Nervous American Jews are asking ourselves a terrifying question, in the wake of rallies in which overwhelmingly white mobs shouted “send her back!” about a congresswoman from a hated religious minority:
Are we next?
To the 25 percent of American Jews who support Donald Trump, the question is ridiculous. Hasn’t Trump supported Israel more than any president in recent memory? Isn’t his own daughter Jewish?
Sure—but Trump is an anomaly. Most populist nationalists are nativist, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and homophobic. Trump, however, is a native New Yorker, with what Ted Cruz called—and not as a compliment—“New York values.” Trump has Jews in his family, his business, and his social circle. And some gay people as well.
But what happens after Trump?
The guy’s not going to be president forever, or even the dominant force in the Republican Party. Who will be the next Donald Trump to stoke rural white America’s fears of a brown planet?
We don’t yet know, of course—but if history is any guide, he won’t be as selectively racist as Trump. He’ll probably reflect Trump’s most ardent supporters, who run the gamut from George-Soros-conspiracy-mongers to out-and-out neo-Nazis. And this weird twilight zone Jews have been living in for the last two years—on the racist side of racism—will turn dark fast.
The reason is that anti-Semitism is not simply hate, but an ideology.
It’s a worldview of “real Americans” (or real Germans, or real Russians) against immigrants who came here more recently, with their foreign religion, their strange names, their suspect allegiances. (Sound familiar?)
It’s rural versus urban. It’s “real Americans” versus supposed cosmopolitan elites (the media, Hollywood, etc.) who, though a minority, are, like parasites, corrupting the body of the fatherland.
Populism, in other words, is intrinsically anti-Semitic with age-old anti-Semitic themes. Trump is not personally anti-Semitic; he doesn’t hate real Jews. But he does hate symbolic ones: all of the roles and qualities that “the Jews,” real and imagined, have embodied for 500 years of European and American history.
Kansas University professor Samuel Hayim Brody has studied Jewish history and German-Jewish thought throughout his career. He told The Daily Beast that “anti-Semitism is not just bigotry, or dislike of individual Jews or of Judaism as a religion. It is a worldview, that attempts to explain things to its adherents. Why is there economic inequality? Why are rural areas losing population, and urban areas gaining population? Why are factory labor and agricultural labor declining, while the finance sector grows and grows? Why is globalization only tending to the benefit of a very few wealthy people? Why are the ‘rightful’ owners of the country losing cultural influence, while the world around them becomes unfamiliar?”
As Brody put it, “Economic analysis and political economy offer a range of possible answers to these questions, but anti-Semitism offers just one, very simple answer: the Jews. This was true in the late-nineteenth century period of liberalization and urbanization in Europe, and it’s true for globalization today.”
Again, because Trump is a weird anomaly, anti-Semitism is not front and center in Trumpism. Immigrants and Muslims are the primary scapegoats, not Jews.
But the anti-Semites have gotten the message.
There was an astonishing 60-percent rise in anti-Semitic attacks between 2016 and 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
In 2017, the Charlottesville marchers, who included some “very fine people” according to our president, chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
In Pittsburgh, the worst attack on Jews in American history took place on Oct. 28, 2018, by a gunman who blamed Jews for multiculturalism and illegal immigration.
And in Poway, California, another right-wing nationalist shot up a synagogue where Jews were gathered to say memorial prayers for the dead.
Is this all just coincidence? All these right-wing terrorists are just so happening to repeat chapter and verse from Fox News, Breitbart, and the further-right, while murdering Jews and vandalizing cemeteries?
Indeed, it makes perfect sense that the accused Pittsburgh terrorist, Robert Bowers, complained that Trump wasn’t anti-Semitic enough. He was, in a sense, exactly right: Anti-Semitism is the anomalous missing piece of Trump’s populist demagoguery. Normally, anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of nativist populism itself.
Will the next Trump be as selectively non-hateful? Don’t bet on it.
Now, it is true that a minority of Jews—mostly Orthodox, mostly ardently right-wing on Israel—have, like Esau in the famous biblical story, sold the Jewish birthright in America for a pot of pro-Israel porridge. But that didn’t end well for Esau, and it won’t work well for American Jews either. A shiny embassy building in Jerusalem is only worth the demolition of the American civil society if you place no value in the American project, or Jews’ place within it.
The large majority of American Jews, though, know that Pastor Niemoller was right. When the mob of the majority comes for one hated minority group, they will soon come for another. Because that’s what majorities do. Anytime the fire of populism gets out of control, Jews get burned. Often literally.
That’s why American Jews must speak up now—not only against nativism, prejudice, and racism, but for the greatness of America itself.
Patriotism is not the same as populism. Rep. Ilhan Omar loves America. I love America. And the America we love is defined not by its dominant race or religion, but by its ideals. We are a diverse nation of immigrants, who came fleeing persecution and seeking opportunity, and are united by our belief in the American Dream that everyone, no matter their birth or background, should have an equal shot at success. We love freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. Those are what make America great.
Obviously, America has never lived up to those ideals. Its history and its present are marred by the genocide of its indigenous people, by slavery and Jim Crow, by militarism, imperialism, and violence.
But those failures don’t make us hate America. They inspire us to work toward a day when the real America looks more like the ideal one.
American Jews, American Muslims, and every other minority group that has benefited from the freedoms and values of this country understand what makes America great, because we have lived it.
Trump, for all his flag-waving, truly does not.