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Weinfeld: Anti-Semitism in the White House

The White House in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Embassy, Jakarta/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Seventeen years ago, as the Second Intifada raged in Israel, Leon Wieseltier wrote a compelling article in The New Republic titled, Hitler is Dead: Against Ethnic Panic. Wieseltier has since disgraced himself, admitting to multiple accounts of sexual harassment and misconduct, resulting in his firing from the magazine. Despite this abhorrent behaviour, his article is worth revisiting for its insight on America, Israel and the Jews.

In Hitler is Dead, Wieseltier lamented the Jewish tendency toward pessimistic paranoia. He cited approvingly of Hebrew scholar Simon Rawidowicz, who, in 1948, ironically called Jews “the ever-dying people,” and who constantly feared their demise. This tendency continued in 2002, when Hamas was equated with Amalek, the implacable foe of the Israelites, or even worse, with Hitler.

Charles Krauthammer compared the horrific Passover massacre in Netanya to Kristallnacht. Nat Hentoff worried about surging anti-Semitism in the United States, musing that, “If a loudspeaker goes off and a voice says, ‘all Jews gather in Times Square,’ it could never surprise me.”

Wieseltier disagreed. Amalek, like the Nazis, could not be negotiated with. Yet, to make peace, Israel needed to negotiate with the Palestinians, even with Hamas. As Wieselter presciently observed, while former prime minister Ariel Sharon may have understood this, “for Netanyahu, by contrast, every nacht is Kristallnacht.” And nothing in American Jewish history suggested the dystopian nightmare that Hentoff imagined.

Any litmus test on American Jewish politics is inherently anti-Semitic.

Nonetheless, the article remains relevant. In 2002, Jews were concerned with deadly anti-Semitism coming from the Palestinian terrorists. Today, there is a renewed fear of violent anti-Semitism, but it is directed towards the alt-right. North American Jewish institutions may be paranoid about BDS, but none of them fear attacks from left-wing gunmen (and if they do, they are deluded).

Even more scary is the anti-Semitism coming from the White House. Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump accused American Jews of abandoning Israel, commenting that any Jew who votes Democrat displays “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Pundits debated whether this meant loyalty to America, to Israel or to Trump. The answer seems to be all three. For Trump, there is total synergy between loyalty to America, Israel and himself.

The idea that Jewishness, Israel and the U.S. share similar values is not new. Prior to the First World War, Louis Brandeis, soon to be nominated to the Supreme Court, emerged as an American Zionist leader. In 1915, he proclaimed: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” For Brandeis, the value that linked Judaism, Zionism and Americanism was progressive liberalism. Trump, on the other hand, sees Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a fellow strongman defending an ethno-nationalist agenda.

Moreover, the tones struck by Brandeis and Trump could not be more different. Brandeis sought to encourage and uplift American Jews. Trump offered a thinly veiled threat. His “support” for Israel is thin, bigoted and dangerous. There’s only one right way to be an American Jew, according to Trump, and that’s through loyalty to Israel and loyalty to him.

U.S. President Donald Trump (Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Any litmus test on American Jewish politics is inherently anti-Semitic. It’s not the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, which expunged Jews from the body politic. That anti-Semitism motivates the synagogue shooters of the world, who believe Jews are incapable of loyalty and must be exterminated. But Trumpian anti-Semitism, which questions Jewish loyalty, is pernicious in its potential to stifle protest, divide the Jewish community and inspire terrorism.

The two American anti-Semitisms are especially terrifying in tandem. There is an implicit understanding that if Jews are disloyal, according to Trump’s definition, there may be a synagogue shooter waiting in the shadows to punish them. Hitler is still dead, and now is not the time for ethnic panic. Right-wing anti-Semitism threatens us, and we must unite to meet the threat rationally.

Posting armed guards at shuls is not enough. Donald Trump, who spreads and legitimates this bigotry, must be defeated at the ballot box, and American Jews must play a lead role in this campaign.

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