It’s becoming almost a daily occurrence: President Donald Trump denouncing anti-Semitism and expressing solidarity with the state of Israel.
Gone are the days when Trump tweeted out a Star of David atop stacks of money. The Trump White House has purged itself of oddballs with troubling backgrounds and even more troubling friends.
The larger MAGA universe may still pulse with anti-Semitic animus. Pro-Trump trolls may traffic in grotesque online slurs and threats. Hate crimes against Jews seem on the rise. A deadly anti-Jewish mass killing occurred on Trump’s watch. Although the Pittsburgh killer is often described as despising Trump, that’s not quite accurate. It would be more correct to describe the Pittsburgh killer as disappointed in Trump, whom he viewed as a promising racist naively duped by Jews. In one of his postings, a word bubble is drawn over a photograph of Trump receiving a visitor dressed in Orthodox garb. “Your character will appear to the public as a white racist,” the visitor seems to say to Trump. “It’s how we control Whites.”
But the part of the Trump world that draws a government paycheck has settled into something like normal in its condemnation of anti-Jewish bigotry. In the very same week that Trump urged his nonwhite congressional critics to go back to where they came from, the Department of Justice convened a conference on combatting anti-Semitism, featuring addresses from Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. On July 22, the White House account tweeted:
Anti-Semitism has no place in our country or anywhere in our world.
The Trump Administration is working every day to oppose and eradicate anti-Semitic hate crimes and ideology.
The Trump presidency seethes with hostility toward many different minority and subordinated groups. But Jews have been elevated to a special protected category, exempt from the lines of attack deployed against Muslims, non-Norwegian immigrants, women Trump deems unattractive, and so on and on.
This special exemption poses a moral quandary for communally concerned Jews quite unlike anything in our collective experience.
Jewish collective life in America has been built on the assumption that people who espouse any form of bigotry—whether against African Americans, or gays, or the disabled—will, sooner or later (and probably sooner!), also turn upon Jews. The famous Martin Niemöller poem begins, “First, they came for the socialists”; only in the third line do they “come for the Jews.”
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But what if a new generation of bigotry arose, attended by a strong, take-it-to-the-bank guarantee: This time, they are not coming for the Jews—not sooner, not later. That ancient obsession is laughably out of date. Today we have other concerns. Here’s a photograph of me posing alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He likes George Soros even less than we do!
What if American Jews found themselves facing people who practiced a politics of incitement, but not against Jews—indeed, who found it more useful to cast themselves as allies of Jews?
Trump usually has, at most, a perfunctory word for mass shootings and hate crimes. But Trump traveled in person to pay respects to the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. Vice President Mike Pence had led the way, personally helping to restore a desecrated Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, early in 2017.
When Trump attacked Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, he specifically cited her record of tweets and statements about Jewish money supposedly swaying Congress in favor of Israel. Among other pieces of classic anti-Semitic language, Omar had said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Statements like that goaded President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to write here in The Atlantic: “No one is questioning the right of members of Congress and others to criticize Israeli policies. But Omar is crossing a line that should not be crossed in political discourse. Her remarks are not anti-Israel; they are anti-Semitic.” Her words set in motion a resolution in the House of Representatives to condemn anti-Semitic and other bigoted speech.
By contrast, the Trump administration has more than fulfilled the wishes of many American Jews on issues from moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem to condemning Palestinian incitement to countering the Iranian nuclear program. At the Department of Justice’s conference last week, Barr said:
Far too often, Jews and Jewish communities in America suffer outside the spotlight. New York City, this past year, has seen a sharp uptick in attacks on Orthodox Jews, particularly in the Crown Heights neighborhood. People are attacking Jews in the streets and vandalizing synagogues. In Massachusetts in March, vandals desecrated 59 gravestones in a Jewish cemetery, knocking over headstones and scrawling swastikas and hateful graffiti.
While the tragic attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway appropriately drew national attention, these attacks and others like them in communities across the country are, sadly, less well known outside the Jewish community. But they form the daily background of concerns about security and safety that many in the Jewish community feel.
As attorney general and a fellow citizen, I want to assure the Jewish community that the Department of Justice and the entire federal government stands with you and will not tolerate these attacks.
As measured by polls, the large majority of American Jews recoil from Trump and his administration. Yet if you spend time in the organized Jewish world, you have probably noticed an early but unmistakable warming to the president. The warming is most pronounced among the older, more communally committed, and more Israel-focused part of the Jewish world.
The teacher Hillel, active in the first century B.C., spoke a famous trio of questions. One was, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” But another asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” American Jews have historically laid heaviest emphasis on the first question. The Trump era highlights the second.
In western Europe, Jews have been pushed away from their historic home on the secular left toward new alliances on the nationalist right. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party has been stained by anti-Semitism—to a point where past leaders such as Gordon Brown have taken a public stand against Corbyn.
In the United States, mercifully, Omar remains a marginal figure within the Democratic Party. On July 23, all but 17 members of the House of Representatives voted to condemn Omar’s project of anti-Israel boycotts; the “squad” member Representative Ayanna Pressley voted with the House majority. But an important part of Trump’s plan for 2020 is elevating Omar’s profile, and prodding American Jews to compare him not with the actual Democratic nominee, but with the target he has singled out for attention.
It’s part stunt and scam, as James Kirchick recently argued. But it’s not all stunt and scam.
At a conference in Washington, D.C., last week, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri delivered a speech denouncing cosmopolitan elites. Some who listened to the speech thought they heard a slight against Jews. Yet the conference had been organized by an American-born Israeli, Yoram Hazony—and at every turn, the conference communicated Jewish inclusion in the new cross-border nationalist movement Hazony hopes to create. Hawley replied to his critics: “You’ll have to carry me out on a slab before I compromise my defense of the Jewish people, their greatness, their history, their safety, and the state of Israel.” That’s the language of committed friendship.
There is a message for American Jews in all this: These attacks on the other are not aimed at you. You can be part of us. We’d like you to be part of us. All you have to do is stop worrying about them. And after all, they don’t worry about you!
The comedian Chris Rock performed a classic comedy sketch about how bigotry always accelerates toward the Jews at the end. “That train,” he quipped, “is never late!” But what if that train is late? What if it’s been canceled altogether, at least insofar as it departs from Trump Station? What if the old community of interest between American Jews and other minorities is dissolving, leaving only the weaker tie of a community of values?
And not only American Jews! Many illiberal authoritarians around the world have tried to gain indulgence for other hatreds by friendship with Israel. Even the Viktor Orbán government in Hungary—which often theatrically glorifies violently anti-Semitic figures from the nation’s past—quietly assures that country’s still surviving Jewish community: None of this will translate into real-world actions against you. And indeed, thus far, that assurance has been honored.
Jews generally believe ourselves to be bound by an ethical code of tolerance and decency larger than our own parochial interests. Trump seems intent on putting that belief to the test. Will we meet it? Will we meet it as a united community? Or by tempting Jews with privileges denied to other, more marginal groups, will he split religious Jews from secular; more communally minded Jews from more universalist; more conservative from more liberal—embittering American Jews against one another, as he has sought more generally to embitter American against American?