Trump Has No Business Calling Anyone Anywhere 'Anti-Jewish'
A president who has presided over a resurgence of hatred and trafficked in anti-Semitism is suddenly worried about Democrats and Israel.
Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
On Thursday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution broadly calling out hate, on the face of it one of the least objectionable things the United States Congress might do on any given day. The measure specifically decried "imputations of dual loyalty" that "suggests that Jewish citizens cannot be patriotic Americans and trusted neighbors, when Jews have loyally served our Nation every day since its founding." As VICE News reported, the symbolic measure represented a tweaked version of what might originally have been a more targeted rebuke of Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. She pissed a lot of people off last week when, referring to the strained debate about Israel, she said, "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country"—remarks critics said got too close to accusing Jews of being disloyal to the US, a common anti-Semitic trope.
The resolution initially represented a way for Democrats to distance themselves from Omar. But it was broadened to be about condemning other forms of prejudice, including Islamophobia, as death threats and hateful imagery were directed Omar's way in recent days.
Omar's comments about "allegiance to a foreign country" didn't mark the the first time the congresswoman—a member of the freshman class that includes other high-profile progressive stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—came under fire for leaning on anti-Semitic tropes. Last month, Omar tweeted, "It's all about the Benjamins, baby" in reference to the power of the pro-Israel sentiment in Washington, and eventually apologized for playing into the idea that Jews ran the world with all their money. This go-round, she hasn't apologized, instead doubling down.
The rhetorical barbs have egged on a controversy that has broken down along complicated lines. Omar has been criticized by some Jews, but also pro-Israel conservatives who aren't Jewish. She's been backed by left-wing members of Congress like Ocasio-Cortez but also Jewish groups like If Not Now, which has made noise in recent years for, among other things, trying to force young Jews on birthright trips to Israel to confront the reality of the apartheid-esque situation in that country.
But what we shouldn't lose sight of in this thorny debate—about Israel and its government, about Palestine, about anti-Jewish hate, and about lobbying in Washington—is that Donald Trump does not give a shit about anti-Semitism.
Referring to the House resolution Friday, the president of the United States—a man who has overseen an explosion of anti-Jewish hate and invited white nationalists into his administration and indulged in anti-Semitic tropes of his own—went on the offensive. "I thought yesterday’s vote by the House was disgraceful,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “I thought that vote was a disgrace, and so does everybody else if you get an honest answer," adding, "The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They’ve become an anti-Jewish party, and that’s too bad.”
This isn't the first time trolls on the right have tried to gin up anxiety about the idea that Democrats are somehow insufficiently friendly to Jews, or that the party's failure to be properly devoted to Israel might cause some kind of political exodus. There was a bunch of handwringing among the Democratic Party consulting class about Barack Hussein Obama maybe losing too much Jewish support to win in 2008 and 2012 but he did just fine among Jewish voters, who, outside the ultra-conservative Hasidic community, tend to vote Democratic. Rather than citing endemic liberalism, political scientist Kenneth Wald has argued this to be largely the product of national Democrats seeming like the party that supports the separation of church and state since roughly the era of the New Deal. Meanwhile, polls suggest Israel is not the most important issue for Jewish voters in the United States: Among all Americans, majorities have for a long time tended to sympathize more with Israel than Palestine, even as the latest numbers suggest liberal Democrats are increasingly skeptical of the Israeli government.
And polling in recent months suggests that even as Trump's administration has cozied up to Israel in remarkable ways amid ongoing violence against Palestinians—perhaps most notably by moving the embassy to Jerusalem—Jews mostly see the right for what it is: the chief vessel for anti-Semitism in America.
After all, long before Trump was equivocating on who was at fault for neo-Nazi murder in Charlottesville, there were marauding gangs of far-right Irish-American youth terrorizing Jews in 1940s Boston and New York. During that era and later, there were plenty of explicitly anti-Semitic demagogues out there; many were Democrats, but virtually all were right-wingers. I'm talking about people like anti-Semitic Governor of Mississippi Theodore G. Bilbo or anti-Communist Congressman John Rankin; the latter seemed to think every Jew was part of what we'd now call a globalist conspiracy (on behalf of "Communism," in that era). And of course the most unapologetically—if privately—anti-Semitic president in recent history was Richard Nixon, who was caught on the Watergate tapes disparaging Jewish influence even as he employed Jews (as Trump does) in his administration.
Overt anti-Semitism, like many blatant forms of prejudice, has often seemed to be on the wane, at least in the post-war period. But Trump is unafraid to wallow in all sorts of stereotypes—in 2015, he told the Republican Jewish Coalition they used money to "control [Jewish] politicians." The Republican Party has increasingly seemed to be right there with him, with House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy recently deleting at least one tweet trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes himself and some Republican candidates invoking ugly stereotypes against Jewish Democrats in the midterms. The fact that George Soros, the billionaire Holocaust survivor and funder of innocuous liberal democratic causes around the world, has emerged as the bête noire of many Trump-era Republicans (and far-right demagogues in other countries) really tells you all you need to know about where modern anti-Semitism finds a natural ideological home.
Meanwhile, political rhetoric occasionally nurtured by the leaders of the Republican Party and inculcated on far-right platforms like Gab has also broken out into IRL violence. That's what appears to have happened when a man committed the largest mass murder of Jews in American history at the the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year. (Suspect Robert Bowers actually seemed to argue online that Trump was too friendly to Jews, if anything.)
For a president who's presided over such renewed visceral fear of anti-Semitic violence to suggest the opposition—the party that includes almost every Jewish member of Congress—is "anti-Jewish" is a new low. Yes, even for him.
"Gall is the kindest thing one could say about his remarks. They were self serving and hypocritical at the least," Michael Barkun, a professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University and an expert on the radical right, told me Friday, noting, "Segments of the extreme right that in the past never endorsed or supported a major party candidate did support Donald Trump." Among them was former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who, it must be noted, has also praised Omar's comments on Israel, even as she has consistently denied anti-Semitic sympathies.
Barkun also seemed to bristle at what he saw as a resurgence of anti-Semitism in American discourse. He pointed out that the legacy of the Holocaust had created an "immunization" against anti-Semitism, at least in most corners, for decades after World War II. He seemed to think that was fading with memories of the systemic murder of millions of Jews, opening the door to a revival of old hatreds.
For a worst-case scenario of how anti-Semitism can divide the left, take a look at what's going on with the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, where far more numerous figures have made far uglier comments than anything Omar has said. Suggesting that's what is currently going on in the United States or even might be soon seems like a stretch. But certainly, Omar has stepped in it more than once and raised some eyebrows about how to have a more muscular debate about Israel and Palestine without resorting to ugly language. This might be a "teachable moment" for some presidents, a chance to elevate the national dialogue. But America doesn't have a president who can do any of that. Instead, it has Donald Trump.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.