George Mason University Law Professor David Bernstein observed this week that many in the American Jewish community are panicked by Donald Trump’s election because they perceive Trump and his followers as anti-Semitic. That perception was seemingly reinforced by recent anti-Semitic acts, such as bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers and the desecration of graves at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, MO and Philadelphia, PA. Bernstein, who is Jewish and not a Trump supporter, wrote a piece entitled “The Great Anti-Semitism Panic of 2017“, which appeared in the Volokh Conspiracy blog sponsored by the Washington Post.
Like Bernstein, I’ve seen a number of indignant posts by Jewish friends connecting Trump and anti-Semitism, complete with comparisons to Adolf Hitler. My quick reaction is that such comparisons are not only irresponsible, they are idiotic. The ghastly implication is that Trump might entertain the idea of exterminating Jews, or any other opposition group, and it is complete nonsense.
Taking a step back, perhaps all this is related to Trump’s nationalism and his views on border security. That includes “extreme vetting” of refugees, deportation of illegal immigrants, and even the dubious argument for a border wall. While that’s not about Jews, those policies appeal to certain fringe, racist elements on the extreme right where anti-Semitism is commonplace. However, those policies also appeal to a much broader and diverse audience of voters who harbor anxieties about economic and national security, and who are neither racists nor anti-Semites.
Bernstein takes progressive Jews to task for tying any of this to anti-Semitism on the part of Trump, his Administration, or his broader base of support:
“… the origins of the fear bear only a tangential relationship to the actual Trump campaign. For example, I’ve lost track of how many times Jewish friends and acquaintances in my Facebook feed have asserted, as a matter of settled fact, that Bannon’s website Breitbart News is a white-supremacist, anti-Semitic site. I took the liberty of searching for every article published at Breitbart that has the words Jew, Jewish, Israel or anti-Semitism in it, and can vouch for the fact that the website is not only not anti-Semitic, but often criticizes anti-Semitism (though it is quite ideologically selective in which types of anti-Semitism it chooses to focus on). I’ve invited Bannon’s Facebook critics to actually look at Breitbart and do a similar search on the site, and each has declined, generally suggesting that it would be beneath them to look at such a site, when they already know it’s anti-Semitic.
There is .. a general sense among Jews, at least liberal Jews, that Trump’s supporters are significantly more anti-Semitic than the public at large. I have many times asked for empirical evidence that supports this proposition, and have so far come up empty. I don’t rule out the possibility that it’s true, but there doesn’t seem to be any survey or other evidence supporting it. Given that American subgroups with the highest proportions of anti-Semites — African Americans, first-generation Hispanic immigrants, Muslims and high school dropouts — are strong Democratic constituencies (though the latter group appears to have gone narrowly for Trump this time), one certainly can’t simply presume that Trump has a disproportionate number of anti-Semitic supporters.“
Bernstein goes on to discuss the hostility to Trump from groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), hostility which he characterizes as essentially opportunistic:
“The ADL’s reticent donors are no longer reticent in the age of Trump, with the media reporting that donations have been pouring in since Trump’s victory. It’s therefore hardly in the ADL’s interest to objectively assess the threat from Trump and his supporters. Indeed, I’m almost impressed that an ADL official managed just the other day to link the JCC bomb threats to emboldened white supremacists, even though the only suspect caught so far is an African American leftist.“
He also notes the irony that progressive Jews have been shunned by many leftists, who almost uniformly condemn Zionism. Now, progressive Jews hope to renew common cause with those whose political purposes are defined by membership in groups with a history of marginalized treatment, and who now believe they are threatened by Trump. Will they be happy together? Bernstein attests that many Jews privately acknowledge the danger of “changing demographics”:
“… which is a euphemism for a growing population of Arab migrants to the United States. Anti-Semitism is rife in the Arab world, with over 80 percent of the public holding strongly anti-Semitic views in many countries.“
As a non-Jew, some would say I lack the bona fides to comment on how Jews “should” feel about Donald Trump. I was raised Catholic, but I attended a high school at which over 60% of the student population was Jewish. I was a member of a traditionally Jewish fraternity in college, where I witnessed occasional anti-Semitism from certain members of non-Jewish fraternities, and I felt victimized by it to some degree. My late brother married a Jewish woman, and he was buried according to Jewish custom. I was once stunned by a brief anti-Semitic wisecrack I overheard in the restroom at a community theatre production of the great musical Fiddler On the Roof!
So, I am connected and strongly sympathetic to the Jewish community. I am also well acquainted with white Gentiles who have had much less interaction with Jews. Those individuals span the political spectrum, and there is no doubt that racists and anti-Semites reside at both ends. I will state unequivocally that among this population, I have observed as much racism and denigration of Jews from the left as from the right. It partly reflects anti-Zionism, but there have been leftists in my acquaintance who seem to regard Jews as Shylockian, as greedy moneychangers and crooked lawyers, or as “hopelessly bourgeois”. Jews should not be blind to the hatred that still exists for them in certain quarters on the left, even if it’s easier to pretend that right-wing religious nuts are their only enemies.
Bernstein’s column was met with outrage by some Jewish progressives. In the Jewish Journal, Rob Eshman accused Bernstein of making apologies for Trumpian anti-Semitic behavior. Here is Bernstein’s response, in which he castigates Eshman for distorting both his thesis and the reaction of the Jewish community to Trump. He also notes that Eshman assigns guilt for the recent spate of anti-Semitic acts to Trump supporters where no evidence exists. That implication is a constant refrain from certain Jewish friends on my Facebook news feed. But there is ample evidence of “fake” hate crimes by progressives, as documented last week by Kevin Williamson.
Finally, it is hard to square the idea that Trump and his leadership team (which includes his Jewish son-in-law) are anti-Semitic with other evidence, such as the unequivocal support they have pledged to Israel, and their hard stand on vetting refugees from nations that are avowed enemies of the Jewish people. Yes, Bernstein is well aware of the anti-Semitic, fringe-right elements that have supported Trump, but those are not the sentiments of anyone serving in the administration, including Steve Bannon. The left has become quite blithe about observing Godwin’s Law, which states that all political opponents will eventually be called out as Nazis. Progressive Jews have taken the cue without much thought: the frequent comparisons of Donald Trump to Hitler are awful and are not compatible with healthy discourse. As Stefan Kanfer writes in City Journal in his review of the book “A Tale of Three Cities” (my emphasis added):
“… those who persist in comparing Adolf Hitler with any U.S. politician reveal themselves as members of a group just to the side of the Holocaust denier—the Holocaust trivializer. There are no lower categories.“