When a white nationalist man killed Jews at prayer at a Pittsburgh synagogue less than two weeks before the 2018 midterm election, I naively assumed that the massacre would bring anti-Semitism on the right to the center of political discourse. As it turns out, the worst case of anti-Semitic violence in American history created a political opportunity to bring ongoing discourse about anti-Semitism on the left to the center of American politics. In the wake of Pittsburgh, anti-Semitism has emerged as a political tool for sowing divisions in the fragile alliances that collectively make up the Democratic Party. This strategic use of anti-Semitism also performs cultural work that threatens American Jews.
In the wake of yet another white power attack, this time in a Walmart in the border town of El Paso, Texas, President Trump’s racist attacks against four progressive women of color who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives appear even more ominous. They also indicate that his re-election effort, much like his 2016 campaign, will attempt to activate xenophobia and racial animus for political gain. In 2016, Trump’s promise to keep out racial and religious others via a wall on the Mexican border and the so-called Muslim ban were thematically, but not directly, connected to his anti-Semitic dog whistles and strong support for right-wing Israeli politicians. When convenient, some Jewish organizations and individuals disaggregated these aspects of Trump’s rhetoric. Many Jewish organizations relied on Trump’s uncritical embrace of the state of Israel in order to downplay his nods to anti-Semitism and overt racism. This may prove more difficult in 2020.
Trump is leveraging Jewish tropes in order to bolster his claim that powerful women of color should “go back” to those places “from which they came.” As Trump and his surrogates defend their attack on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, they have repeatedly characterized the group as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism, in this context, is defined primarily as critique of Israel and is used strategically to obscure key differences between those who single out Israel as illegitimate and those who oppose particular Israeli government policies such as the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Trump’s rhetoric yokes political legitimacy to unquestioning support for Israel, concern with anti-Semitism, and the rejection of women of color. This leaves little room for the majority of Jews who support the Democratic Party, for Jews who are critical of the Occupation and West Bank settlement expansion, and for Jews who are further left on the political spectrum when it comes to Israel. While “the squad,” and by extension the Democratic Party, is the primary target of these attacks, this troubling strain of political rhetoric “others” the majority of American Jews. Trump’s attempts to frame support for Israel in partisan terms also confound a longstanding American Jewish institutional agenda that promotes bipartisan support for the state of Israel even when the U.S. opposes specific Israeli government policies. The Obama administration’s ongoing military support for Israel even in the face of an openly antagonistic relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a case in point. In other words, this rhetoric is ultimately damaging for pro-Israel interests, as well. Asserting that full citizenship relies on uncritical support for the state of Israel and attempting to portray the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic are rhetorical flourishes that are dangerous for American Jews.
This political strategy, in which anti-Semitism is used to create division in the Democratic Party, has taken concrete form in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting of Oct. 27, 2018. A little more than a week before the 2018 midterm elections, a right-wing extremist walked into Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, opened fire, and massacred 11 mostly elderly congregants who had arrived early for Sabbath prayers. The perpetrator wanted to attack Jews—and this congregation in particular—for their support of refugee resettlement work done by HIAS. Originally founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the organization, which now simply goes by HIAS, resettles mostly non-Jewish refugees displaced by war, famine, and climate change. In a Twitter missive the prior week, Trump claimed without evidence that “unknown Middle Easterners” had infiltrated the migrant caravan that was then making its way to the Mexico-United States border. The “tired…poor…homeless, tempest-tost” Central American “masses yearning to breathe free,” as Emma Lazarus might have viewed them, were, in Trump’s logic, ominous others seeking to undermine American prosperity and freedom. For the gunman, inflammatory rhetoric and a staunch anti-immigrant policy served as incitement to violence.
Despite protests from local politicians and community members, Trump traveled to the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha synagogue to pay his respects to the shooting victims. The next day, he released one of the most incendiary ads in recent political history, arguing that Democrats, if elected, would let in violent immigrant killers. A CNN report describes how Trump replaced a closing ad focused on the booming economy with the now infamous ad that even Fox News refused to air on account of its obvious racism. The inescapable conclusion is that Trump viewed the political violence he inspired in Pittsburgh, and in the Florida man who sent bombs to Trump’s political opponents, as an indication that his strategy of inflaming racial and religious resentment was working.
Almost immediately, public discourse pivoted from a discussion of murderous anti-Semitism on the right to the place of Linda Sarsour in American politics. Sarsour, an activist of Palestinian descent and one of the leaders of the Women’s March, has long been the target of conservative media. She also has alliances with progressive Jewish groups. Like many American Muslim leaders, Sarsour attended and spoke at a vigil held in response to the Pittsburgh shooting. The vigil, sponsored by Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization, was held in front of the White House last October 28, the day after the Pittsburgh massacre. Official protest signs read, “Trump, Your White Nationalism Kills.” Additionally, Sarsour helped organize “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue,” a fundraising campaign that raised nearly $240,000 dollars in support of the Pittsburgh shooting victims. Sarsour’s efforts emphasized cross-cultural and interfaith political alliances as a way to combat Trumpism and resurgent white nationalism.
News outlets on the right latched onto these efforts to bring their ongoing campaigns against Sarsour to the fore. On the Monday after the synagogue massacre, The Daily Wire, a conservative website founded by Ben Shapiro, published an article entitled, “Women’s March Holds ‘Vigil’ To Oppose Anti-Semitism – Led by Linda Sarsour.” This article—which falsely states that Sarsour led the rally—precipitated a sustained effort to question the legitimacy of Sarsour in American political discourse because of her support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and in light of connections between Women’s March leaders and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. While in the weeks prior to the Pittsburgh shooting Sarsour was not a prominent focus in the news media, in the weeks and months that followed, she was the target of a sustained barrage of attacks against her and the other leaders of the Women’s March.
For the right, attacking Sarsour was a way to thwart the coalition-building that might have occurred in response to the Pittsburgh massacre. In the original Daily Wire article, Emily Zanotti called attention to a tweet from the Women’s March leaders that connected anti-Semitism with all forms of xenophobia: “Notice they’re conflating terms – associating ‘anti-Semitism’ with ‘xenophobia’ in an effort to connect violence explicitly against the Jewish people with a broader campaign against opponents of unfettered immigration.” These attacks achieved a significant measure of success; in the weeks and months that followed, leading figures publicly chastised the leadership of the Women’s March, and various local chapters decided to disaffiliate from the national group. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that sexism, racism, and Islamophobia played key roles in shifting the national conversation from a white, murderous, anti-Semitic man to activist women of color.
The election of two Muslim women to congress has kept the question of anti-Semitism on the left at the center of public discourse. After she published a since-deleted tweet that explained the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s enduring power in Washington as being “all about the Benjamins baby,” critics on both the left and the right pressured Ilhan Omar to apologize and called for her public censure. As much as Omar likely intended to limit her critique to pro-Israel lobby groups, she repeatedly invoked classic anti-Semitic tropes. Omar’s words left Democrats in a challenging political position in which they simultaneously had to confront anti-Semitism, push back against a hypocritical partisan smear that ignored the increasing use of anti-Semitic tropes on the right, and continue the difficult task of negotiating the place of critique of the state of Israel in American politics. Despite her apology and the passage of a House resolution that ultimately included a rejection of all forms of bigotry (and not only anti-Semitism as originally proposed), Republicans, and Trump in particular, labeled the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic. While on its face it seems absurd to describe a party that includes nine Jewish senators (including Bernie Sanders) and 25 Jewish congressional representatives as anti-Semitic, this development illustrates how anti-Semitism is increasingly wielded as a tool of political partisanship.
The fruits of this political work were on display at the annual gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition held this past April, when Trump stated that “the Democrats have even allowed the terrible scourge of anti-Semitism to take root in their party.” Less than six months after inspiring a massacre of Jews at prayer, Trump felt emboldened to describe Democrats, a party with deep Jewish support, as anti-Semitic. At the same conference, leaders of the Republican Jewish Coalition announced “plans for a $10 million-plus blitz geared toward attracting Jewish support for President Donald Trump,” a significantly larger investment than “what the group spent in past presidential elections.” Although Jews are a small fraction of the American electorate, there are several swing states—including Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—that have significant Jewish populations. Convincing even a small group of Jews that the Democratic Party is anti-Semitic could play a role in deciding the 2020 presidential election. These rhetorical and financial moves obscure violent anti-Semitism on the right while suggesting a partisan political solution to the rise of anti-Semitism.
I am not sure where this thread of political rhetoric leads, but it probably leads to violence, state-sanctioned and otherwise. Defining any critique of Israel as simultaneously anti-Semitic and unpatriotic places Jews on a pedestal, at the center of what it means to be American, while “othering” Jews as a group defined primarily by their connection to a different country. By connecting racism and support for Israel, Trump is creating further problems for American Jewish institutions that want to promote support for Israel that transcends political differences. If critique of the state of Israel is used to justify racism, then the project of bipartisan support for Israel becomes impossible. And this rhetoric casts the majority of American Jews—who reject Trump’s racism and who, especially among the younger generations, are often critical of Israel—as un-American, or unassimilable. Trump’s claim to love Jews and Israel does insidious cultural work that undermines the position of most American Jews. His faux-philo-Semitism is dangerous for the majority of Jews committed to an American society that is open and tolerant. I imagine that this understanding of Jews, implicit in Trump’s current rhetoric, is what the Pittsburgh shooter had in mind when he woke up early on a Saturday morning and killed Jews at prayer.
It’s worth reflecting on the ways in which seemingly distinct forms of hatred are interconnected and on how acts of domestic terrorism are exploited for political gain. Learning from Pittsburgh, I expect that in response to the El Paso attack, Trump will both double down on his inciteful rhetoric and deflect the conversation about domestic terrorism. Jews, working in coalition with all those who believe in a tolerant and open society, must remain outraged and vigilant. How will Jews and Jewish institutional leaders, many of whom have been wary of direct confrontation with the administration, respond when Trump insists that loving the Jew means hating the other?
Moshe Kornfeld is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies.