Perceptions of anti-Semitism in the age of Trump

Some right-wing Jews have long since believed that segments of left-wing Jewry are in bed with antisemites. The notion than J Street supporters are comparable to Kapos, notably expressed by Ambassador David Friedman, is not an uncommon one. But in the wake of Charlottesville the tables have turned. It is the left-wing Jews who are glaring at their right-wing cohorts with a mixture of shame and rage, at times throwing out epithets such as “court Jew” to describe those working for the Trump administration.

How did we get here? Why do Jews on the right and the left have such different ideas of what is “good for the Jews?”

It is illustrative to look back to the end of 2016, when segments of the American Jewish population were concerned about Keith Ellison or Steve Bannon, but only a select few saw both (or neither) as potential threats. Jews are not immune to partisan blinders, and these blinders influence our thinking more than we would like to believe. Republicans and Democrats also have different ideas about the relationship between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, as well as which groups pose the most serious threat to Jews today. These differences have contributed to the formation of widely divergent narratives regarding the background against which the reality facing American Jews today should be seen.

In the lead up to the 2008 election, right-wing Jews were inundated with stories about Barrack Obama’s connections to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a notoriously antisemitic preacher. Shortly after his election, president Obama elected to visit Cairo prior to Israel and gave a speech there that seemed to equate the 1948 war to the holocaust. The president was hostile to the Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, and was even caught on a hot mic appearing to agree with the French president’s depiction of Netanyahu as a liar, since he responded by complaining about how often he had to deal with him. The administration frequently equivocated on the Israeli Palestinian conflict where right wing Jews saw no room for equivocation. This was particularly striking when during a spate of stabbing attacks the white house released a statement asking both sides to cease inciting violence.

In the wake of the Paris shootings the president said that it was reasonable to fear people who “randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” White House press secretary Josh Ernest doubled down on the notion that the deli was a random target in a press conference, only to backtrack on twitter and declare that the attack was, in fact, motivated by antisemitism.

Far more damning than any of this was the Iran deal. Right-wing Jews saw the Iran deal in the same way that left-wing Americans see Trumpcare: not as a disagreement on policy but as an illustration of a callous willingness to endanger lives for a political agenda. They saw this deal as acquiescence to Iran’s nuclear program; a decision that put millions of Jewish lives in danger. Thus Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote of his longtime friend Cory Booker’s support for the deal:

“How on earth could he participate in making Iran’s nuclear program kosher amid their never-ending pledge to carry out a second holocaust?”

In the wake of this injury came the insult of UNSC resolution 2334. Right-wing Jews saw this as a final stab in the back before Obama left office.

Left-wing Jews experienced these events very differently. They saw Obama as a moderately pro-Israel president whose politics were shaped, in part, by his Jewish mentors in Chicago. During his first overseas trip he challenged the culture of holocaust denial in the Middle East and visited a concentration camp in Buchenwald accompanied by Elie Wiesel. While there are diverse opinions about Israel on the American Jewish left about Israel, there is little love for Netanyahu. The hostility between Obama and Netanyahu therefore was not a cause for alarm and the latter was generally blamed for the fraught relationship. Most Left-wing Jews supported the Iran deal, viewing it as an imperfect arrangement which was simply the best option available. UNSC resolution 2334 was seen as an understandable response to Netanyahu’s intransigence. Nonetheless, fewer anti-Israel UNSC resolutions passed under Obama’s watch than that of any of his predecessors and he negotiated a generous military aid package with Israel toward the end of his term. Jefferey Goldberg went so far as to dub Obama “America’s first Jewish president.” Obama appreciated the sentiment, and once even referred to himself as “an honorary member of the Tribe.”

Right-wing concerns about antisemitism on the left were by no means limited to the Obama administration. Left wing groups were making college campuses increasingly hostile environments for Jews in general and Zionists in particular. The theory of intersectionality had created a sense unity among marginalized groups which never seemed to include Jews. Left wing activists who would never consider talking over other minorities were nonetheless comfortable dismissing Jewish complaints as “playing the antisemitism card.”

When Black Lives Matter issued a platform that mentioned no foreign country other than Israel, accusing it of apartheid and genocide, the right-wing saw it as par for the course. Left-wing reactions varied; some Jews disassociated themselves, others insisted that the cause was too important and still others saw nothing objectionable about the terms employed. This is a microcosm of the different perspectives that right and left wing Jews have on the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Right wing Jews see the two as unambiguously synonymous. Some left-wing Jews agree, most would probably say that the relationship between the two is complex while others would insist that there is no connection at all between them.

It should come as no surprise then that after an eight year stretch of what they perceived as a hostile administration, as well as the growing threat of left wing antisemitism, right wing Jews were eager to see the Democrats out of power. Trump was not the first choice for most, but as he emerged as the likely nominee he managed to say some of the right things. He promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem (and he isn’t a politician so he just might do it!) and to tear up the Iran deal. Right wing Jews found themselves nodding along with his attacks on the mainstream media, which they felt had been biased in its coverage of Israel for so long.

He managed to say some of the wrong things, too. Speaking at a Jewish function, he said, “I’m a negotiator like you folks, we are negotiators. Is there anybody who doesn’t negotiate deals in this room?” as well as, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” He retweeted images from white supremacists, including an image of Hillary Clinton next to a six pointed star (which he insisted was a sheriff’s star) against a backdrop of money. He declined to denounce David Duke, claiming he did not know who Duke was, though it seems that he did (he later denounced him). His final campaign ad had antisemitic overtones.

However, this was a man who flew a sick orthodox boy from Los Angeles to New York in his private jet so he could receive the necessary treatment. This was a man who had helped desegregate Florida country clubs. He was a friend of Israel, he had selected Jews for prominent positions and he even had a Jewish daughter. Thus they were only too willing to believe that the star in the tweet was a sheriff’s star. When he neglected to mention Jews on holocaust memorial day, which his administration explained was because Jews were not the only ones who had suffered, they were quick to point out that a Jew had crafted the statement.

He was twice asked about the recent rise in antisemitic incidents. The first time he spoke about the Electoral College, finishing with a general statement about ending racism. The second time he did not let the orthodox reporter, who had clarified that he did not think the president himself was an antisemite, finish the question. He claimed that the question was unfair, and that he is the least antisemitic person in the world. Yet that same reporter appeared on Fox News afterword and defended him, speculating that he reacted the way he did because he took such allegations personally, and antisemitism was wholly anathema to him.

Indeed, Right-wing Jews will point out, he began his State of the Union address by specifically denouncing antisemitism. He personally sent a team of FBI agents to apprehend the individual behind the JCC bomb threats. So what if his Yad Vashem visit was abnormally short and his entry in the guestbook was absurd and insulting? The real threat is coming from the left’s embrace of problematic figures like Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez.

Left-wing Jews perceived these events very differently.  Some of them felt a measure of buyer’s remorse by the end of the Obama administration, but many felt that eight years had not been long enough. A Gallup exit poll found that in 2015 Obama enjoyed an 85% approval rating among liberal Jews compared to a 12% approval rating from conservative Jews. Thus they did not share the desperation for change, regardless of the form it took, that was felt by Jews on the right.

When they heard Trump’s comments about Mexicans and Muslims they figured it was only a matter of time until the Jews were targeted. As his missteps on Jewish issues accumulated they became increasingly impatient with the apologetics of their right wing acquaintances. They saw Trump as an authoritarian leader, who was attempting erode the freedom and credibility of the press. In this context his “blunders” were all the more concerning.

Charlottesville was the final straw. This was not some alt-right dog whistle that is subject to interpretation. Trump initially condemned the violence “on many sides” without naming white supremacists, despite pointed questions from reporters which offered him the chance to do so, earning him praise from the Daily Stormer. He backtracked in a prepared statement, specifically condemning white supremacists only to double down shortly thereafter, insisting that many of the marchers were ” “very fine people”, that there was “blame on both sides” and that his initial statement was “excellent”. How, they ask one another, can any Jew support this man?

Die-hard Trump supporters are unruffled by these events. They will insist that this is yet another media distortion. Other right-wing Jews are troubled. They have never perceived neo-Nazis as much of a threat. With Hamas and Hezbollah openly calling for the murder of Jews, earning sympathy from some segments of the political and academic left, neo-Nazis seem like little more than an abhorrent, but impotent, remnant of the past. Nonetheless, Trump’s comments are difficult to justify as another “Bidenesque gaffe” as one former Trump supporter put it.

And so we find ourselves at each other’s throats, unable to effectively call out any antisemitism because there is always a group of Jews that the offenders can point to as a token to validate their position. If our history is any indication, we are most vulnerable when we are divided. One can only hope that we will invest as much effort to mend the rifts in our community as we do fighting external threats, and prioritize our connection to our fellow Jews over our political worldview.


About the Author
Jonathan Gellman writes on political issues facing the American Jewish Community and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from Buffalo, New York.