It would have been so easy for Donald Trump to address the issue of anti-Semitism at either of his two press conferences this week. All he had to do was to give an anodyne denunciation of hatred and then note his own strong Jewish connections and record of support for Israel and against those forces that promote anti-Semitism.
But he didn’t. On Wednesday, in his joint appearance with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump answered the question about anti-Semitism with a puzzling comment about his Electoral College victory last fall. The following day, when asked again about the subject by an Orthodox Jewish journalist, Trump launched into a tantrum denouncing the questioner and saying any claims that he was anti-Semitic were malicious lies intended to smear his administration. In neither case did he simply say the few simple words that would have defused the question.
While, like the rest of his astonishing press-conference performance, Trump’s behavior was explicable because of his belief that it is in his political interest to attack the media, his failure to address the issue in a satisfactory manner led to a predictable avalanche of criticism from liberal Jews as well as a denunciation from the Anti-Defamation League. Some took his non-answers as proof that, despite his Jewish grandchildren and a testimonial from Netanyahu, Trump was presiding over an administration that was harboring Jew haters and is supported by cadres of alt-right bigots and Internet trolls who heap anti-Semitic abuse on his critics.
They blame him for the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in the last year, including numerous threats that have been made against Jewish community centers around the country in recent months. Trump’s detractors point not only to the White House’s absurd Holocaust remembrance statement that failed to mention Jews, and the stubborn refusal to apologize for that omission. They also believe that Trump’s purported dog-whistling during the campaign about hate groups and his offensive comments about Mexicans, immigrants, and Muslims are the product of a prejudicial mindset. They think that when you connect all these dots, you have a picture of a president who has been an enabler of hate, and that the surge in anti-Jewish incidents is directly attributable to Trump’s behavior.
Trump is guilty of being tone-deaf about the way his comments are perceived, and of turning a blind eye to the way the alt-right has interpreted his stands. It’s also possible to assert that his silence about hate groups at times — especially during last year’s primary campaign — is a cynical strategy that encourages some on the far right to believe that Trump is on their side.
But even if we were to concede all of this, the case for Trump or even senior aide Steve Bannon (who is viewed by many liberals as the evil genius plotting to promote hate from his new lair in the West Wing) being an anti-Semite doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. While the new administration can be fairly blamed for a multitude of shortcomings, the notion that Trump is the one who opened the Pandora’s box of Jew-hatred sweeping across the globe is simply wrong.
Part of the reason why Trump is associated with anti-Semitism stems from the modern trope in which everything and everyone that some on the left dislike can wind up being called Hitler. Classic anti-Semites on the right who promote forms of traditional Jew-hatred have gained more notice in the last year because of their connection with an invigorated alt-right. But such people have no role in the Trump administration, nor are they likely to. His use of the slogan “America First” has a historical precedent in pre–WWII isolationism, which was compromised by anti-Semitism, but that is something that has meaning for some in the Jewish community and few others. Attempts to link his immigration executive orders to the Holocaust are specious and a partisan effort to confuse policy differences with prejudice. Bannon and the Breitbart website bear some blame for the encouragement of the worst elements among Trump’s backers, but neither the man nor the publication has been guilty of anti-Semitism. Like Trump, Breitbart has a record of support for Israel, and it hasn’t published any anti-Semitic articles.
If there is a rising tide of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe and now seeking footholds in the United States, it is not driven by the alt-right but by Islamists and leftist anti-Zionists.
The ADL isn’t wrong to say that Trump’s missed opportunities to denounce hate are a grave mistake, since moral leadership on such issues is part of the brief of any president. But the reason for this isn’t a sign that he is a closeted bigot so much as it is the product of a political strategy — encouraged by Bannon — of never admitting the premise of a critic’s question. Since Trump knows the Left thinks he is an anti-Semite, he refuses to meekly denounce hate but instead launches into a furious and often ridiculous counterattack on those who have the temerity of posing the question. That’s bad policy and bad politics, since Trump could do himself and the country a world of good by disassociating his presidency from hate. But the fact that he behaves in this manner is not proof of anti-Semitism.
More importantly, what those who are wringing their hands about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents forget is that the primary factor behind such hate crimes isn’t the things Donald Trump says or doesn’t say. If there is a “rising tide of anti-Semitism,” as the Obama State Department noted in recent years, sweeping across Europe and now seeking footholds in the United States, it is not driven by the alt-right but by Islamists and leftist anti-Zionists who seek to single out Jews and supporters of Israel for opprobrium and violence. The BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement, which seeks to wage economic war on the state of Israel, has been directly responsible for an increase in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses. Its support comes from the left and has a connection to the increasingly vocal and influential wing of the Democratic party that is deeply critical of Israel and willing at times to engage in speech that singles out Jews as part of an alleged cabal of Zionists seeking to manipulate American foreign policy against the best interests of the United States.
Those concerned about anti-Semitism need to lose their Trump tunnel vision and look at comments in a speech Representative Keith Ellison — the leading candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee — made about Israel and Jews. They should also have been just as outraged about comments made by Senator Robert Menendez during the confirmation hearing of David Friedman, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, on the day of the president’s epic presser attack on the press. In questioning Friedman, the New Jersey Democrat — who in the past has been a stalwart friend of Israel and a foe of Iran — raised the specter of dual loyalty for American Jews. That should have alarmed the ADL and others who worry about the way anti-Semitic stereotypes are gaining ground in the public square. But the ADL was more worried about what Trump didn’t say than about what Menendez did say, and it was silent about the outrageous question the senator posed. If even Menendez is speaking in language that shows the growing influence of the anti-Israel Left, that should alert the country to the fact that there are other things to worry about than Trump’s rants.
Donald Trump could do much more to denounce anti-Semitism, and he deserves criticism for that failure. But those who are quick to connect that mistake to a problem that is largely rooted in movements and ideologies with which he and his administration have no connection are just as wrong.