In the aftermath of a long presidential campaign that was largely devoid of Jewish issues, they have become inescapable since Nov. 8. The election of Donald Trump has opened a fault line within the American Jewish community — not the predictable chasm between the Jews of J-Street and AIPAC, but rather between the bulk of American Jews committed to a secure Israel abroad with progressive policies at home and their conservative co-religionists.
American Jews in their majority have formed the backbone of traditional Jewish support for Israel from its foundation, and they consistently vote Democratic. They are alert to the dangers of anti-Semitism in its various manifestations, whether in the globalized rhetoric of Palestinian irredentism, the nostrums of the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions movement or the garden variety of domestic origin. It is a byword of American Jews that any recrudescence of anti-Semitism on these shores must be squelched before it gains traction.
How then, does a candidate who has played coy with conduits for the Klan, the alt-right, and assorted racialists and anti-Semites get a pass from conservative Jewish voters who would claim to be on the front lines of defending Jewish interests and punishing anyone who threatened them or associated with those who do?
I believe they are convinced that the only anti-Semitism worth taking seriously is the existential threat to Israel. Therefore, they are reluctant to acknowledge an anti-Jewish animus with deep roots in the US, which puts them in the awkward position of having to downgrade charges of homegrown Jew-baiting that is as American as apple pie. Such denial takes many forms, the most common being that the alt-right is nothing more than a tiny band of trolls whose posts have been blown out of all proportion to their numbers. The problem is that their poison spreads to a growing vortex of myriad viewers. Breitbart News and its ilk have provided these digital racists a national forum, faux legitimacy and a base to expand their odious views. And their chief enabler is now the President-elect’s senior counselor. In effect, it has given a new lease on life to anti-Semitism in the U.S. which has a long history etched into the collective memory of American Jews. To dismiss it as some kind of secondhand prejudice is to misunderstand, and disregard, their very legitimate fears of its resurgence.
Anti-Semitism emerged full-blown in the U.S. in response to the great wave of Jewish immigration from Russia between 1880 and 1914. The reaction was racial quotas imposed to prevent further immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe after 1924, a barrier that would later prove a death sentence for thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis. Anti-Semitism was rife in America during the years from 1938 to the end of World War II. Polls taken in 1940 and 1941 found that up to 20 percent of Americans considered Jews “a menace to America.” This anti-Semitic hostility focused on stifling all Jewish immigration on the grounds that Jews were taking American jobs.
Henry Ford’s widely circulated Dearborn Independent published “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the Radio Priest Father Coughlin had a listening audience of millions, the German-American Bund flourished, the anti-Semitic Silver Shirts were stocked with old-line Protestants and the Jew-baiting Christian Front was known as the Catholic Klan. Anti-Semitism hardly let up after the war when the remnants of genocide were limited to a trickle in the early postwar years. It wasn’t until well after the war that the fever broke.
One of the misconceptions about anti-Semitism in the U.S. is that it began sometime in the 70’s and was a product of the Left. In fact it went back for almost 100 years and was owned by the Right. It was an anti-Semitism directed not at Israel but at Jews on native ground. However the virus evolved in America, to make distinctions about the relative menace of its various strains, privileging one at the expense of another, is a futile exercise. All must be equally excoriated. Hiding behind the fig leaf of Israel does not exonerate those who voted for Trump from taking responsibility for his authoritarian tendencies or the company his keepers keep. Among Jews, the identity politics in the recent election came on the Right. And it may have caused lasting harm to the community. Those Jews who voted against Trump did so in the honorable tradition of American liberalism, which, when push came to shove, provided the impetus that fostered Jewish prosperity and security in the U.S. It is why Jews, in their great numbers, still vote Democratic – 71 percent supported Hillary Clinton. It is why they oppose Donald Trump and his rightish dystopia. And it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Jack Schwartz is a former book editor of Newsday.