According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic “incidents” in the United States jumped 57 percent between 2016 and 2017. While much of the increase occurred at educational institutions—white supremacist organizations have been increasingly active on college campuses—bigoted ideas and opinions seem increasingly widespread, and even welcomed by the most powerful person on the planet. In his new book, (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in the Age of Trump, Jonathan Weisman looks at the history of anti-Semitism in America, and the ways in which today’s environment is both similar to and different than previous times.
I recently spoke by phone with Weisman, who is the deputy Washington editor for the New York Times and who was once subjected to serious, sustained anti-Semitic harassment online. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed American Jewish life during the rise of fascism, false equivalences between left-wing and right-wing anti-Semitism, and how anti-Muslim bigotry has become a shield for anti-Semites.
Isaac Chotiner: To what degree do you think this current wave of anti-Semitism is a result of Trump’s election?
Jonathan Weisman: I think that the way the Trump campaign conducted itself and the way Trump personally conducted himself had this impact of unleashing, of taking the guardrails down, and allowing people to express themselves in ways that had been previously considered unacceptable. When you see video of Trump rallies, where people are just screaming at journalists, chanting “Lock her up,” all these things; this is a manifestation of an acceptable rage that was unacceptable, really, before that campaign.
What’s unique about this wave of anti-Semitism in terms of American history?
I think that the current brand of white nationalism is an odd mix of internet-savvy and hipness with some very ancient notions of hate. White nationalists’ depiction of Jews is such a throwback to what I learned about when I was in Sunday school. It’s exactly how the Nazis depicted Jews. They’re both these rapacious moneybags and left-wing radicals. They’re sniveling weaklings and all-powerful puppet masters. These are not new images and they’ve always been contradictory. What the alt-right has now is the organizational skill on the internet. They’re really good at using the internet to get their word across and to have young people just stumble into it.
It reminds me of the jokes that the Jews were the only people accused of being the secret power behind both communism and capitalism.
What other periods in American history in hindsight were the most concerning in terms of anti-Semitism?
I think that the most obvious parallel to right now is the 1930s. There was rising nationalism and bigotry, not just in Nazi Germany but all over the place, and in the United States as well. There was the sense of intolerance, of fear of “the other.” In that case, the refugees that American people just would not accept were obviously Jewish refugees. The impact was much more direct. When you read the rhetoric out of the 1930s about Jewish refugees, it’s almost exactly parallel to what you hear about Syrian refugees or Yemeni refugees [today]. The Jewish response in the 1930s was similarly disjointed and diffident.
What do you mean by that?
There was a conference in Geneva where all these Jewish organizations, like the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, had gathered to try to figure out how to confront the rise of Nazism, and they just ended up fighting with each other. The American Jewish Committee wanted a more diplomatic, back-room way of trying to confront Nazism and bringing Jewish refugees to the United States than the American Jewish Congress, which was more representative of recent Eastern European arrivals, who wanted a louder, brasher approach. They just fought each other.
Then there’s the great silent majority of Jews who just didn’t want to speak up, didn’t want to bring attention to themselves. They feared that with such prominent Americans as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh actually spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric, why would they want to court what was happening to German Jews happening in America? I feel like we have a similar situation in which the most prominent Jews just don’t want to make waves. What’s frustrating to me is there is a fear that speaking up against bigotry is somehow taking political sides. I do not believe that speaking up against white nationalism and hatred is a Republican or a Democratic thing.
But it has become a political thing, because one political party sees a sympathy or the lack of a willingness to condemn white nationalists to be important to its political base and its political future.
I think that there are certainly Republicans who look out at those chanting mobs at Trump rallies and say, “Well those are our voters.” What that spawns is kind of this whataboutism. You see it from the Republican Jewish Coalition. They always say, “Hey, well, what about Louis Farrakhan, or what about the anti-Semitism of the left?” I feel like we actually have to be able to draw distinctions here, and there is a distinction here between the anti-Semitism of a Louis Farrakhan whose power peaked, if he ever had much power, in 1995 with the Million Man March, and the anti-Semitism of a movement that is global in scope right now in white nationalism. Louis Farrakhan doesn’t have 100,000 people marching in Budapest or actually securing a nomination for a major party in France. It’s not the same, and the fact is, OK, it might be uncomfortable for Republicans to speak out, but that doesn’t absolve them of the need to speak out.
The reluctance to speaking out might be aided by the fact that it seems like if you dislike Muslims, a lot of very conservative Jews will be willing to give you a pass for anti-Semitism. I saw a touching photo of Ben Shapiro and Steve King together the other day.
That worries me as well. I absolutely understand what you’re saying. The anti-Semitism of the left that Republicans love to point out is born of anti-Zionism. The anti-Zionism has spilled into anti-Semitism. My God, if you’re chanting death to the Jews in the streets of Paris or London, you can’t say that that’s not anti-Semitism. But the alt-right kind of likes Israel. The alt-right sees Israel as an ethnic homeland, just like what they want in the United States. They want the United States to be a white homeland and the Jews here can all go to their ethnic homeland in Israel. They kind of like Israel because Israel kills Muslims.
Anti-Semitism in Europe has come from the left-wing as well as the right-wing, and from Muslim communities. Is that something you’re worried about here in the same way?
Right now, the one thing that unites the Republicans and Democrats is their fealty to Israel. I have not seen a lot of movement from, like, college campuses to mainstream American politics. At this point, it doesn’t look like that’s happening, but of course it could happen. I mean, if you watch, certainly if you see the organizer, one of the co-organizers of the Women’s March at a Farrakhan rally, where he is just spouting the must gutter anti-Semitism, it does strike me as disturbing.
But the effort by a lot of Republican Jews, like Ari Fleischer, to draw equivalence here and to say, well there are black Democrats who are somehow aligned with Farrakhan. I actually went out to try to find out if indeed there were all these members of Congress who were aligned with Farrakhan. The connections were so tangential, we couldn’t even write a story. I mean there’s one, Danny Davis in the South Side of Chicago. I don’t see a lot of bleeding of that kind of anti-Semitism born of pro-Palestinian sentiment or anti-Israel sentiment into the body politic of the United States.
I have a stepdaughter who is very Jewish-identified, who was bat mitzvahed and is very anti-Israel and pro-BDS, and I do feel like Jewish leaders risk losing an entire generation of young Jews right now because of the close identity of Judaism with Israel itself. Frankly if we want to save Judaism in the United States, it would behoove us to disconnect it from Israel or at least loosen the bonds of Israel and make Judaism more about Jewish religion and less about affinity for a Jewish state.
You talk in the book about having resisted the idea that anti-Semitism here was a serious problem until recently. What changed other than the obvious?
Maybe you could say I was sheltered or blind, but I really did think that anti-Semitism was kind of something in the past. Racism and Islamophobia and obviously anti-immigrant feelings were very strong and were gathering strength, but I thought that anti-Semitism just wasn’t something to worry about. So when it was suddenly very publicly unleashed on me, it took me aback. I really wasn’t watching.
I think it’s taken a lot of Jews aback. This is one of the points I make because the alt-right and the white nationalist movement in the United States really began gelling at the end of the George W. Bush era. It was born of frustration with the Iraq war, Republican interventionism, and then it got caught up in the collapse of the financial system, and people were looking at Jews, the Jewish cheerleaders of the Iraq war, the Jewish architects of the Iraq war in the Bush administration, falling for the whole notion that Wall Street is run by Jews.
All that was in 2008. We didn’t really take much notice of it until 2016, which tells me that people were just not watching.
Do you still believe that things like racism and Islamophobia are the biggest threats?
I still believe that and that’s how I concluded the book. Of all the things that are besetting our society right now, anti-Semitism is certainly not the worst, and racism and the brutality that’s being visited upon immigrants and Muslim Americans—it’s just a lot worse. Jews can point to headstones that have been overturned and swastikas on their synagogues, but Muslims are being killed. What I am thinking is that the rise of anti-Semitism should be a wake-up call for American Jews to get involved in the defense of minorities and the effort to really combat bigotry before it spreads worse.
I quote Ralph McGill, the old editor of the Atlanta Constitution. He said, and I wish I could quote it directly right now, that if you think that the unleashing of hatred on the negro will be confined to the negro, then you have another thing coming. The fact is that once the wolves of hate are unleashed, they are unleashed on everyone.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus