Opinion

Did Eric Trump’s 'Shekels' Comment Betray the Trump Family’s anti-Semitism?

When Eric accused Bob Woodward of undermining the Trump administration for money, he used a term, 'shekels,' which isn't normative American slang. But it’s normative for alt-right websites. Is that proof of Jew-hatred in the first family?

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump with his sons Donald Trump Jr., left, and Eric Trump, right, at a caucus night rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. Feb. 23, 2016.
Bloomberg

Nobody was surprised when Eric Trump took a shot at Bob Woodward after the Washington Post legend’s behind-the-scenes expose of his father’s White House portrayed it as one on the verge of chaos. 

But when the younger Trump accused Woodward of undermining the administration for money, his choice of words provided more ammunition for those who believe the Trump father and sons have engaged in dog-whistling that is encouraging alt-right anti-Semites.

The offending phrase uttered in the Trump-friendly forum of the Fox News Network’s "Fox and Friends" morning talk show was, "It’ll mean you sell three extra books, you make three extra shekels." 

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To Israelis and those who know Israel well, the word shekel simply means money. Urban Dictionary also notes that the word is popular slang for cash in Ireland. But it’s also frequently referenced on alt-right websites, and is the sort of language that neo-Nazis use to refer to traditional anti-Semitic memes about Jews and money.

Most of those commenting noted that shekels isn’t normative American slang like "bucks" or "dough" or even a more antique word like "somolian." Since Eric Trump also probably doesn’t speak Hebrew, many jumped to the not entirely unreasonable conclusion that he got it from reading far right websites.

A parody posted by Donald Trump Jr. and including Pepe the Frog, a symbol adopted by white supremacists. Instagram, Sept. 11 2016
Instagram screenshot

The same charge has been lodged against his older brother Donald Jr. for tweeting an image of a frog meme beloved by anti-Semites.

As far as New York Times editor Jonathan Weisman and the author of a recent book on anti-Semitism was concerned, it was language straight out of "The Daily Stormer." Bill Kristol, a conservative pundit but also the leader of the Never Trump movement, simply asked on Twitter: "Is Eric too stupid to know he’s being anti-Semitic?"

While Eric Trump is, unlike his sister Ivanka and brother-in-law Jared Kushner, not part of the administration, this incident is being connected to comments by his father dating back to the beginning of his presidential campaign that are viewed as racist. 

In particular, Trump’s reaction to last year’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville Virginia, in which he conflated anyone who opposed the removal of Confederate statues with the murderous racists who marched there, by saying there "very fine people" on both sides, encapsulated what seems like either a deliberate appeal to hate or a puzzling indifference to the obvious implications of such words.

But like the kerfuffle over the frog image, Eric Trump’s shekel moment is not exactly an open and shut case proving anti-Semitism

Before and after: Screen grab of Donald Trump's tweets of an image of Hillary Clinton with the words "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever," first (R) on a Star of David-like form, then (L) on a circle. July 2, 2016.
Twitter

Even if one were to assume the worst, it presents an equally confounding instance of cognitive dissonance involving both the Trumps and their critics.

This administration’s record on combating anti-Semitism is good, and the willingness of many of those who jumped on the "shekels" remark to ignore other far more important instances, in which anti-Semitism was legitimized, undermines their standing to attack the Trumps.

While by no means common, "shekels" is, like a great many other Hebrew and Yiddish words, working its way into American lexicon. As JTA noted, mystery author Mickey Spillane used it in at least one of his potboiler novels. Moreover, in the New York real estate world the Trumps inhabit, it’s not a stretch to think that he might have heard it in conversation at some point in a way that had nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

Assuming that this is solid proof of anti-Semitism is more a function of the general antipathy for the Trumps than anything else. Keep in mind that those - like the Anti-Defamation League - who claimed Trump was effectively encouraging a spate of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers last year by what were assumed to be alt right extremists that turned out to be the work of a disturbed Israeli teenager, eventually had to eat their words. 

It’s also true that the fixation on the Trumps has caused some otherwise reputable sources to ignore evidence of anti-Semitism that can’t be connected to the president. 

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Two weeks ago, one of the country’s leading anti-Semites and hatemongers, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, was given a place of honor at the nationally televised funeral/tribute concert for the singer Aretha Franklin. 

Few if any in the mainstream media commented on his presence on stage or that former President Bill Clinton sat with him and shook his hand, a shocking instance of normalizing anti-Semitism.

Had the KKK’s David Duke been given a similar honor and been embraced by a former Republican president you can bet that it would have been front-page news the next day. Weisman of the Times, whose book shockingly ignores Farrakhan’s mass following and the growing constituency for Jew hatred on the far left, had nothing to say about that - and neither did his newspaper.

Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr attend an opening ceremony at Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, Bronx, New York, U.S., June 11, 2018.
\ BRENDAN MCDERMID/ REUTERS

It’s also fair to point out that the same day the shekels controversy broke, Trump’s Department of Education announced a reversal of an administration refusal to investigate a glaring case of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University.

When coupled with his clear tilt toward Israel, and embrace of Jewish family members like the Kushners, the case for Trump’s anti-Semitism - as opposed to the other legitimate criticisms that can be made against him and his administration - breaks down.

It may be that the tiny band of neo-Nazi anti-Semites are somehow encouraged by mentions of shekels or re-tweeted images of frogs. But it’s just as obvious that anti-Semites have no influence over Trump’s policies.

The attempt to connect the dots between these incidents in order to prove that the Trumps are anti-Semites, rather than merely figures who are deplored for a host of other reasons, may make sense to their opponents - but it is far from conclusive.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin