By MICHELLE GOLDBERG APRIL 1, 2017
On March 23, a Jewish teenager was arrested in Israel, accused of being behind the wave of bomb threats that had terrorized Jewish organizations since President Trump’s election. For people alarmed about the uptick in religious and ethnic bigotry in the Trump era, this was a shock.
Mr. Trump had been slow to condemn the threats, as well as several incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism. Pennsylvania’s attorney general said that Mr. Trump told him that this activity could be a false flag campaign intended “to make people — or to make others — look bad.” This theory had been floating around white supremacist circles, and much to the delight of the far right, it turned out to be partly correct.
As a result, the Trump administration is now acting as if it has been permanently absolved from addressing hate crimes. Last Monday, the journalist April Ryan asked the White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, if the White House had anything to say about the murder of a black man in New York City by a white supremacist. In response, Mr. Spicer complained about how unfair it had been to ask “folks on the right” to denounce anti-Semitic bomb threats, when it turned out those threats hadn’t come from the right.
It was a bizarre argument. Normally, it is routine for presidents to offer sympathy to victims of high-profile crimes — without treating it as an opportunity to settle a political grudge.
All the same, the Israeli bomb threat hoax does force some reassessment. Perhaps we have given Trump-era anti-Semitism more emphasis than it deserves. This does not mean that, as Mr. Spicer suggests, we should see the president as the victim of unjust insinuations. Instead, we should ask why there was so much more pressure on Mr. Trump to speak out about apparent anti-Semitic threats than about other types of religious and ethnic violence.
For example, while synagogues have been threatened, at least four mosques have been burned. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there have been 35 attacks on mosques — including vandalism, break-ins and death threats — in the first three months of this year, compared with 19 over the same period in 2016. In the last week, a family of Pakistani origin in Virginia and an Iranian refugee in Oregon reported their homes broken into and defaced with anti-Muslim obscenities.
The Iranian was not even Muslim, and others who are not Muslim but may be suspected of being such have been targeted in hate crime incidents. In February, a white man demanded to know if two Indian patrons at a bar in Kansas were in the country illegally, and shot them, killing one. In March, a masked assailant shot a Sikh man in Washington State, reportedly telling him to go back to his country.
The various strands of renascent bigotry in Mr. Trump’s America are intertwined, and anti-Semitism is only part of the tapestry. Yet Americans, for good historical reasons, tend to have a particularly heightened sensitivity toward anti-Semitism. All 100 senators signed a letter calling on the Trump administration to take “swift action” against the anti-Semitic bomb threats. There has been no similar political urgency in demanding protection for other harassed minorities.
The president and his associates mix anti-Semitic dog whistles with frank attacks on Muslims, immigrants and refugees. The paradox is that in today’s America, coded anti-Semitism is more of a political taboo than open Islamophobia. We spend a great deal of time and energy parsing the semiotics of Mr. Trump’s role in stoking anti-Jewish sentiment, while Muslims and immigrants can be defamed with impunity. The risk here is that we’ve been distracted by the anti-Semitism controversy from the ways in which other groups are being demonized as Jews once were.
In his definitive 1994 book “Anti-Semitism in America,” Leonard Dinnerstein describes American anti-Semitism reaching a high tide in the early 1940s. The country was traumatized by the Great Depression and apprehensive about war in Europe. Reactionaries imagined themselves squeezed between globalist Jewish bankers above and subversive Jewish refugee hordes below.
The America First Committee, formed to keep the United States out of World War II, was full of bigots and Nazi sympathizers; Mr. Dinnerstein quotes the chairman of the Terre Haute, Ind., chapter saying, “Jews were now in possession of our government.” There were widespread assertions that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was secretly Jewish; anti-Semites insisted his real last name was Rosenfeld.
Demagogues found popular support for their demand to keep Jewish refugees out of the country. Mr. Dinnerstein describes an anti-Semitic speaker warning of “200,000 Communist Jews at the Mexican border waiting to get into this country,” adding that “if they are admitted they will rape every woman and child that is left unprotected.”
Today, these tropes feel familiar but in a new context. Mr. Trump started his political career by amplifying rumors that President Barack Obama was secretly Muslim. He resurrected the disgraced slogan “America First.” In October, he warned that Hillary Clinton was meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.” Mr. Trump called for refugees to be kept out of the country, smearing them as agents of a sinister foreign ideology. Breitbart, the website formerly run by Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, has run a stream of alarmist articles about refugee rapists.
In the Trump administration’s conspiratorial nationalism, avowed anti-Semites hear their overarching narratives reflected back to them, their prejudices tacitly approved. Mr. Trump himself does not appear to harbor personal anti-Jewish animus: He has a beloved Jewish daughter and close Jewish advisers. Yet he and members of his circle have broken long-established social and political norms by mining the anti-Semitic far right for images and arguments.
During the presidential campaign, Michael T. Flynn, who would briefly serve as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, retweeted someone attacking CNN with the words, “Not anymore, Jews, not anymore.” (Mr. Flynn later apologized.) Mr. Trump himself tweeted an image, first circulated online by white supremacists, featuring Hillary Clinton’s face and a Star of David superimposed over a background of $100 bills and the message “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” (Mr. Trump insisted he’d done nothing wrong.) Under Mr. Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart defended online anti-Semitism as subversive good fun and published a column attacking the conservative writer Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew.”
In power, the new administration, too, seemed to be trolling the Jewish community. In January, the White House released a statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to mention Jews. A spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, told CNN the omission was intentional, because the administration “took into account all of those who suffered” — echoing the position of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers who seek to play down the genocide of Jews.
At an inauguration ball, Sebastian Gorka, a Breitbart editor who was soon to become a White House adviser, wore a medal associated with a Nazi-collaborationist Hungarian group, the Vitezi Rend. The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported that Mr. Gorka was a sworn member of the group. (Mr. Gorka claimed he wore the medal to honor his father, from whom he “inherited” Vitezi Rend membership.)
This is where we are now: A senior administration official dons fascist paraphernalia, defends himself by saying he did so out of filial loyalty, and suffers no political repercussions.
Naturally, many Jews find this chilling, but we should not lose sight of the real import of Mr. Gorka’s appointment. He may flirt with anti-Semitic iconography for sentimental reasons, but he owes his career to his apocalyptic view of America’s war with radical Islam. The Islamic State, he claimed last year, “is already well entrenched on the shores of the United States.” When the National Cathedral hosted a Muslim prayer service in a gesture of ecumenical good will, Mr. Gorka published a Breitbart column headlined: “Muslim Brotherhood Overruns National Cathedral in D.C.”
Last year, Michael Anton, now a White House national security staffer, wrote a pseudonymous essay arguing that “mass immigration has overwhelmed, eroded, and de-Americanized formerly American communities.” He was particularly contemptuous of Muslim immigration. Yes, he allowed, “not all Muslims are terrorists, blah, blah, blah, etc. Even so, what good has Muslim immigration done for the United States and the American people?”
To be an American Muslim or a brown-skinned immigrant and know that people like this are in power must be terrifying. Mr. Trump and his appointees have consistently denigrated and dehumanized these minorities in ways we’d never tolerate if they were talking about Jews.
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Naturally, a government that decides certain groups of people “don’t mean anything” shakes many Jews to the core. But the horror of the president’s vision isn’t that “the other people” might include Jews. It includes people. Even in this brutally tribal moment, that should be enough.