How are American Jews responding to Donald Trump's campaign dog-whistling to his nakedly racist and anti-Semitic supporters? Largely Democrats, most embrace progressive values and have already rejected him out of hand. But the interesting reactions aren’t coming out of the Jewish left, they’re coming out of the Jewish right. And their divided response to Trump offers an important lesson to Jews in America about fighting anti-Semitism.
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As with the rest of the GOP, Republican Jews are not united against Trump. Much of the Republican Jewish “intelligentsia” — Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens and Yuval Levin, for example — adamantly oppose Trump.
But more hardline Jewish Republicans, like Pam Geller, David Horowitz, and most prominently, Sheldon Adelson (who has reportedly pledged upwards of $100 million to support Trump) have lined up behind him. The Republican Jewish Coalition (which is primarily backed by Adelson) issued a fairly evasive statement congratulating Trump on becoming the Republican nominee.
These differing opinions were guaranteed to lead to infighting, and sure enough, writing in Breitbart, David Horowitz sent a shot across the bows. It did not disappoint. In a piece titled “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew,” Horowitz accused Kristol — who is leading the campaign to push a third-party conservative candidate to challenge Trump — of betraying Jewish values. His argument boiled down this: Only the Republican party is good for the Jews, and a third party candidate will make a Republican candidate less likely, so opposing Trump is the same as betraying American Jewry.
Horowitz’s piece was roundly condemned by the many of the same Republican Jews who oppose Trump. The most instructive and troubling of these responses came from another far-right pundit: Ben Shapiro, the former Editor-at-large at Breitbart.
Shapiro had been something of a protégé of Horowitz. For a while, he ran the right-wing site TruthRevolt, which is a project of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Shapiro, a self-identified Orthodox Jew, has never been a Trump fan, and in his takedown of Horowitz’s piece he called it “garbage.” He argues that Horowitz — as a secular Jew — has abandoned Jewish teachings and so is not “in a position of strength” to call anyone a “renegade Jew.” Shapiro didn’t think Horowitz was being anti-Semitic. Rather, he argued that Horowitz’s Jewish practice precluded him from accurately speaking in terms of “Jewish interests.”
Since then, Shapiro has come under vicious attack from the pro-Trump right, and has himself been the target of virulent and disgusting anti-Semitism. It has been so bad that Shapiro wrote another piece grappling with the anti-Semitism emanating from the right — his political home. Shapiro previously believed anti-Semitism in the U.S. was "almost entirely a product of the political left", but since the pro-Trump attacks on him including greeting "the birth of my second child by calling for me, my wife, and two children to be thrown into a gas chamber" he recognizes that, "There is a significant core of Trump support that not only traffics in anti-Semitism but celebrates it — and god-worships Trump as the leader of an anti-Jewish movement."
So how is it that the leading lights of the Jewish right are actually having a fierce debate over whether it is in the interests of American Jews to support a campaign that peddles in anti-Semitism? Shapiro himself might actually have the answer.
There is a trend on the Jewish right, especially the far-right, to cast ideological opponents as “Jew-haters” or “anti-Semites.” Softer critics merely charge them with being “anti-Israel.” Ben Shapiro has repeatedly referred to the “Jew-hating Obama Administration” in his articles about U.S. foreign policy. He starred in a video about “why Jews vote leftist,” in which he argued that American Jews who “back leftism are betraying Torah Judaism.” In many ways, these arguments are similar to Horowitz’s — Judaism means x, and you’re doing y, so if you don’t do x you are betraying Judaism.
The problem is that, Shapiro, and much of the Jewish far-right, habitually conflate criticism of Israel, abandonment of “traditional values” and diplomacy-driven foreign policy (not least on Iran) with “Jew-hatred.” In this worldview, where people stand on a host of issues (Israel in particular), is largely a function of the degree of their anti-Semitism.
It’s clear how these habits of thinking lead to wrong-headed assessments of shared interests. The habit of some on the right to make constant, unfounded allusions to “Jew-hatred” has produced a group of people who think criticizing settlements is anti-Semitic but who ignore their candidate’s indifference to white nationalists. These pro-Trump Republican Jews who equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism have now found themselves in bed with real anti-Semites. And as the Trump fiasco demonstrates, that makes presenting a unified front against anti-Semitism — and the broader racism in the Trump campaign — far harder.
To be clear, these writers and activists are outside of the mainstream of even politically conservative Jewry. But they have enormous reach. Breitbart is the highest ranked “mainstream” right-wing publication on Alexa. In 2012, Adelson was the single largest political donor. And while the more centrist Republican #NeverTrumpers might not call Obama a “Jew-hater,” they are no strangers to loose accusations of anti-Semitism. Moreover, if they have an issue with how Adelson and Horowitz operate, I haven’t seen any pushback.
The current spat over Trump — with some Republican Jews recognizing his anti-Semitism, and others supporting his campaign in the name of Judaism, is a predictable consequence of constantly charging your enemies with anti-Semitism. This group of people have so denigrated the political discourse in their circles that they've been left floundering in the face of a genuinely anti-Semitic movement in the United States.
That scares me.
The vocal Jewish left and center will oppose Trump for all kinds of reasons. But the Jewish right is far more divided. After years of equating ideological disagreement with animus towards Israel and the Jews that is almost inevitable. Constant charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism have so cheapened the terms that Jewish pro-Trumpers cannot see it staring them in the face.
I hope there’s no “next time” American Jews have to wrestle with this quandary. But if there is — and for the rest of this election cycle — we should stop throwing around charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism so blithely. Doing so has left the Jewish right divided to the forces driving Trump’s campaign. With all that’s at stake this November, that’s not something we can afford.
Benjy Cannon is the Mikva Fellow at J Street and a former president of J Street U. He holds a BA in Government, Politics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter: @benjycannon.