's important for the media and the public to be ready to identify them and refute them. The nomination of a Jewish candidate can't be allowed to become an occasion for increased hatred and violence.
It's important to note that Trump will smear other candidates too. In 2016, he smeared Ted Cruz, a Hispanic candidate, as un-American, falsely suggesting Cruz's father was involved in the JFK assassination. If out gay South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg wins, Trump will no doubt attack him with homophobia - adding to the puerile, othering name-games he's already engaged in. If Elizabeth Warren wins, Trump will double down on misogyny. Trump has been calling her the racist slur "Pocahontas" since at least 2016.
Bigotry has been central to Trump’s presidency, and it will be central to his reelection campaign. But which bigotry he uses will depend to some degree on the opponent he faces. Jewish people and their allies need to be ready to anticipate, and respond, to anti-Semitism.
We can be certain Trump will use anti-Semitism against a Jewish candidate because he used anti-Semitism even against the non-Jewish Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Trump's last major campaign ad linked Clinton to Jewish democratic donor George Soros and Jewish CEO Lloyd Blankfein. The ad said they were part of a "global power structure" of "people who don't have your good in mind." The anti-Semitism was so blatant it barely even counted as a dogwhistle.
Soros is a central figure in far right propaganda, and he's likely to be mentioned repeatedly in any presidential contest featuring a Jewish candidate. A billionaire philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, Soros regularly donates to Democratic causes. This has led to paranoid certainty on the right that Soros is behind every left protest or movement, and that he is nefariously attempting to undermine the American (Christian) character and way of life.
Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, for example, blamed Soros for protests against the Brett Kavanaugh appointment and accused him of funding a migrant "caravan" to storm the U.S. border in time for the 2018 midterms.
Trump speculated that Soros was funding illegal immigration to the United States. This was the same conspiracy theory that inspired the shooter who murdered 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Yet, despite inspiring the worst anti-Semitic mass killing in U.S. history, right-wing figures like former New York mayor and Trump crony Rudy Giuliani continue to indulge in these conspiracy theories.
Attacks on Soros conflate anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish financial power with right-wing anti-leftism. That's a tradition that goes back to Hitler, who saw Judaism and Marxism as inseparable, and murdered Jewish people because he considered them to be leftists and leftists because he considered them to be Jewish.
It might seem like Bloomberg, who is a multi-billionaire, would be more vulnerable to anti-Semitic attacks on financial elites, while Sanders, who is a socialist, would be more vulnerable to anti-Semitic attacks on leftists. But the whole point of Soros conspiracy theories is to erase the distinction between these targets. To anti-Semites, all Jews are shadowy wealthy manipulators pushing a left agenda, regardless of their actual wealth or ideology.
It's also likely that in a general election campaign, both Bloomberg and Sanders would be accused of being fake Jews who are betraying Israel. Trump is on record as saying that Jews who are Democrats are "disloyal," because they do not follow the lead of Israel's right wing government.
The implication for Trump is that American Jews are not real Americans, and owe their duty first to an Israeli ethnonationalist state which is a junior partner of the American right. Sanders has been particularly critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, but any Jewish candidate criticizing Trump is going to be attacked as a traitor.
They also will almost certainly be accused of anti-Semitism because the Democratic party is less rabidly anti-Palestinian than the GOP. It is, after all, a staple of anti-Semitism that bigotry against Jews is caused, first and foremost, by Jewish people themselves. The right therefore will use anti-Semitism in the election and then claim it is the Jewish targets of those smears who are the real anti-Semites.
So, how can people of good will prepare for, and resist, the anti-Semitism that will be directed against Jewish candidates? First, it's important to recognize the common tropes and attacks, and to refuse to use them or broadcast them, even when they are used against candidates you dislike.
Sanders is one of my top choices in the primary, and Bloomberg is, for me, dead last. But neither of them should be attacked as a fake Jew, or as un-American. Neither should be smeared as part of a shadowy global conspiracy. Nor should pundits attack Jewish candidates by calling their supporters Nazis.
Don't do Trump's dirty work for him.
In the general election, Jewish organizations need to emphasize the historic importance of a Jewish nominee, and defend Jewish candidates from anti-Semitism. They need to do this especially if those Jewish candidates are occasionally critical of Israel, because we need to make it clear that the right-wing is wrong when it conflates Jewish identity with Israel.
The media, for its part, needs to identify anti-Semitism clearly, both in articles and headlines. We should no longer be surprised when Trump does, and says the worst.
If Sanders or Bloomberg win, we should expect him to target Jewish people. And people of good will, Jewish and otherwise, should be prepared to push back, against this, and against Trump's other bigotries as well.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He lives in Chicago.Twitter: @nberlat
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