Is Ted Cruz an anti-Semite? Of course not. Many of his top aides and supporters are Jews. Is Ted Cruz exploiting hostility toward Jews in his presidential campaign? It’s complicated. He’s exploiting hostility toward liberals. And in American political culture, being liberal and being Jewish are so intertwined that the line between attacking the former and attacking the latter can blur.
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Start with Cruz’s attacks on Florida Senator Marco Rubio for helping draft a bill that offered a path to citizenship for some of the undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Seven other senators, four of them Democrats, helped Rubio write the legislation. But Cruz has singled out one: the Jewish Senator from New York, Chuck Schumer. Again and again, Cruz refers to the “Rubio-Schumer gang of eight bill” and the “Rubio/Schumer amnesty bill.” He’s even mentioned Schumer in anti-Rubio ads.
For Cruz and other conservatives, notes the New York Times, Schumer has become a “comic-book villain.” In her anti-immigration book, Adios America, Ann Coulter calls Rubio “Chuck Schumer’s press secretary.” (She never mentions the immigration bill’s three other Democratic cosponsors). Talk show host Laura Ingraham says Schumer “completely snookered Marco Rubio.” In 2008, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell unveiled an ad that featured Schumer being showered by dollar bills. In 2005, Jewish groups complained when National Review put a hook-nosed Schumer on its cover above the words “The Inquisitor.”
Why the focus on Schumer? Yes, he’s liberal, but plenty of Democratic Senators are more so. Yes, he’ll likely be the next Democratic Senate leader. But the attacks began before that became known. Richard Durbin of Illinois, another Democratic member of the “gang of eight” that drafted the immigration bill, actually outranks Schumer. Yet conservatives almost never mention him.
What makes Schumer such an attractive target is that he’s a brash liberal from a city conservatives associate with elitism, hedonism, cosmopolitanism and ill-gotten wealth. And his brainy reputation makes it easy to imagine him “snookering” GOP politicians like Rubio into doing his will. In other words, he embodies many of the stereotypes traditionally associated with Jews.
Cruz hasn’t stopped there. More recently, he’s accused Donald Trump of embodying “New York values.” The Texas senator could simply have attacked Trump’s past positions. After all, the billionaire egotist was once pro-choice, pro-immigration and pro-gun control, all stances that are deeply unpopular among conservative Republican voters. Instead, Cruz disparaged New York as a whole, thus tapping into the same stereotypes he evoked when disparaging Chuck Schumer.
It’s a fascinating twist on traditional anti-Semitism. Throughout American and European history, politicians appealing to rural, old-stock, hyper-nationalist voters have made liberal or left-wing, big-city Jews their foil. What’s new is that today’s culture war doesn’t only pit conservative Christians against liberal Jews. It pits conservative Jews against them too.
At the same time that he fans hostility to liberal, secular Jews, Cruz avidly courts conservative, religious ones. He has built an entire fundraising strategy around speaking at Orthodox synagogues. Last year he even spoke at a kosher for Passover vacation spot. Cruz, explains Republican consultant Jeff Balabon, is a “folk hero” in the Orthodox community because in September 2014 he told a group of Middle Eastern Christians that Israel was their best friend. When they began heckling with displeasure, he walked off the stage.
The hawkish, disproportionately religious Jews who love Cruz don’t mind that he’s speaking ill of their liberal secular coreligionists. Why should they? They don’t trust liberal Jews either. They don’t trust liberal Jews to protect the rights of religious institutions to discriminate. They don’t trust liberal Jews to keep Muslim terrorists out of the country. And most of all, they don’t trust liberal Jews to defend Israel. When liberal Jewish icon Jon Stewart criticized Israel’s war in Gaza in 2014, conservative radio talk show Mark Levin, one of Cruz’s biggest boosters, called Stewart a “self-hater.”
Often in modern history, conservatives have defended their nation’s Christian traditions against the corrupting influence of secular, liberal Jews. In contemporary America, that has changed. Conservatives now define American tradition not as Christian but “Judeo-Christian.” And in so doing, they allow conservative Jews to defend the ramparts of tradition against secular, liberal Jews as well. Never before has it been so easy to be anti-Semitic and philo-Semitic at the same time.