Analysis

Anti-Semitism as Political Football: A Dangerous New Trump-era Game

The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism has led U.S. Jews on both the left and right to point fingers at each other. Experts warn that this partisanship could inadvertently allow the attacks to continue.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addressing the crowd at the vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, February 22, 2017.
J.B. Forbes/AP

It may have been inevitable given the current polarized atmosphere, but battling anti-Semitism – an issue that should unite Jews – has instead become a powerful weapon in partisan politics.

The trend isn’t completely new, of course. Left-wing and right-wing Jews have long pointed fingers at each other, criticizing those in the opposite camp for their association with and support for political allies whom they brand as anti-Semites.

Even so, the battle of “your anti-Semites are far worse than our anti-Semites” has recently reached a new level of intensity.

“We are living in a moment where it is being instrumentalized in a heightened way,” said Prof. Lila Corwin Berman, an American-Jewish history scholar at Temple University, Philadelphia.  

For leftist Jewish opponents of U.S. President Donald Trump, the presence of senior adviser Steve Bannon with his ties to the "alt-right" white nationalist movement – coupled with the support and enthusiasm for Trump by white nationalists like Richard Spencer and David Duke – has become a powerful talking point.

Criticism mounted after the new administration avoided uttering the words “anti-Semitism” and “Jews” in its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement in January, and Trump's belated denunciation of a spate of anti-Semitic attacks.

The outrage has become an integral part of the larger backlash against Trump’s perceived racism and xenophobia, as shown by his thwarted travel ban against citizens of seven predominantly Muslim states and his hard position on immigration.

The pro-Trump right argues that the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents predates Trump’s election, and has chided the left for singling the president out as the cause.

U.S. President Donald Trump calling anti-Semitism "horrible" and "painful," at the Smithsonian Museum, February 21, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

On Tuesday, Trump finally explicitly denounced anti-Semitism, which was followed a day later by the powerful image of Vice President Mike Pence helping to repair toppled headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, holding a rake in his gloved hand and declaring, “There is no place in America for hatred, prejudice or acts of violence or anti-Semitism.”

While the symbolism of Pence’s gesture was welcome, it was also advantageously timed: Pence was about to wing his way to Las Vegas, where he will address the Republican Jewish Coalition at the hotel of GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson on Friday night. This will be after a powwow with Adelson himself, according to a CNN report that described the one-on-one meeting as an event that “cements the Republican billionaire’s place as a key adviser to the new administration.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has clearly demonstrated whose side he is on in the dispute. Even before Trump issued his long-awaited denunciation, Netanyahu declared in their joint press conference on February 15: “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump.” The Israeli leader also stayed noticeably silent when even right-wing American Jews pressed Trump to speak out more clearly.

“Those on the left are saying in disbelief, ‘You people on the right have been yelling at the left for years for being blind to anti-Semitism in your midst. You dug under every corner in university classrooms and called it out. And now that it’s happening, you decide to look the other way?” observed Corwin Berman.

Daniel Shek, a former Israeli consul general in San Francisco, criticized Netanyahu in an NPR interview for what he saw as politically motivated silence on anti-Semitism under Trump. “For much less than what has been reported is happening in the U.S., there would have been an uproar [in Israel], and rightly so,” he said.

"There is so much enthusiasm in the current Israeli government about the election of Donald Trump," Shek added, "and they don't want to ruffle his feathers in any way – even at the cost of not speaking up against anti-Semitism, which I think is totally unacceptable."

Since Trump's statement on Tuesday – when he called the anti-Semitic threats targeting the U.S. Jewish community "horrible" and "painful" – emboldened Republican supporters of Trump have been pushing back.

They have aimed their wrath at those on the progressive left who have joined with minority advocates and pro-Palestinian, pro-BDS groups – who, they contend, ally with terrorist sympathizers and cross the line into anti-Semitism. The primary targets are both American Muslims: Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who is battling to win the position of Democratic National Committee chair; and Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who was one of the organizers of the massive Women’s March in Washington the day after Trump's inauguration.

Fox News anchor and Trump cheerleader Sean Hannity led the Republican charge in a segment on his show Wednesday titled “Keith Ellison Outrage.” Democratic commentator Doug Schoen declared on the show that “as a Democrat and a Jew,” he would be “startled and ashamed of my party” if Ellison was elected to lead the DNC.

Deal with the problem

Appearing both on NPR and Fox News, Dr. Dore Gold – until recently the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry – made a similar case to both the left and the right. He argued that using anti-Semitism for partisan, political goals was destructive, on either side.

Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told Haaretz that U.S. Jews and Israelis should both resist the urge to use anti-Semitism to score political points, because it takes the focus off of what is truly important: uncovering the root cause of this new wave of anti-Semitism.

Israelis in particular, he said, “should be very careful before they join a choir on either side.”

All Jews should focus on encouraging U.S. law enforcement agencies to apprehend those responsible for the threats and vandalism, rather than expend energy on political sniping, he added. “Anti-Semitism has to be dealt with on an urgent basis," said Gold. "The U.S. government has to employ all of its intelligence assets domestically to find out who is behind this. That’s what’s critical; not the political back and forth we are seeing. If we fall victim the politicization of what is going on, the problem itself won’t be dealt with. It will just be another political talking point,” he added.

Corwin Berman, meanwhile, believes that a redefinition of anti-Semitism is in the air. “We really aren’t sure what anti-Semitism is or looks like in this world today," she said. "It’s uneven and complicated terrain."

Charges of anti-Semitism in movements like Black Lives Matter or Palestinian rights organizations “were aimed at disempowering groups,” she argued. “Now there are these big questions that anti-Semitism is being used and mobilized as an empowered strategy: What does it mean that Stephen Bannon is in the White House, and it seems he is using that power to ends like the universalization of the Holocaust? Is it possible there’s a new kind of anti-Semitism that is pushing forward a form of white supremacy that can embrace some Jews and call itself pro-Zionist and pro-Israel?”

She sees an opportunity to transcend politics, just as Jews and non-Jews from across the political spectrum have rallied together to help repair the desecrated cemetery in St. Louis. “People on the left who are appalled and upset can talk to people on the right who are also upset," said Corwin Berman. "There is common ground to respond to this. There is a possibility that people can have some conversations across political divisions."

At the same time, she cautioned, it must not be forgotten that people are really in danger. “There are actual bomb threats against JCCs – this is a real threat of violence against actual Jewish bodies. This isn’t just a political argument,” she said.