In May 1990, France was horrified by the desecration of a Jewish cemetery. The destruction of 34 graves as well as the ghoulish disinterment of a recently buried corpse in Carpentras near Avignon was described as the worst anti-Semitic incident since the Holocaust. The collective revulsion brought out 200,000 protestors to the streets of Paris, led by then President Francois Mitterrand. It was an impressive show of solidarity, but the incident, in hindsight, was a harbinger of things to come.
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The desecrations came against a backdrop of a fierce national debate over race and immigration and in the wake of a wave of anti-Muslim violence and killings. Racism of any kind, most French commentators said, inevitably breeds anti-Semitism. Jean Marie Le Pen, unabashed anti-Semite and father of current French presidential contender Marine Le Pen, was accused of fomenting hatred and violence. His National Front movement dipped in the polls, from 18 percent to 11 percent, but slowly recovered. The desecration, it later emerged, was carried out by neo-Nazi skinheads.
The Carpentras incident was a watershed in the history of French Jewry just as the current wave of cemetery desecrations in Philadelphia and St. Louis as well as the bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers all across America could mark a turning point in the annals of American Jewry. There are stark differences of course, first and foremost because in France, as in all of Europe, the Holocaust always looms large. In France, traditional anti-Semitism from the far right was soon supplemented by tensions with the growing Muslim community, while in America, so far at least, the attacks on Jews as well as the hostility shown by the Trump administration towards Muslims have brought the two communities closer together. On the other hand, in France the entire political leadership stood as one against the anti-Semites whereas in U.S. President Donald Trump has turned a blind eye, at best, or actually aided and abetted their emergence, at worst.
What’s even more dismaying is the fact that Trump is being buoyed by a cadre of enablers and apologists, many of them Jews, who are doing their best to make light of the attacks, to ridicule the growing Jewish apprehension and to absolve Trump of any complicity in the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment. The arguments of these Trump apologists are multilayered: A. Anti-Semitism isn’t growing; B. If it is, it has nothing to do with Donald Trump; and C. Where were you when Obama was president and anti-Semitism was almost official state policy?
All three claims are pathetically nonsensical. If anyone can come up with a precedent in the past few decades for over 50 JCCs being evacuated over the course of a few weeks because of repeated bomb threats, two large scale desecrations of Jewish cemeteries and a flood of anecdotal evidence of widespread harassment of Jews in public schools, please do. Definitive statistics are unavailable, awaiting an official determination by the police and FBI about the exact nature of each and every incident, but one would think that warnings by Jewish leaders all across the country, including unaffiliated federation leaders, would at least give Trump’s defenders pause. Do they believe that everyone is in on some left-wing conspiracy to inflate anti-Semitism? Have Jews been consumed by mass hysteria?
As for Trump’s culpability, well, give me a break. Of course it’s hard to pinpoint any direct link between the president and the outburst of animosity towards Jews and no one is claiming that he has any interest whatsoever in seeing anti-Semitism rise. But there is abundant evidence to suggest that the president has been playing with anti-Semitic fire ever since his presidential campaign started in mid-2015. He has been sending subliminal signals to those who would do Jews harm, using well-worn dog whistles even if he doesn’t intend to, and stubbornly refusing to forthrightly project his abhorrence of anti-Semitic incidents.
The list of such messages and gestures is long and well known by now, including Trump’s own stereotypical depiction of Jews in his appearance last year before the Republican Jewish Coalition, his use of the phrase America First, his refusal to disavow the blatantly anti-Semitic imagery of Hillary Clinton with dollars and a six pointed star behind her, and that’s before we even mention his continuing flirtation with white nationalism and supremacism. And despite all the explanations and justifications, the White House omission of Jews from its Holocaust Day announcement and its steadfast refusal to back down, even when apprised of the anguish they caused Jews and the jubilation they sparked among anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, remains inexplicable and inexcusable.
But when Trump’s advocates realize that they’ve got a weak case on the first two counts, they go for the ultimate “where were you when” gambit. Where were you, they’ll ask, when anti-Semitism ran wild on college campuses or when Obama carried out anti-Semitic policies such as the nuclear deal with Iran or the Security Council resolution that condemned settlements. Where were you, they’ll shout, when Obama was fraternizing with anti-Semitic pastor Jeremiah Wright, who supported Louis Farrakhan?
None of these arguments actually hold water. Whatever you think of Obama’s past associations with Wright or others, you will be hard pressed to find any anti-Semitic statement made by him or any refusal to speak out for American Jews, from the day he began to run for president in 2007 until January 20th of this year, when he left the White House after his second term. On the contrary, Obama went out of his way to signal his appreciation for Jews and Judaism, in Hanukkah lighting ceremonies, Passover Seders, Jewish Heritage Month and several landmark speeches.
Moreover, in accusing Trump critics of applying double standards when it comes to Obama, the new president’s defenders are surreptitiously slipping in their equation of opposition to Israeli positions and policies with some form of anti-Semitism. For the most part, that’s a preposterous proposition. The Iran nuclear deal was a strategic decision made by a superpower which may or may not have served Israel’s best interests but was in no way motivated by animosity towards Jews. Opposition to settlements or support for a two-state solution or even support for Jerusalem as a shared capital is certainly not anti-Semitic; among other reasons, it is the position held by a large number of Israelis and American Jews. And even the eruption of battles for and against BDS on campuses is a mixed bag: Some supporters of BDS are certainly anti-Semitic and some of their attacks on Israel supporters are certainly colored by racist and ethnic slurs. But the characterization of the entire movement as inherently anti-Semitic or that every clash on campus is motivated by hatred of Jews is a gross generalization, which, in any case, has very little to do with Obama or his actions.
The use of the anti-Semitism card to deflect criticism of Israeli policies, harsh as it may be, is actually anti-Zionist by nature. It equates Israel with defenseless Diaspora Jews and it absolves Israel of any responsibility for its actions: if opposition to settlements is anti-Semitic, then it’s almost a mitzvah to settle as much as possible. If opposition to Israeli policies is anti-Semitic than Israel is absolved of the need to justify its actions both to itself and to the world at large.
American Jews, like European Jews before them, aren’t being attacked because they support Israel; in fact, in many cases they are assaulted for representing the complete opposite. They are cosmopolitan, universalist, pro-immigration and overwhelmingly liberal, traits that are antithetical to contemporary Israel and that the hard right, in American and Europe, has always found abhorrent. By the same token, support for Israel, if this is indeed the policy that will emerge from the Trump White House, does not include an automatic exemption from old-fashioned anti-Semitism.
The conscious effort to blur the distinctions between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, whether done deliberately or simply as a result of muddled minds is inappropriate and misleading. It becomes downright malevolent when used as an excuse by Jewish supporters of Trump to excuse his behavior and to refuse to stand in solidarity with their fellow Jews.
It’s possible, of course, that the current wave of anti-Semitism will die down by itself. Trump defenders will then claim victory, saying that the outcry was exaggerated and much ado about nothing. That will be a small price to pay for a return to normalcy. But the wave may not die down. The anti-Semites and Jew-haters may grow emboldened, especially if they continue to perceive, rightly or not, that there is tolerance at the top. In that case, the situation of American Jews will grow more precarious and the people who preferred to turn their backs on the community and to support a president that should not have been defended will have to answer to their conscience and history. By then, of course, it will be too late. With all their differences, St. Louis and Philadelphia could very well be remembered as the American Carpentras.