The Jewish Community’s Shameful Silence on Donald Trump
Last Sunday, President-elect Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon as chief strategist in the White House. We — as Jews — have a profound and existential responsibility to understand carefully what this appointment and, more generally, President-elect Donald Trump’s successful campaign, means for us.
Some seem shocked (“Antisemitism?! Here?!”); most are shrugging their shoulders (“We’ll see what happens.”) And then there’s the Orthodox community, which overwhelmingly supports Trump. What does seem clear, however — not from the “liberal” media, but from his own headlines in Breitbart — is that Bannon presided over a full-scale legitimization and expansion of what has euphemistically termed itself the “alt-right,” a contemporary iteration of classic white supremacy.
Self-described as virulently anti-establishment, the alt-right traffics in the Christian West’s prolific discourse of anti-Jewish racism in order to launch attacks on a perceived “liberal” elite. Surreptitious influence in media, manipulation of global finance, urban-cosmopolitan degeneracy — these are common, well-developed tropes of anti-Jewish racism, whether or not the targets of these attacks are themselves, in fact, Jewish.
The rise in acts of anti-Jewish racism during the campaign and since Election Day — marking and vandalizing Jewish spaces, attacking and denigrating Jewish peers, cyberbullying Jewish journalists — makes obvious that German repentance failed to wash away the Christian West’s original sin. A multimillennial discourse of denigration and domination cannot be dismantled with a few show trials (i.e. Nuremberg) or the proliferation of memorials. It lives with us and inside us.
This is important, because far too many American Jews, especially young ones, live with an intense ignorance of the history of Jewish life in the Christian West — overwhelmingly characterized by neither financial comfort nor white privilege, but rather crude violence, debilitating poverty and sinister demonization. The Torah writes that the Jews “became fat” and subsequently forgot God. We might add — as the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch presciently warned — that their remarkable prosperity (and for some, whiteness) made them forget they were Jews.
I will not bore you with comparisons to Hitler and the rise of Nazi fascism/right-wing populism in Germany. Those arguments have been made and are simply too obvious and irrefutable to bear repeating here. Furthermore, the alt-right makes an important chiddush, innovation, on Nazism, which is to mobilize and transform Euro-Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric into a machinery for attacking the changing demographics of America.
“Jews control the media” becomes “Liberals control the media.” “Jews are taking our jobs” becomes “Our jobs are going to brown and black people here and overseas.” “Jews encourage degenerate culture” becomes “Multiculturalism is ruining America.” The attack evolves, but the fundamental anti-Jewish contours persist. The scope has widened, but the weapon is the same.
I do not believe that President-elect Trump deserves a “chance.” Winning the Electoral College does not come with a get-out-of-jail-free card; and treating liberal democracy as an infallible model to which we must submit is, of course, avodah zarah — idolatry.
But we should return, at the very least, to the prominent Jewish voice emanating from the Trump organization: that of Jared Kushner. We ought to return, in particular, to the opinion piece he published in his own newspaper, The New York Observer, in early July, as Jewish journalists were facing an unprecedented cyberattack from the alt-right on both their work and personal lives.
Kushner began the piece with a simple statement: “My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite. It’s that simple, really. Donald Trump is not anti-Semitic and he’s not a racist.”
Apart from the lukewarm dismissal (and thus tacit approval) of the correlation between Trump’s campaign and the harassment of Jewish journalists — emboldened by the fallacious and combative style of the Breitbart media organization — the simplicity of Kushner’s statement says everything we need to know about how Kushner, and the Trump organization, understands antisemitism in particular and racism in general.
Apparently, Kushner understands antisemitism as a deeply personal problem. Surely, if you believe antisemitism comes down to psychology; if you believe racism comes down to manners or lackthereof; in short, if you believe racism is about “not being nice,” then Kushner’s statement brings tremendous comfort. How else might we explain its utter irrelevance? Did anyone reasonably suspect that Donald Trump consciously harbored feelings of hatred and desires of domination, or chas v’shalom elimination, of Jews in America?
But anti-Jewish racism, and racism at large, is nothing of the kind. Certainly, there are psychologies and pathologies associated with racist cultures, which subsequently play out in interpersonal relationships. But these psychologies and pathologies are symptoms of the disease; they are not the disease itself. The problem is not the spray-painted swastikas and the sad, empty individuals shouting “kike.” The problem is much wider and much deeper. It begins by sustaining systems of exploitation, categorizing and denigrating large swaths of society, managing their movement and public behavior, producing internal and external enemies, rounding up for deportation and incarceration. And if we treat only the symptoms, our collective body will continue to rot before deciding, in frenzy, to amputate.
Which is why no amount of editorials defending individual track records and proclaiming individual love for the Jewish people will help. The German people were not regrettably unkind. The Cossacks were not simply mean. The Inquisitors were not just bullies. And the Crusaders were not haphazardly sadistic. Deep, systematic structures, compounded over years of exclusion, oppression and theological demonization, produced violent psychologies.
The “Jewish tax” instituted by the Romans and revived in medieval Germany; the New Testament’s potent anti-Judaism (re-energized by countless Popes and theologians); the restrictive concentration of Jewish work into finance, trade, textiles and the culture industry; the proliferation of sexually and physically violent portrayals of Jews in Euro-Christian popular culture; the spatial segregation of Jewish populations into severely under-resourced “ghettos” or regions of “settlement”; a philosophical obsession with the “problem” of Judaism. The list goes on.
And I have no doubt whatsoever that many white Christians who harbor this historic anti-Judaism say “please” and “thank you” and hold the door for their Jewish neighbors. But racism, at its core, has nothing to do with decency. This is why Kushner’s defense, which even cites his own family’s harrowing history, is both frightening and immaterial. Kushner gravely misdiagnoses the problem and in the process consents to his, and our, oppression.
But we Jews have always been near to the center of our own oppression. Our proximity and access to the centers of power has been both our great privilege and most deadly liability. In recent history, both Jabotinsky’s fascination and involvement with Italian fascism and Lukács’s complicity with Stalinism come to mind. And apart from Kushner’s own proximity to the president-elect, apparently vast numbers of Jews, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party are in like political mind.
If we do not begin to recognize the deep, historic forces we face, not only will we make the fatal mistake of reproducing a multimillennial anti-Judaism, but we will also, however unwittingly, encourage and sustain its attendant violence now directed against numerous other minorities — all of whom deserve our vigilant support and solidarity.
Perhaps most damning, however, is the simple fact that our failure to recognize and attack this insidious and widespread racism requires abandoning the countless Jews of color, queer Jews and Jewish women who have already begun to suspect the limits of our collective inclusivity, our achdus — unity, and our ahavas Yisroel — love for every Jew.