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December 17, 2019 5:27 pm

President Trump, Antisemitism and the New York Times

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


The New York Times logo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times displayed evident signs of unease over President Donald Trump’s recent executive order including antisemitism within the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin.” At a White House ceremony, the president added, “My administration will never tolerate the suppression, persecution or silencing of the Jewish people.”

Trump had already relocated the American embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and announced, through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that Israeli settlements in biblical Judea and Samaria do not violate international law. His new executive order provides further evidence that no president — nor all presidents combined — has been so generous to Israel and the Jewish people since Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state in 1948.

The New York Times was predictably upset with Trump’s executive order. Nothing riles Times editors more than a Trump gift to Israel. An editorial on December 11 complained that it “does little to target the larger source of violent anti-Semitism in America and possibly threatens free speech rights.” It did not identify “the larger source.” A two-column article about the executive order appeared under the title “Unease at Trump’s Order.” Trump was accused of “frequently endorsing crude, negative caricatures about Jews.” The Times conveniently forgot its own appalling antisemitic cartoon showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog leading a blind, yarmulke-wearing Trump.

Given more than a century of Times ownership by the Sulzberger family, which has roots in Reform Judaism, it predictably focused on the displeasure of Reform rabbis. A Washington rabbi complained that “This is deeply objectionable, going back centuries in anti-Semitic thinking.” A Chicago rabbi worried that to stifle antisemitism would only increase it. The executive director of T’ruah, identified as “a liberal Jewish group,” perceived “a cynical move to pretend that the administration actually cares about Jews.”

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Two Times articles on December 16 upped the ante of criticism.

Columnist Max Fisher bracketed Trump with a “global populist backlash” that is determined to enforce “narrow national identities.” Exploring the concept of national identity in a “new nationalist era,” Fisher seemed uncomfortable — as the Times long has been — with any suggestion that “religion carries a distinct nationality.” Echoing the chorus, Times opinion writer (and Yale undergraduate) Spencer Bokat-Lindell adapted to Times standards with his dismissal of the claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

As if all that was not enough to convey Times discomfort, a six-column article the same day by Dan Levin, who covers American youth for the Times, and Myah Ward, a University of North Carolina student, focused on the discomfort that Trump’s statement is causing on campus. College students “across the political spectrum” (numbering three from the University of North Carolina, two from Duke and one from Berkeley) confessed uneasiness about how the Trump order might affect them.

A Duke University student, and founding member of Duke Students for Justice in Palestine (an organization not known for its love of Israel), identified Trump’s decision as part of “an anti-Palestinian racist campaign.” A University of North Carolina Jewish student believed that the decision to locate antisemitism within Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin) “sort of plays into anti-Semitic tropes.” Another UNC student worried that the Trump order “falsely equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” Revealingly, only one student — a member of College Republicans at the University of North Carolina — understood that Trump’s executive order “shows that this president has stood with the Jewish people since Day 1.”

None of these students should be expected to know that Trump’s executive order touches a sensitive issue deeply embedded in The New York Times ever since Adolph Ochs purchased the newspaper in 1896. The son-in-law of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, leader of the American Reform movement, Ochs embraced the Reform definition of Judaism as a religion, not a national identity. So doing, American Reform Jews could avoid the dreaded accusation of dual loyalty that would compromise their passionate patriotism as loyal Americans.

Coincidentally, in the same year that Ochs purchased the Times, Theodor Herzl called for “the restoration of the Jewish State” in the ancient Land of Israel, the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Ochs and his Sulzberger successors, until now, have believed that assimilation testifies to the patriotic loyalty of American Jews. The very idea, to say nothing of the eventual reality, of a Jewish state challenged the Times assimilationist credo.

Perhaps, if Trump is reelected next year, the United States will even recognize Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Imagine the Times response to that.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016.

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