Writing in Haaretz this week, sociologist Eva Illouz wondered why many Israeli and American Jews, usually so sensitive to any hint of anti-Semitism, seem untroubled by the undeniable anti-Semitism of some of Donald Trump’s supporters. It’s a fair question that deserves a serious answer, which Illouz signally failed to provide: She resorted to the lazy leftist’s favorite tactic of stigmatizing her opponents as racist ultra-nationalists, thereby absolving herself of the need to try to understand what they actually think. But since her pseudo answer doesn’t negate the validity of her question, let me try to provide a real one.
A good place to start, ironically, is with the misplaced Holocaust analogies liberal American Jews have been spouting ever since Trump’s election, like ADL director Jonathan Greenblatt’s statement last month that anti-Semitic rhetoric in the U.S. has reached levels unseen since 1930s Germany. Jonathan Tobin has explained in detail why such analogies are ludicrous, but two of the reasons why are crucial to understanding Jewish Trump supporters.
In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism was propagated and orchestrated by the government, not by a vocal minority. That obviously isn’t the case in America today. But it is the case in another significant part of the globe: the Arab and Muslim world.
Throughout the Muslim world, Nazi-style anti-Semitism is both rampant and government-sponsored. State-owned media, state-appointed clerics, and government officials all spew it day after day: Jews–and it’s always “Jews,” not “Israelis”–are “sons of apes and pigs” (an official spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party); they are “defiling” Islamic holy sites with their “filthy feet” (Abbas himself); Hitler killed them “so you would all know that they are a nation which spreads destruction all over the world” (an essay in a PA-funded children’s magazine); rabbis are instructing their followers to poison wells (Abbas again). And that’s from Israel’s official “peace partner.” Avowed enemies like Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas use even more openly genocidal rhetoric.
Moreover, whereas anti-Semitic Trump supporters are armed mainly with Twitter and spray paint, Middle Eastern anti-Semites, even assuming Iran never gets nukes, are already armed with hundreds of thousands of state-of-the-art missiles, along with suicide bombers, stabbers, car-rammers, etc. Terrorist quasi-states, like Hezbollah and Hamas, have used their weaponry to target Jews directly, and not just in Israel (remember the AMIA bombing?), while countries like Iran have so far preferred to do so indirectly, by funneling arms and cash to terrorists. Either way, the combination of high-tech weaponry with Nazi-style anti-Semitism constitutes a clear and present danger to millions of Jewish lives, one far greater than the danger posed by even the most noxious Trump fans.
So if your goal is to protect the maximum number of Jewish lives, your top priority is arguably electing a U.S. president who will provide strong backing for Israeli self-defense and strong opposition to murderous Muslim regimes. It should not be to support an American government that will, say, stop arms shipments to Israel in the middle of a war, help turn Iran into the Mideast’s dominant power, or reward Palestinian incitement and terror by blaming the stalemated peace process on Israel–all things Barack Obama actually did.
There’s no guarantee that Hillary Clinton would have done the same, or that Trump will be different (though his actions so far have been encouraging). But Obama’s former secretary of state was clearly the more likely to continue his policies. Thus, faced with a non-ideal choice between one candidate who had anti-Semitic Twitter followers and another who seemed poised to continue empowering well-armed anti-Semitic governments, you don’t have to be a racist or an ultra-nationalist to prefer the former. You just have to think protecting Jews’ lives is a higher priority than protecting them from nasty rhetoric.
The second relevant difference between Nazi Germany and Trump’s America is that even before it started murdering Jews, the Nazi government had moved beyond mere rhetoric: It organized boycotts of Jewish businesses, kicked Jews out of universities, threw Jewish doctors out of hospitals, etc. In modern-day America, the government obviously isn’t doing any such thing. There is, however, an organized nongovernmental effort to do so–not on the so-called the alt-right, but on the far left.
As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, anti-Semitism didn’t suddenly erupt out of nowhere after November’s election. Back in 2015, long before anyone dreamed Trump could win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency, anti-Semitic acts accounted for a whopping 51 percent of all religious hate crimes recorded by the FBI, even though Jews are less than two percent of the American population. Such acts have spanned the gamut from swastikas painted on Jewish frats to signs like “YALE IS A JEW HOLE–LET’S ROUND THEM UP” to physical assaults. And many of these acts were perpetrated by the far left rather than the far right. American Jews simply preferred to focus on the latter because they overwhelmingly lean left themselves.
So far, however, only left-wing anti-Semites have tried to oust Jews from universities or organize boycotts of Jewish businesses. Granted, they often hide behind the fig leaf of “anti-Zionism.” But when, for instance, left-wing students burst into a Brooklyn College faculty meeting last year and demanded “Zionists off campus,” does anyone seriously think they were targeting evangelical Christians?
And sometimes, they don’t even bother with the “Zionist” fig leaf. When BDS advocates denied Rachel Beyda a seat on the UCLA student council’s judicial board in 2015, for instance, they did so because they deemed her Jewishness disqualifying in and of itself. True, after a faculty advisor ruled this unacceptable, the council held a revote and elected her. That’s precisely why grassroots hate is so different from the officially sponsored variety. It’s no accident that, as a study released last year shows, campuses where BDS groups are strong also tend to experience more anti-Semitism, because BDS activists are among the main perpetrators of campus anti-Semitism.
Left-wing anti-Semites are a vocal part of the Democratic Party’s base, even if most preferred Bernie Sanders to Clinton. So faced with a non-ideal choice between two candidates who both have anti-Semites in their base, you don’t have to be a racist ultra-nationalist to prefer the one whose supporters aren’t yet engaging in Nazi-style boycotts; you just have to think that protecting Jews’ livelihoods is a higher priority than protecting them from nasty rhetoric.
Rhetoric obviously does matter; every serious genocide scholar considers it the first step on the road to genocide. That’s precisely why Jews have always been so sensitive to anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Jewish Trump supporters are no exception. They’re far from untroubled by alt-right anti-Semitism. They simply consider the left-wing version more troubling still.