The old right-wing anti-Semitism is not dead

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States in part thanks to the presidency of Donald Trump, argues Maurice Samuels.

This commentary by Maurice Samuels, the Betty Jane Anlyan Professor of French and director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, was published online in Le Monde on Oct. 31. Read the original commentary in French.

Until last weekend, many Americans thought that it could never happen here. Violence against Jews was a European problem, imprinted on the old continent’s DNA by centuries of Christian animosity and reactivated in recent years by radical Islamists. Of course, the United States has a horrific history of violence against blacks, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups, but many Jews convinced themselves that they were safe in the New World. No longer. The attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday put to rest the fantasy of lexception américaine.

It is clear that something has changed for Jews in America in the last two years. According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, attacks on Jewish people and property in the United States increased by nearly 60% between 2016 and 2017.  While the causes of antisemitism are complex, the correlation with the Trump presidency is obvious: Trump’s brand of racist nationalism, his legitimation of hatred against Jews and other minorities, bears significant blame for the violence that we are now facing.

Trump’s embrace of antisemitism was apparent during the presidential campaign, when Stephen Bannon, a far-right ideologue who openly proclaims his admiration for Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen, helped ensure that white supremacists saw Trump as their candidate. Trump’s speeches were larded with so-called “dog whistles” — seemingly anodyne phrases or symbols that signalled to racists that Trump shared their world-view.  For instance, the slogan “America First” is no innocent celebration of national pride, but rather served as the rallying cry of the aviator Charles Lindbergh, who blamed Jews for pushing the United States into World War II against its own national interest.

As the 2016 presidential campaign wore on, Trump alternated his outrageous attacks on Mexicans and Muslims with a more subtle, but no less pernicious, demonization of Jews. Shortly before the election, a final Trump campaign television advertisement singled out, along with Hillary Clinton, three prominent American Jews for vilification: George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire who supports progressive and pro-democratic causes around the world; Janet Yellen, who was at the time chair of the Federal Reserve Bank; and Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of the investment bank Goldman Sachs. You don’t need to be a dog to hear that whistle.

Since winning the presidency, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to ally with racists and antisemites. On Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2017, he issued a statement that bizarrely refused to mention Jews as victims of the Nazis. After white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us!” attacked protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one of them, Trump insisted in a speech that there were “good people on both sides” of the clash. And he has made a habit of repeating (or retweeting) far-right conspiracy theories, many of them revolving around George Soros, who functions as a convenient stand-in for the all-powerful Jew controlling financial markets, politics, and the press. This figure has been a staple of antisemitic discourse since “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In recent weeks, as the mid-term elections approach, Trump has resorted frequently to attacks on Soros in the campaign-style rallies he holds on an almost daily basis. In some speeches, he has suggested that Soros paid protesters to accost Republican senators before the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In others, that Soros funded the “caravan” of migrants seeking asylum in the United States that is moving through Central America. These lies are then amplified by the right-wing echo chamber in ways that emphasize the Jewishness of their target. One commentator on Fox News recently denounced the “Soros-Occupied State Department,” an updating of the staple antisemitic phrase “Zionist-Occupied Government” or ZOG.

These conspiracy theories have dangerous real-world consequences. In the past week, a fanatical Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to leading Democrats as well as to the cable news network CNN. Is it a surprise that Soros received the first such package? Or that the man who attacked the congregation in Pittsburgh, killing a 97-year old woman and ten others, explained on social media that he was targeting the synagogue because he believed HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, had been trying to help the “caravan” of asylum seekers come to America? “All Jews must die,” the killer shouted as he opened fire.     

Trump’s defenders have said that he should not be held responsible for crimes committed by his followers. And that the Pittsburgh killer had in fact criticized Trump for not being antisemitic enough. Moreover, they say, Trump made a statement following the Pittsburgh attack condemning antisemitism — before tweeting about a baseball game. Trump should be judged by his actions not his words, these defenders say. And for many — including many American Jews — his actions that seem to favor the current Israeli government show that he has the interests of the Jews at heart. Pulling out of the Iran treaty and moving the American embassy to Jerusalem are taken as proof that Trump cannot really be an antisemite. 

But words are also actions. They have the power to wound and to incite others to wound. Here the record is unequivocal: Trump’s words have helped create a climate that has turned deadly for Jews. He has legitimized a kind of hate speech that targets Jews. If that is not antisemitism, then what is? 

Jews around the world, including in America, now face threats from a variety of quarters.  For the last decade, scholars have been fixated on the so-called “New Antisemitism.” Anti-Zionist in focus and often found on the left of the political spectrum, this “new” form of Jewish hatred has become a pervasive feature of radical Islamist ideology. But as Pittsburgh has shown, the “old” right-wing antisemitism is not dead. Alive and well on social media, where it takes the form of conspiracy theories involving Jews like George Soros, it has broken the surface into the mainstream of American political life thanks in large measure to Donald Trump. 

It is our responsibility, the responsibility of all of us, to condemn antisemitic speech in all of its forms — subtle and overt. We must call it out for what it is: a form of hate that leads to murder. We cannot excuse it when it serves some of our interests to do so. We cannot dismiss it out of fear or exhaustion. If we still cling to an ideal of what American society can be — not an exception but a place of promise, forever striving toward equality for its minorities — we must be vigilant. 

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