Donald Trump opened his first presidential address to Congress by saying “Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
Several hours earlier, Trump reportedly told several state attorneys general that these anti-Semitic attacks may be “false flags” – plants to discredit him and his supporters. At least in some cases, the president suggested, the reported threats are not genuine but “the reverse,” done by his political opponents “to make people – or to make others – look bad.”
The prominent placement of the first message has caused some anti-Semitism watchdogs – desperate for even a hint of normalcy from a president increasingly enthralled to the far-right fringe – to ignore or underplay the second. They should not allow themselves to be bought so cheaply.
Trump’s argument is incredibly dangerous; it evokes perhaps the nastiest strain of anti-Semitism extant in global politics today – and one that is increasingly penetrating the mainstream conservative movement.
Jews are well-used to the suggestion that we are the secret hand responsible for social tragedies or public calamities. The 9/11 attacks, Charlie Hebdo, Sandy Hook, ISIS, even the Holocaust – anti-Semites routinely contend that these horrors either were invented outright by the Jews or (if they concede they did happen) occurred at the behest of the Jews in order to garner undeserved sympathy or smear political adversaries. It represents the apex of anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongering – if Jews are behind everything else, who’s to say they aren’t also behind their own purported “victimization”?
It used to be that, in America at least, such views were relegated to the extreme fringe. But they’ve seen a sudden and unnerving resurgence across a variety of mainstream conservative platforms. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – at one point Trump’s reported frontrunner for ambassador to Israel – publicly accused, with zero evidence, Jewish students of faking anti-Semitic vandalism near Northwestern University in order to discredit Trump. Trump confidant Anthony Scaramucci warned the media not to discount the possibility that JCC attacks were a coordinated Democratic Party campaign. And as for Trump himself, this wasn’t his first time down the rabbit hole either: Two weeks ago he publicly asserted, with respect to anti-Semitic vandalism, that “[s]ome of it written by our opponents. You do know that. Do you understand that? You don’t think anybody would do a thing like that. Some of the signs you’ll see are not put up by the people that love or like Donald Trump, they’re put up by the other side, and you think it’s like playing it straight?”
These comments are by all rights terrifying – they are no different in kind than talk of the Holocaust as a Zionist conspiracy or 9/11 as a Mossad covert op. So why haven’t they elicited more concern?
One reason is that, for all the talk of Jewish hypersensitivity to anti-Semitism, we as a community still have a poorly thought out understanding of what is encompassed by the term. Right-wing groups are easily placated by rote assertions of being "pro-Israel," as if that provides a get-out-of-anti-Semitism-free card (why should befriending Bibi Netanyahu cause one to have any greater regard for overwhelmingly liberal Jews in America?). Others point to the mere existence of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump as proof that Trump could not be anti-Semitic (that Trump has a Jewish daughter no more makes anti-Semitism impossible than his having a wife makes misogyny impossible). Still others dramatically restrict the range of evidence which is deemed relevant to Trump’s alleged anti-Semitism, allowing that Trump may be poorly handling this or that situation while standing aghast that anyone dare call his negligence “anti-Semitism.”
The assumption seems to be that unless Trump is anti-Semitic in every case – an actual reincarnation of Hitler or Himmler – he can’t be anti-Semitic in any case. This is a silly fallacy. The fact of the matter is that anti-Semitism rarely comes unadorned as the pure, open, unvarnished, abject hatred of each and every Jew in any and all contexts. It always has its caveats, its “good Jews” – whether they be the anti-Zionists willing to denounce Israel, the Zionists willing to leave “our” country and move to Israel, the Orthodox who don’t threaten good conservative social values or the Reform who embody secular enlightenment ones.
Anti-Semitism is not primarily about malign hearts or exclusive friend groups – it’s a set of conditions that impede the full and equal participation of Jews in political and social circles. When Donald suggests that when Jews cry “anti-Semitism” it’s really a plot to discredit him and his, it doesn’t matter what his motives are – the effect is to render Jews a little more suspicious, a little more alien, a little less trustworthy, and a little less worthy of our solidarity and support. And in this way, the most ancient and dangerous anti-Semitic canards are slowly but surely resurrected in the American psyche.
Donald Trump may not mean for any of this to happen. But he doesn’t care enough to knock it off. He prefers the rabble roused, even if it’s through wink-wink anti-Semitic campaign ads. He prefers to promote his favored media sycophants, even if that means elevating prominent anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers. He prefers to deflect responsibility for tackling rising hate and prejudice, even if that entails discrediting Jewish testimony and indicating to his supporters that we’re in on yet another shadowy, anti-American plot.
These things have consequences for Jews – consequences that can turn violent with terrifying rapidity. A friend of the Jews cares about those consequences. Answer for yourself whether Donald Trump is such a friend.
David Schraub is a Lecturer in Law and Senior Research Fellow at the California Constitution Center, University of California-Berkeley Law School. He blogs regularly at The Debate Link. Follow him on Twitter: @schraubd
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