The most chilling words in the Hebrew Bible are the ones from Exodus, spoken every year as part of the Passover Seder: Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.
For nearly 6,000 years, Jews have survived as outsiders in strange lands (and often have not survived) because shrewd Jewish leaders made alliances with local potentates. From Biblical times to Bismarck, Jewish leaders protected their people by serving as intimate counselors and financial advisers to princes and emperors. They learned the language, the culture, and the commerce, better than the locals. They behaved well. When the story ended badly, as if often did, invariably a new king had arisen, who knew not Joseph.
Is Donald Trump potentially such a king?
As the world knows, Trump tweeted out an image of Hillary Clinton, with a sea of hundred dollar bills and the phrase “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever” superimposed over the shape of a Star of David. The entire image was literally taken from a white-supremacist message board used by neo-Nazis. Two hours later, after a broad outcry, Trump’s campaign changed the star shape to a circle.
But on Wednesday, even more astonishingly, Trump criticized his own staff for altering the original and suggested that the image was an ordinary star, and pointing to other six-pointed stars on sheriffs’ badges and in advertisements. In an ad lib rant, he accused the media of racism for even suggesting that the image was anti-Semitic, ducking the fact that the identical image was lifted from a neo-fascist site. “They're racially profiling. Not us. Why do they bring this up?” Trump said. “These people are sick.”
The disgraced former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, auditioning for the role of Trump’s running mate, went further, calling the criticism of the anti-Semitic imagery “so profoundly dishonest that it sickens me and makes me very angry.” Gingrich went on: “It’s absurdity. He has got a son-in-law who's an Orthodox Jew, his daughter has converted to Judaism, grandchildren who are Jewish. And he gave a speech at AIPAC that was pretty definitive. And in the middle of this, you get this kind of smear?”
This strategy of using and then winking at a classic Jew-baiting image, one evocative of the Nazi organ Der Stürmer, by a major-party nominee, is something new and sinister in American politics. Because of Trump’s disdain for ordinary political conventions and politicians, his blowing off of campaign funders, and his willingness to accept support from the neo-fascist right, the usual firebreaks that have protected Jews in America for more than two centuries are suddenly less reliable.
What’s even more ominous is that too many Republicans are willing to cut Trump slack even on this taboo. The list of Republicans who have called Trump out on the anti-Semitic imagery is short. The list of those who have been silent or evasive is long.
AMERICA, I ONCE WROTE, is the best present Protestants ever gave Jews. Jefferson’s secularism, included in our founding documents as a nation, provided religious liberty not just for different denominations of Christians (who were at each other’s throats in Europe), but for Jews.
The precursor to the constitutional separation of church and state was the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, enacted in 1786. Jefferson, who inspired and fought for the Virginia law, wrote that it was “[m]eant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
In the United States, Jews have faced some discrimination, but never pogroms. More than anywhere else in the world, Jews here are secure. Jews are Americans.
To be sure, ugly anti-Semitism has persisted beneath the surface. But ever since the Holocaust, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, to invert the usual meaning of the phrase, has provided that the American establishment abhors anti-Semites. Those who would use anti-Semitism, or welcome the support of anti-Semites, such as David Duke, are ostracized by mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike.
The story gets complicated, however, since the Jewish establishment has long tried to paint critics of Israeli policy as de facto anti-Semites. Abe Foxman, the indefatigable longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a 2004 book, “What some call anti-Zionism is, in reality, anti-Semitism, always, everywhere, and for all time.” When there are real anti-Semites out there, this conflation is less than helpful.
Dissenters on the subject of Israel have long been intimidated with threats of primary fights. The careers of several mainstream politicians, such as Democrats like Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota and Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, or Republican Paul Findley of Illinois, were destroyed after they criticized AIPAC and operatives put out the word that they were to be denied campaign funding.
The rise of Jews willing to criticize Israel, such as J Street and Bernie Sanders, combined with the broad loathing of the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, has weakened the ability of AIPAC to act as arbiter and enforcer of when criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, however, real anti-Semitism persists—and has a new ally in Donald Trump.
What is problematic about Trump is that he doesn’t play by the usual rules. The usual rules include conventions that there are things you just don’t say, or people whose support you just don’t accept. Trump dismisses all of this as so much P.C.
But if not getting into bed with anti-Semites is just silly P.C., and 40 percent of voters either agree or are willing to give Trump a pass, and too many Republican leaders are just ducking, then anti-Semitism is at risk of becoming an out-of-the-closet force.
There is also the delicate topic of the role of money in politics. I am not disclosing any tribal secrets when I observe that Jews spend a lot of campaign money. Usually, that provides substantial influence and leverage. Not in the case of Trump, who doesn’t need anyone’s money. You can just imagine the frustration of, say, Sheldon Adelson.
Lisa Spies, a Republican fundraiser active in the Jewish community, candidly told The Washington Post: “Here’s the fundamental problem: No one knows anybody on the Trump campaign. Usually donors would be talking to the director of Jewish outreach. I don’t know if they even have a director of Jewish outreach.”
In an interview with my Prospect colleague Jennifer Baik, Spies added: “This is beyond stupid. He knows Jews are offended. It’s beyond perplexing that he doubled down on it. It’s your job as someone who represents a party to try not to offend, and the easy obvious thing is to take [the tweet] down. This is more upsetting because this is the week where Republicans could have gained on Secretary Clinton.”
But if you appreciate that Trump is both comfortable with support from the far right, and disdainful of political pressure of any kind, his action is not perplexing at all. In that respect, even the Jewish community needs to be a careful lest Trump come down on them even harder and give even more license to anti-Semitism.
Another tricky issue is the limits of the tactical alliance that conservative American Jews have made with Christian fundamentalists around their shared support for Israel. This has always been risky business. Evangelical support for Israel is based on the doctrine of the end of days: Zion returns to the land of Israel just before we all get blown away. Jewish Zionists have something different in mind. Leon Wieseltier once perfectly captured the marriage of convenience between Zionists and Christian fundamentalists as “a grim comedy of mutual condescension.”
Given the right set of historical accidents, the careful cultivation of the Christian right on the issue of Israel was destined to be of little help. The list of evangelicals who support Trump is extensive and disgraceful, right-wing Christian Zionism notwithstanding.
In short, in the face of threats from genuine anti-Semites (not just critics of Israel’s settlement policy), the Jewish community finds itself without its usual protections. The usual favor bank is inoperative. The fact that Trump has a Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who he relies on as an adviser, does not offset Trump’s eyes-open dalliance with hardcore anti-Semites. Kushner is more a prop than a firewall. There is nobody who Trump would fail to throw under the bus should that prove expedient.
In the past, the occasional mainstream Republican played footsie with anti-Semitism—but never a presidential nominee. Pat Buchanan wrote an article in 2003 contending that Jewish neo-conservatives in the Bush administration had hijacked Bush’s Middle East policy, as if those dumb goys Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Bush himself were mere tools of wily Jews such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams.
But Buchanan was widely condemned and isolated. Today, when one looks for leading Republicans who deplore Trump’s use of anti-Semitic imagery and cultivation of far-right support, there is mainly the sound of silence.
After the Star of David episode, former GOP candidate Ben Carson declared in a tweet, "Social media provides a great platform for discourse, but we must be careful with the messages we send out.” Not exactly a profile in courage.
Paul Ryan was quick to declare, "Look, anti-Semitic images, they've got no place in a presidential campaign," but he quickly qualified that by adding that the image in question was the work of Trump’s staff (uh, who hired these people?) and not Trump himself. When Trump himself retracted the retraction, Ryan did not comment.
A search by the Prospect’s Baik found no explicit criticisms of Trump for his use of the star by any leading Republican senator. RNC Chair Reince Priebus was silent, as was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Even the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose site includes a May statement congratulating and urging party unity under Trump, did not respond to requests for comments.
IN 2004, I WROTE a long cover piece for the Prospect on the subject of religious tolerance and the rise of the far right. The essay was titled “What Would Jefferson Do?” The cover illustration was of the Washington Monument, with a horizontal piece added, so that the pillar became a cross. My essay drew on several books, including Philip Roth’s novel The War Against America, Maria Menocal’s Ornament of the World, and Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All. Roth imagined an America in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh had defeated FDR in the 1940 election and made an entente with Hitler. Menocal’s book was about one remarkable period of religious tolerance and Jewish flourishing—under liberal Muslim leadership in Andalusia in the three centuries after 753. Elon wrote of the Jewish community in Germany, between 1743 and 1933.
For me, the common element was a reminder of the fragility of Jewish security. America, after Andalusia and Germany, is the third great epoch of Jewish thriving in a mostly non-Jewish country. So far, that experience has lasted longer than the one in Germany, and not as long as Jewish Spain.
American Jews think of themselves as quintessential Americans, just as their counterparts did in medieval Spain and pre-Hitler Germany. They have been patriots and major players in commercial and political life, and disproportionate contributors to scholarship, the professions, and the arts—just as in Spain and in Germany. That leads to a sense of both security and vulnerability.
Elements of American Jewish leadership have been incautious—in the Israel lobby’s equation of criticism of Israeli settlement policy with anti-Semitism; in the high-handed actions by some Hasidic settlers, who treat Rockland County, New York, as a domestic West Bank; and in bizarre alliances of convenience with right-wingers. Paradoxically, these defensive moves have weakened the American Jewish community, by evoking stereotypes and drawing down the stock of broad tolerance that American Jews have traditionally enjoyed, at a time when genuine anti-Semitism rears its head.
Now, in the face of Trump, the community finds itself without some of its usual protections. Is it 1933 Berlin? No. Is it alarming as hell? Yes.