The media has documented at length how Donald Trump’s rhetoric has carved out a space within public discourse for the propagation of what had ceased to be acceptable speech in a mature liberal democracy, including misogyny, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and incitement to violence. Indeed, on the eve of the election, Trump ventured into the repugnant waters of global conspiracies, accusing Hillary Clinton of meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.” Such language echoes the anti-Semitic tropes of nineteenth and twentieth-century Europe, which abetted the rise of fascism, the reversal of Jewish emancipation, and, ultimately, the Holocaust. Such language is also an effective device for Trump to “signal” to his unabashedly anti-Semitic followers among the Alt-Right that explicit Jew-baiting will be tolerated under his new regime.
If American right-wing anti-Semitism is a cultural code where the word, “Jew” can be omitted and the category of Jew is nebulous, and where “international banker” by definition means Jew, then it follows that left-wing anti-Semitism is equally, if not more, pernicious. Zionism is no less a cultural code for the Jew than international banking, and anti-Zionist rhetoric is far more pervasive and threatening today than anti-banking rhetoric. To my knowledge, there has not been a single face-to-face confrontation between an anti-Semitic Trump supporter and a Jew, whereas face-to-face confrontations between anti-Zionists and Jews on university campuses have been increasing at an alarming rate.
Carefully coded anti-Semitic discourse is not only respectable and normative among the left, but it has also become more insidious in recent years, particularly among distinguished academics, such as Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. Although Khalidi is an outstanding historian and his scholarship on Palestinian national identity is essential reading for anyone studying Mandate-era Palestine and Israel, he is active in the boycott-Israel movement, and makes no secret of his contempt for Zionism and his rejection of Israel’s legitimacy. In a radio interview last week, he lashed out at Zionists who have allied themselves with Trump, using language that should make any professional historian cringe.
Khalidi stated that “these people infest the Trump transition team, these people are going to infest our government as of January 20. And they are hand in glove with a similar group of people in the Israeli government and Israeli political life who think that whatever they think can be imposed on reality.” This is hardly the first time that Khalidi has alluded to an Israel lobby manipulating the American government (and public) in the interest of the Jewish state. But he crossed into the realm of racially toxic discourse when he deployed the word “infest” in conjunction with Zionism.
The “infestation” of politically nefarious Jews was a hallmark of Nazi anti-Semitism, and one need only watch Fritz Hippler’s 1940 film, “The Eternal Jew” (Der Ewige Jude) to see an example of Nazi propaganda likening the global infestation of Jews to rats. The infestation of Zionists is a cultural code for dirty Jew.
As a professor of history, Khalidi’s use of the term “infestation” is inexcusable, all the more so since he occupies a chair named in honor of Edward Said, who spent his career documenting and deconstructing the racially charged discourse used by the West to justify its colonial practices in the Middle East. Much as we condemn those who refer to Mexican-American immigrants as “hoards” and “gangs” and those who refer to black people as “thugs,” Khalidi must be held accountable for his words. He is a venerated figure among Palestinian activists because he is considered a respectable and judicious scholar. Such rhetoric is another step toward the legitimization of coded anti-Semitism among the left, especially on college campuses.
As the era of Trump continues to unfold, we are learning to be vigilant against anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination emanating from the right. But this should not blind us to the coded anti-Semitism propagated by activists through the delegitimization of Israel. Against the backdrop of history, there is only one way to interpret a verbal assault against an “infestation” of Zionists.