Who Are You Calling an Anti-Semite? Jewish Debate in Trump’s America

By Moshe Kornfeld | December 14, 2016



In a Vanity Fair article about the “post-election freak-out” at Columbia Prep, the school Barron Trump will continue to attend after the inauguration, Emily Jane Fox suggests that the school might join the many groups—including Jewish ones—that seem to be mending fences quickly with the incoming administration. Fox writes, “Jewish organizations, too, have come to some sort of equilibrium with a White House-bound Trump, a man whose campaign has inspired a rash of anti-Semitic hate crimes, a rise of an organized alt-right movement, and one group of white nationalists gathering in Washington D.C. to exchange Sieg Heils in his name.” The director of a major Jewish organization told Fox, “Our policy is we have to side on the practical, unfortunately, regardless of how much we have intense disagreements.”

Fox’s description of a “sort of equilibrium” is both accurate and oversimplified. For the most part, the establishment philanthropic organizations that claim to represent the American Jewish community are hedging their bets, hoping that a Trump administration might yield a workable status quo for American Jewry. Immediately following the election, some of these groups, such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America, reached out to the incoming administration with offers of assistance; others, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, congratulated Trump but did not offer assistance. In the ensuing month, politically conservative and more staunchly Zionist groups have embraced Trump, while progressive groups, which tend either to avoid discussion of Israel or to criticize the Jewish State, have expressed their opposition. Meanwhile, a set of grassroots groups focused on social justice and anti-occupation activism has begun to establish a protest movement devoted to challenging the Jewish establishment’s acceptance of the incoming administration.

These intra-Jewish divisions intensified in response to Trump’s appointment of White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who has played a significant role in the reemergence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism in mainstream American political discourse. The Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Council of Public Affairs did not change course following the appointment and have continued to engage with Trump as they would any president-elect. The Conference of Presidents has gone so far as to host its annual Hanukkah party at Trump’s D.C. hotel despite the fact that at least eight of the Conference’s 50 constituent groups, and counting, refuse to attend. That it will be held on December 14—the same day as Obama’s last White House Hanukkah party—signals the Jewish establishment’s continuing commitment to working with the Trump administration.

Considering the Jewish establishment’s silence following Bannon’s appointment, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) condemnation came as anomalous. A statement by ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt commended the appointment of Reince Preibus as White House chief of staff but maintained ADL “strongly opposes the appointment of Steve Bannon.” Many observers received Greenblatt’s statement as a surprising expression of resistance; however, it could also represent an effort to accept Trump while rejecting an enabler of explicit anti-Semitism.

How is it that more powerful Jewish establishment organizations haven’t challenged the appointment of Bannon? The failure to speak out is all the more surprising considering that the vast majority of American Jews remain loyal to the Democratic Party even after achieving socioeconomic success. The frequently quoted adage, coined by longtime observer of American Jewish life Milton Himmelfarb, that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans” continues to express the seemingly paradoxical relationship between Jewish class status and general voting patterns. According to exit polls, 71 percent of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton, a rate higher than Hispanic voters, 65 percent of whom voted for Clinton, and significantly higher than any other religious group. Among the 10 percent of American Jews who are Orthodox, the trend is reversed. While Orthodox Jews are typically described as being the most traditional and least assimilated members of the Jewish community, their voting patterns correspond more with evangelical Christian voters than with other American Jews.

Possible explanations for the Jewish establishment’s surprising silence regarding Bannon’s appointment include a desire to maintain longstanding practices of working with politicians across the political spectrum, the overrepresentation of politically conservative Jews in the professional staff and lay leadership of Jewish establishment organizations, and the outsized influence of a class of very wealthy donors. Another under-discussed reason that Jewish organizations might avoid challenging a Trump administration relates to possible school voucher programs that could be used to channel public funds to Jewish parochial schools. Whatever the reasons for Jewish establishment support of Trump in the face of Bannon’s appointment, this support is made passable by the reinterpretation of anti-Semitism as a political football.

In response to the ADL statement, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) came to Bannon’s defense, issuing a statement calling on the ADL to apologize for its libelous condemnation of a strong supporter of the State of Israel. In ZOA’s formulation, staunch supporters of Zionism and of the State of Israel can’t be anti-Semitic even when they abet white nationalism. Within this formulation, critics of Israel (including progressive Zionists) and supporters of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel are often deemed anti-Semitic. Responding to these claims, Naomi Zeveloff, writing in the Forward, asserts that hating Jews and loving the Jewish State are not mutually exclusive. Breitbart.com, formerly led by Bannon, dismissed Zeveloff’s claims as “unhinged” and the Forward as a far-left “newspaper that brandishes its democratic socialist roots.” Moreover, debates about the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are also happening in the legislative sphere. In an effort to undermine pro-BDS activism on college campuses, the ADL and other Jewish groups sponsored the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which expands the legal definition of anti-Semitism to include expressions of anti-Zionism. The act was recently passed by the U.S. Senate, and is currently languishing in the House of Representatives.

In a move that heightened the drama, ZOA announced that Bannon was to attend their annual gala in late November. (It is unclear if Bannon was invited or invited himself.) He ultimately didn’t attend. If he had, he would have been met by several hundred protesters who were beginning to organize as #Jewishresistance, a movement dedicated to challenging the Jewish establishment’s complicity with the Trump campaign. These grassroots Jewish challenges to Bannon draw on Holocaust memory as a means of protest against him and against Trump’s presidency. Protest chants that night included, “Say it now, say it clear, Nazis are not welcome here.”

Claims regarding anti-Semitism often conveniently align with one’s preexisting political orientation, whether liberal or conservative. Of course, by analyzing and critiquing how claims of anti-Semitism are used, I do not mean to minimize the very real and dangerous presence of anti-Semitism. For example, Jewish members of the media received serious threats over the course of the presidential campaign, when anonymous online trolls singled out Jewish journalists with barrages of anti-Semitic vitriol. This has been especially true for Jewish Trump critics on the right, who have been viciously attacked.

Peter Beinart asserts that these actions and reactions signal “the collapse of the American Jewish center.” Paralleling American political trends, unabashedly conservative and progressive Jewish organizations are splintering an American Jewish public sphere once dominated by a slightly left-of-center, moderate Zionist core. In the battles that ensue, partisans use historical analogies and political metaphors as weapons. One move, usually relegated to unfiltered discourse on social media and in online comments to related articles, is to label Jewish Trump supporters Judenrat—that is, as being like those Jews who aided the Nazi regime as it carried out its policy of ghettoization and extermination. About a week after the election, a friend’s social media post signaled increasing Jewish angst: “So, if Bannon is sorta like Goebbels, is the Republican Jewish Coalition (and AIPAC)—which are down with his appointment—kinda like the Judenrat?”

A less extreme comparison describes Jewish Trump supporters as shtadlanim, meaning they are intermediaries between the Jewish community and the ruling authority. Shtadlanut assumed pejorative connotations in the nineteenth century and now signifies Jewish figures who fail to stand up against Jewish persecution. Never Shtadlanusa sparse, anonymous, post-election website that has cropped up—juxtaposes a list of Jewish organizations who have failed to challenge Bannon’s appointment (“It’s OK!”) with a list of groups who have spoken out against the appointment (“No Way!”). As of early December, the “It’s OK!” column included 318 organizations and the “No Way!” column listed 46 organizations.

Never Shtadlanus introduces the premise of the website via a simple question: “Do you think folks who empower White Nationalists should have a place in the White House?” Following the question, there is an unattributed quote:

The Shtadlanut view regarding public protests against Hitler was stated clearly as early as March 20, 1933, when the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith issued a joint statement in opposition to a proposed public protest parade in New York. They warned that public agitation in the form of boycotts and mass demonstrations would “serve only as an ineffectual channel for the release of emotion. They furnish the persecutors with a pretext to justify the wrongs they perpetrate and, on the other hand, distract those who desire to help with more constructive efforts.”

The passage is from Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944, a monograph published in 1985 by Haskel Lookstein that examines American Jewish responses to the Nazi persecution of European Jewry. In this particular passage, Lookstein examines American Jewish responses to the massive anti-Jewish pogrom of November 1938, commonly known as Kristalnacht, Night of Broken Glass. Lookstein identifies a split between groups agitating for sustained public outcry and those who believed that public agitation would only make matters worse.

The irony here: Lookstein is the modern Orthodox rabbi who presided over Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism and was invited by Ivanka to speak at the Republican National Convention (he backed out after a public outcry from within his own community). What are we to make of rhetoric that is designed to simplify but that leads us right back to complicated political entanglements and debates?

The website’s author, with whom I spoke on the condition of anonymity, described his decision to use Lookstein’s book as incidental—he simply reached for a text available in his home library. However, the irony of picking up a book by Ivanka’s rabbi in an effort to shame Jewish organizations that aren’t standing up to the Trumps underscores an important point, one that, as far as I can tell, has been missing from post-election, intra-Jewish discourse. Historical analogies such as Judenrat and Shtadlanus take as axiomatic a meaningful distinction between the Jewish community and the political establishment. In the United States in 2016, this is a false axiom. There are influential Jews at Breitbart.com, in the first family-elect, and even proximate to the so-called “alt-right.” In the age of Trump and mega-donors and Netanyahu and Jewish social justice and red state-aligned Orthodoxy and prominent Jewish members of the media, the very definition of anti-Semitism is something that no one person or group can take for granted.

It is time for the American Jewish community to debate its role, not in Trump’s America, but as Trump’s America. In the post-World War II era, the American Jewish collective was united by its support for the State of Israel and by a shared commitment to combating anti-Semitism. Today, Jewish collectivity is solidified through discord, the family defined by the feud.

Moshe Kornfeld is a postdoctoral research associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. He is currently writing a book about Jewish responses to Hurricane Katrina.

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