Donald Trump’s victory has provoked a sectarian struggle over American Jewish values.
The recent, unexpected election of Donald J. Trump to the US presidency has aroused widespread fear, anxiety and, not infrequently, derision on the part of political observers—both at home and abroad. Why?
At first, the answers seem obvious and straightforward. The president-elect is an amateur at politics, never having run for public office. He is a huckster and conman who bears a closer resemblance to P.T. Barnum than Dwight Eisenhower. Trump is also a notoriously thin-skinned bully and is unable to tolerate even mild criticism without recourse to vengefulness. He is also a sexist whose views on women often appear to approach lechery. Yet that is not the worst of it.
As far as his policy proposals are concerned, Trump appeals to a renewed nationalism, “America First”— itself first popularized by interwar fascists in the US, led by an earlier celebrity, Charles Lindbergh—aimed at limiting the country’s international engagements and curtailing free trade. On the domestic front, Trump aims to expel millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants and to prevent Muslims, or at least those from Arab countries, from being admitted altogether—he has used the term extreme vetting more recently. Beyond these commitments, or ostensible commitments, Trump’s outlook resembles traditional Republican views on the benefits of deregulation and lower tax rates domestically.
Fears and Anxieties
Basic to the fears and anxieties about Trump’s ascent to the presidency is his apparent endorsement of racial, religious and ethnic bigotry. His call to build a wall on the country’s southern border—to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the country illegally—and his comments about radical Islamic terrorism between American shores has struck a major chord with resentful voters in many parts of the country.
Accordingly, Trump’s flirtation with white revanchism won him the enthusiastic support of David Duke, the longtime neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan leader, the current KKK itself and the loose aggregation of white nationalists, right-wing populists and anti-Semites who have recently attempted to rebrand themselves as the alt-right.
The latter generally perceives the white race as the only source of invention and creativity in the world. In their narrative, the US is threatened from other racial and/or religious groups who have gradually invaded and occupied the whites’ traditional European and North American homeland. The more conspiracy-minded activists among these white nationalists see American Jews as, once again, behind efforts to undermine American greatness and white leadership.
As evidence, radical (aka alt-)right ideologues like Richard Spencer cite the role of Jewish figures in the mainstream media, public radio and television; and in particular, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the leading social media websites. He and other white nationalist leaders stress the role of these key news outlets in undermining Trump’s presidential campaign. And, of course, they have a point. Every major big city newspaper around the country (save the Las Vegas Review-Journal, ironically enough, owned by Sheldon Adelson), including those with long-time Republican commitments, endorsed Hillary Clinton. The latter’s near-unanimous support from the country’s foreign policy establishment was widely publicized by the news outlets.
At the street level, such watchdog organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), as well as the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, have called attention to the rapid rise in hate crimes and acts of hate driven vandalism since Trump’s election. Swastikas have been painted on a variety of public buildings. Just 10 days after Trump won the Electoral College vote, reported hate incidents were nearing 900.
These developments have led some commentators to observe that Trump’s campaign expressed a thinly-veiled form of anti-Semitism in the country. For one, the appointment of Steve Bannon as a White House adviser appeared to strengthen the case for a new anti-Semitic tone in the Trump transition team and, therefore, incoming administration. Bannon, a well-known veteran of white nationalist and other far-right enterprises, has caused more than 100 US Congressmen to sign a petition demanding that Trump rescind the appointment. Even in these early days of astonishing Trump’s paramountcy, spines are stiffening.
The Red Herring
Whatever the truth about Trump’s sexist attitudes and his xenophobic expressions against Latinos and Muslims, the accusation of anti-Semitism does not conform to reality. This is largely a red herring.
President-elect Trump’s daughter Ivanka is a convert to Orthodox Judaism, a result of the fact that her husband, Jared Kushner, is a religiously-observant Jew. Moreover, Kushner, whose business background, like Trump’s, is in property development, has become a close adviser to the incoming president. He will likely remain in this position, or in one similar, after Trump takes office in January 2017.
Yet the story does not end with the Trump family. Trump has surrounded himself with a substantial list of Jewish business partners, legal advisers, upper echelon employees and campaign contributors. Here are some examples: Jason Greenblat, another Orthodox Jew, is Trump’s principal attorney. Another lawyer, David Friedman, handles Trump’s bankruptcy filings. Michael Cohen has served as a campaign spokesman and was recently called on to chair Trump’s council of economic advisers. Boris Epshteyn is also listed as a spokesman and senior adviser. Lewis Eisenberg chaired Trump’s victory committee. Major donors and fundraisers for the Trump presidential campaign included the hedge-fund manager and recently named treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and the billionaire casino owner Adelson.
If we add to this list the fact that Trump spoke recently before a meeting of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and has advocated moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a position long-advocated by the Israeli far-right. In fact, Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has expressed a close friendship with the American president-elect. The claim he is an anti-Semite appears shaky.
Indeed, if there is some underlying conflict at work here it has to do with the Jewish community itself. Trump’s Jewish supporters and confidants are drawn largely from the world of business, investment banking and law and, especially, New York property development. Trump’s loudest and most visible critics have also tended be Jewish. But these academics, newspaper and blog reporters, columnists, magazine editors and writers occupy a completely different social and political milieu than Trump’s Jewish supporters.
What we appear to be witnessing then is not a conflict between anti-Semites and the principles of constitutional liberalism, but a sectarian struggle over American Jewish values.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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