Donald Trump’s campaign threatens the position of American Jews in U.S. politics and society. The Trump campaign explicitly targets the establishment that American Jews have successfully entered. Worse, Trump has repeated President Barack Obama’s tactic during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal of mobilizing anti-Semitism for political advantage.
The problem is not that Trump is antithetical to “Jewish values,” a vaguely-defined notion that American Jewish groups use to justify their latest cause. Nor is the problem that Trump is objectionable and has alienated most Jewish voters. No Republican candidate has won a majority of Jewish votes for over a century.
Nor will Trump’s misogyny and racism necessarily target Jews. There is no inevitable list of victims with Mexicans and Muslims first and Jews last. Jews have lived unmolested under some thuggish rulers even while other groups have suffered. The prejudices of Trump’s supporters could lead to violence. However, Americans have rarely attacked Jews, in contrast to the long record of persecution of African Americans and bloody riots against Catholics.
As for Trump’s own stereotypical view of Jews, it is neither a blessing nor a curse. Instead it is an indication of the shallowness of a man who claims that the Iran nuclear deal will destroy Israel (unless he is elected) and that “Iran is killing ISIS” (which he supports, although Iran is actually murdering Syrian civilians).
What matters about Trump is that he is the tribune of those who believe that America is a scam. For Trump and his supporters the system of laws and rules tend not to fairness but to deny them their due. Trump speaks of “big business, elite media and major donors,” “global financial powers,” and “special interests” that he claims “have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.” His surrogates have appropriated the extreme Left’s vocabulary of identity and grievance. They speak of a “ruling class,” a “Washington elite,” and accuse critics and the media of “condescending” to so-called “average Americans.”
This anti-establishment rhetoric is laughable. It resembles the “anti-elite” campaign run by elite politicians during the recent British referendum on EU membership. In the U.K., the products of the country’s most exclusive schools and best universities masqueraded as the spokesmen of a declining working class. Similarly, Donald Trump is able to raise millions of dollars in real estate finance and obtain tax breaks precisely because he is not an “average American.”
In many countries anti-establishment slogans are a cover for anti-Semitism or racism. In France, Dieudonné M’bala, a self-proclaimed comedian, opposes the “system,” which means mocking dead Jews. He has invented a Nazi-style salute, the “quenelle,” which his supporters have performed outside of the Toulouse school where the terrorist Mohammed Merah murdered four Jews. Dieudonné has also ridiculed Holocaust commemoration. Similarly, Dyad Abou Jahjah, a Belgian writer, has defended a drawing of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank as “satire.” Abou Jahjah was a guest at the House of Commons in 2009 of Jeremy Corbyn MP. Then a marginal, anti-establishment politician, Corbyn is today the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Trump’s “alt right” fans also excuse their racism and laughing at the Holocaust as satire and “just about having fun.” Only anti-Semites find the Holocaust amusing.
Although Trump’s “anti-establishment” politics are not overtly anti-Semitic, they undermine Jews’ acceptance into the American elite. The beauty of the system that Trump denounces is that is has allowed Jews to advance economically and socially. American Jews can now succeed or fail according to their own abilities. This is because there is no job closed to Jews, whether by law or social convention. Although the final restrictions on Jewish political participation were lifted at around the same time as many European states, Americans Jews have taken every job available bar the presidency.
Politically, American Jews broke into the establishment with the first Catholic president in 1961. As Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg wrote in The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter: “The Kennedy years were the moment when the East European Jews finally reached the top of the mountain and saw the promised land.” Most American Jews are the descendants of these East European Jews. Within two to three generations they were in the U.S. elite. By 2007 there were 46 Jewish members of Congress.
Jews have succeeded because the American “establishment” is not fixed. In the U.S. the “establishment” is now open to all and keeps changing. So although Protestants dominated the U.S. politically for most of its history, their position was never guaranteed. The British Protestants who founded the U.S. rejected the closed system of the U.K., which to this day has an official church with guaranteed representation in parliament.
Trump also menaces American Jews by his appeal to anti-Semites. James Kirchick has put it well: “While it’s certainly true that most of Trump’s supporters are neither racists nor anti-Semites, it appears to be the case that all of the racists and anti-Semites in this country (and many beyond) support Trump.” The conduct of Trump’s campaign confirms that rallying anti-Semites to your banner is a legitimate political tactic, a technique President Obama used to sell the Iran deal.
The prominence of anti-Semites among Trump’s supporters is an important change in U.S. politics. Seeking anti-Semitic support has not been a path to power in the U.S. and its use in politics is rare. Indeed, the slightest hint of anti-Semitism had led to an apology. In September 1991, President George H.W. Bush referred to “powerful political forces” opposing him on delaying loan guarantees for Israel. Speaking during a press conference, the president also said that “I heard today there was something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely little guy down here doing it.” The “lonely little guy” was Bush referring to himself, which drew laughter from the press corps. His comments drew congratulations from anti-Semites and protests from Jewish leaders, including my late teacher Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. President George H.W. Bush issued a public apology: “I am concerned that some of my comments at the Thursday press conference caused apprehension within the Jewish community. My reference to lobbyists and powerful political forces were never meant to be pejorative in any sense.”
By contrast, President Obama has demonstrated no remorse, an approach that Trump has copied. Barack Obama was untroubled at being pejorative when it suited him. Speaking to an “anti-war” rally in October 2002, then State Senator Obama declared that:
What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.
Highlighting the names of Jews working for President George W. Bush was a common tactic of the “anti-war” Left and of the old Right represented by Pat Buchanan. Then Senator Obama circulated this speech during his primary battle with Hillary Clinton in 2007 and he referenced it proudly in a recent interview with New York Magazine.
In office, President Obama and his surrogates used precisely the slurs that President George H.W. Bush had sought to avoid. Unlike President George H.W. Bush who careful to say that “I think everybody ought to fight for what they believe in,” President Obama resented opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Along with his surrogates, he portrayed some opponents as lacking understanding and others as warmongers. In his speech at American University on August 5, 2015, President Obama connected those who insolently were against his Iran nuclear deal, which meant those lobbying for Israel, to those who promoted the Iraq war:
And if the rhetoric in these ads, and the accompanying commentary, sounds familiar, it should — for many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.
The notion that Americans lobbying for Israel supported the Iraq war, let alone pushed for it, is a myth beloved of anti-Semites. Unlike Ancient Greek myths, however, this one is widely believed and conveniently it mobilized President Obama’s liberal base in favour of the Iran deal.
Jewish groups objected to the Obama administration’s tactics in a meeting at the White House on August 4, 2015. The response from President Obama was as brazen as that now seen from Trump. According to The Washington Post:
Obama pointedly noted that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was spending $20 million in an ad campaign to denounce the deal. The activists countered that Obama was unfairly characterizing opponents of the deal as preferring a military confrontation, according to people in the room.
The president suggested to AIPAC that “if you guys would back down, I would back down from some of the things I’m doing,” said the person involved in the discussion, who added, “I don’t think AIPAC will take him up on it.”
That’s right, the president of the United States offered to stop using smears against his opponents if they would stop exercising their constitutional right to disagree.
Trump has been similarly willing to exploit anti-Semitism and similarly unwilling to show regret. American Jews have enjoyed an extended holiday from Jewish history. Today, the system that allowed them to thrive is an object of widespread contempt. Anti-Semitism is no longer on the margins. Instead, anti-Semitism is a political force that Left and Right alike are willing to use for political gain. The golden era of American Jewish life is over.