Early in the 1960s, an indignant reader of the National Review fired off a letter to William F. Buckley, who founded and edited the unofficial magazine of the conservative movement. Why, the questioner wanted to know, had Buckley been so insistent about ousting members of the John Birch Society from the right-wing mainstream? Wasn’t that purge just hurting the cause?
“Our movement has got to govern,” Buckley responded. “It has got to expand by bringing into our ranks those people who are, at the moment, on our immediate Left – the moderate, wishy-washy conservatives; the Nixonites – I am talking about 20 to 30 million people. If they are being asked to join a movement whose leadership believes the drivel of Robert Welch [co-founder of the John Birch Society], they will pass by crackpot alley, and will not pause until they feel the warm embrace of those way over on the other side, the Liberals.”
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A half-century later, a populist, nationalist variant of conservatism has won the most smashing victory in memory: the White House, both houses of Congress, a vast majority of governorships and state legislature. With the raving intolerance of Donald Trump setting the tone, the Republican Party did so by indulging and embracing the myriad forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism, that are euphemistically grouped as the so-called “alt right.”
Crackpot Alley now doubles as Pennsylvania Avenue, the mile-long corridor from the White House to the Capitol. We have seen the astonishing spectacle of a conference of white supremacists just a few block away culminating in a Nazi salute and the cry, “Heil Trump.”
The reaction from the president-elect’s inner circle and his Jewish enablers in both America and Israel has been worse than silence. It has been, essentially, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, the personal link between the Oval Office and the racist sewer, made an emblematic comment in a speech to a Vatican conference in 2014, which was recently unearthed and published by Buzzfeed. While acknowledging that supporters of his putative nationalism “may be anti-Semitic or racial,” Bannon blithely promised that “over time it all gets kind of washed out” and “the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.”
No less a declared protector of worldwide Jewry than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now has led Bannon’s amen corner. In an interview earlier this month, Netanyahu dismissed anti-Semitism in America as a “fringe element.”
I’m far from the first commentator to note that the prime minister’s equanimity was somehow absent whenever he addressed the alleged anti-Semitism of the BDS movement and pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses. He turned into Dr. Pangloss only when neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan supported Trump, with the GOP candidate's promises to tear up the Iran deal and move the American embassy to Jerusalem.
In an interview with Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes,” Netanyahu cited as proof of Trump’s good will his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Jew-by-choice daughter, Ivanka. Other Trump defenders from the Jewish center and right have noted Trump’s appointment of Jews such as Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn to high posts in his incoming administration.
But there is nothing inconsistent with anti-Semitism when applied to the majority of American Jews who are liberal and philo-Semitism when applied to the Netanyahu version of Israel. In America, Jews are metaphorically black, as this last election indelibly showed, and in Israel, they are metaphorically white.
In the vision of global war for the future of civilization that Bannon articulated in his Vatican speech, Israel is a front-line state. Richard Spencer, the preppy face of white supremacy, has extolled Zionism as the kind of tribalism that can be a model for Euro-Americans.
Figures like Kushner, Mnuchin and Cohn, as well as Bannon apologists such as Alan Dershowitz and Shmuley Boteach, represent a bizarre reversal of the traditional court Jew, the shtadlan. In the countries of pre-Enlightenment Europe or the Islamic empire, where Jews had few rights and little power, the court Jew played a vital role, advocating with the crown for fellow Jews who could not. Purim is this narrative raised to the level of theology.
In the Trump administration, to the contrary, court Jews provide the fig leaf for the emotions of mass hatred and white restoration that energized his campaign. To appoint several Jews to leading roles in the U.S. Treasury Department and a presidential economic council, as Trump has done, can be interpreted not as proof of his tolerance but confirmation of anti-Semitism.
Jews are so good making money, we need a couple of our own – that’s the subtext. Trump is only a loftier version of the crook who privately hates Jews but, upon being arrested, hurries up to get “a Jew lawyer” because everybody knows they’re so smart and devious.
It took 50-plus years for Crackpot Alley to get back on the political roadmap. Erasing it just might take longer. And Jews, who will be part of the road kill, will also bear part of the blame.
Samuel G. Freedman is a frequent contributor to Haaretz. He is the author of eight books, including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.” Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman