Opinion

Hyperbole Over anti-Semitism Weakens Liberal Opposition to Trump

Be appalled by Trump’s stalling over denouncing anti-Semitism. But the president didn’t invent Jew hatred in America, and trying to pin the 'anti-Semite' label on him won’t work.

Donald Trump throws a hat into the audience while speaking at a rally in in Baton Rouge on December 9, 2016.
Andrew Harnik/AP

It took him more than a month but as both the volume of incidents and protests at his seeming silence grew, Donald Trump finally used the bully pulpit of the presidency to denounce anti-Semitism. Speaking Tuesday, Trump finally said the words denouncing anti-Semitism that reporters had practically begged him to use at two separate press conferences: "Anti-Semitism is horrible and it's gonna stop and it's got to stop"

After four rounds of bomb threats (so far no explosive devices have been found) against Jewish Community Centers around the country, it was about time. In fact, it was long overdue from a White House that inexplicably omitted any references to Jews in its International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement in January. Nor did it do much to placate Trump’s critics on the left.

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In Haaretz, Chemi Shalev describes how American Jews “have been growing increasingly anxious” about an “ongoing assault” from “a tide of white supremacism, that includes distinct waves of anti-Semitism, that has arisen in the wake of Donald Trump’s nativist and nationalistic election campaign — with his active encouragement, some believe.”

I’m appalled by Trump’s slowness to say the right thing just as I was by the games he played last year when asked to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. But at this point those sounding the alarm about anti-Semitism in the U.S. need to start speaking with the precision that they rightly accuse Trump of lacking. It is one thing to blame Trump for not condemning anti-Semitism often enough. It is quite another to accuse him of tolerating or inciting Jew hatred as some of his critics seem to be doing.

Trump’s reluctance to speak out is easily understood even if it is not defensible. He and his advisor Steve Bannon believe politics is warfare and see acceptance of demands from critics as weakness. Trump believed invitations to denounce anti-Semitism implied he was an anti-Semite, a charge for which there is no proof against him or Bannon. That’s why he stalled. That was foolish, but not evidence of anti-Semitism.

As hard as it may be for liberals to accept, Trump did not ascend to the presidency on the strength of an anti-Semitic base. Though you may question their judgment, the 46 percent of American voters who pulled the lever for him were largely composed of mainstream Republicans, philo-Semitic evangelicals and working class voters fed up with the establishment and Hillary Clinton, not the caricature of white supremacist “deplorables” their opponents on the left cling to.

The terms of this debate are also skewed because many on the left conflate their opposition to Trump’s immigration positions with false Holocaust analogies. Nor is it irrelevant to point out that Trump’s position on the rising tide of global anti-Semitism – a product of the unlikely alliance of Islamists and leftist anti-Zionists – should cut him at least some slack on the subject of Jew hatred. Many of those who now seize on Trump’s slowness to speak were not so quick to denounce President Barack Obama when he sought to portray anti-Jewish violence such as the 2015 HyperCacher attack as a random incident rather than the clear targeting of French Jews.

But let’s also be clear about what is happening in the United States. The JCC threats are a matter of great concern and it’s also true that anti-Semitic hate crimes are far higher than those that target any other religious minority (though that was also true under Trump’s predecessors). The noise generated by alt-right internet trolls that have deluged Jewish journalists (especially conservatives) who opposed Trump last year with hateful threats should have generated a response from him long ago.

Yet what is happening is not remotely comparable to the situation in places like France, where Jews often feel under siege. Anti-Semitism exists in the U.S. but it wasn’t invented by Trump. The actual alt-right (and not just those who sometimes seem to pander to them like Bannon) and neo-Nazis remain insignificant. Though complacence is unacceptable, the idea that American Jews are living in fear is the worst kind of hyperbole. Nor is there any reason to think that is about to change.

Liberals have plenty of ammunition to use against a Trump administration that’s been a chaotic circus in its first month. But attempting to pin the anti-Semitic label on him won’t work. If Trump can force himself to continue to utter the anti-hate comments that we’ve a right to expect from U.S. presidents, this issue will soon drop off the political radar screen.

Jonathan S. Tobin is a contributing writer to National Review magazine. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.