Interrogation

Should Jews Separate Anti-Semitism From Politics?

This former Anti-Defamation League chief thinks so—even after Pittsburgh, Charlottesville, and Donald Trump.

A man adjusts a marker for a shooting victim at the memorial outside Tree of Life synagogue. The memorial is full of flowers.
Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 31.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The mass murder of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh by an anti-Semitic gunman has sparked a debate about anti-Semitism in American life and the president’s role in exacerbating it. Indeed, many in the Jewish community itself this week have discussed how much Trump is to blame for hate crimes and whether Jews who support him have a responsibility to stop doing so. As Franklin Foer wrote in the Atlantic, “Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.” In response, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles argued, “We must call out public voices, from the president on down, who speak in ways we believe endangers or radicalizes the population. But my congregants are not the ones who are dangerous, and manipulating responsibility to turn Jews into perpetrators is ethically appalling—and communally toxic. We can only be a Jewish people when we don’t excommunicate each other—for religious reasons or political reasons or cultural reasons.”

I recently spoke by phone about this subject with Abraham Foxman, the director of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and the former head of the Anti-Defamation League. During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how much responsibility Trump bears for the country’s current political atmosphere, whether the president is an anti-Semite, and the biggest threat to the world’s Jews.

Isaac Chotiner: There has been a debate about how much the Jewish community should connect what happened in Pittsburgh to the political climate in the U.S. and Trump. Do you think that is a healthy debate, and why or why not?

Abraham Foxman: I don’t think we should politicize what happened in Pittsburgh at all. I don’t want to debate whether we should or we shouldn’t. I think it’s wrong. I think this is anti-Semitism, and we should view it as anti-Semitism. There are issues of political rhetoric and violence. They all relate to what’s going on. But we are in a very hot political moment now, and therefore I think it would be a disservice to the victims, it would be a disservice to the fight against anti-Semitism, if we connect it to the politics of it.

Having said that—and it’s very difficult because everything is intertwined—I would say to you we wouldn’t blame the president, but we should hold him accountable.

What should we hold him accountable for?

We should hold him accountable for the change in the political rhetoric and the lack of civility, because he and what I would call Trumpism destroyed all the taboos we had in this country that protected civil discourse and respect and civility. And so by breaking all these taboos, he needs to be accountable.

He did not create the anti-Semitism. He did not create the Charlottesville 200. The Charlottesville 200 were always there. There is plenty of anti-Semitism in this country. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was involved in combating it for 50 years. There are millions of Americans who are infected with anti-Semitism. To [say] that he created them is wrong and politicizing it. What he did do is embolden them. His language, his behavior, gave them a license.

You said he has ripped the Band-Aid off, or—not ripped the Band-Aid off—

Ripped the covers off the sewers.

Thank you. And you talked about civility, which is right. But it seems like more than that. He also has an ideology now that is intimately connected with bigotry and is beginning to take over one of two political parties in our two-party system. I don’t see how you don’t politicize that.

Is it Isaac I am talking to?

Yeah.

Isaac, look, [Trump] has put forward issues which in the abstract are legitimate issues. Immigration is an issue. It is a legitimate issue. Look at Europe. Look at what is going on in the world with immigration. There was antagonism to Irish immigration, Japanese immigration, Jewish immigration. So it is a legitimate subject for debate today. Two: Globalism is a legitimate issue of debate. Even gun control is a legitimate issue of debate. But at the same time, these issues—especially globalism and nationalism and immigration—have played deeply on the agenda of racists. Immigration has always played in the racist camps and anti-Semitism camps. Globalism as well. What he has done by using these issues for his own self-interest, what he believes will serve him and he believes serve America better, is that he has provided a legitimate platform for these bigots. David Duke has announced after all these years, all of a sudden, he says, “Oh, these are our issues.” You can’t take away the right to debate and discuss the issue of immigration just because bigots embrace it.

It seems like you are saying that these are legitimate issues that need to be discussed, which I agree with. But it seems like the problem is that Trump is not interested in discussing them. He is interested in demagoguing them. The goal is not to resolve them. And once a demagogue is wielding them, it seems like we have to move beyond simply saying, “We need a better political conversation.” There is a political party intent on riling up fear and not getting to the bottom of these issues.

I don’t disagree with you. Therefore, American citizens, good people, should deal with it, combat it, vote, etc. We started at a different point: whether the Jewish community—because there is anti-Semitism, and because he has now legitimized it—should become politically active as Jews. And I think they should be politically active as good citizens. But for Jews not to politicize anti-Semitism. I think Jews as American citizens should be out there in the political arena fighting for a better America. I have said he is a demagogue and demagogues are dangerous to democracy, and if democracy is in trouble, Jews would be in trouble. Fine. But not as a community per se. I don’t want us, on the issue of anti-Semitism, to play Democrat or Republican. I think we should play what’s good for America, but also protect the Jewish interest.

I don’t think Jews have more of a responsibility than any group of people. But when you have a president who says nice words about neo-Nazis—

Isaac, Jews have spoken out on the issue of Charlottesville more than anybody else, OK?

It’s not just about how he responded to Charlottesville. It’s that he has kind words for neo-Nazis. This seems a little more existential—maybe that’s the word I am looking for. One of our two political parties is being given over to an ideology that will affect Jews as well as other groups, no?

Correct. But also don’t forget, don’t forget, that Democrats make an issue out of this, which they are entitled to. I don’t want to be used by either side for their political purposes as a Jewish community. Call on me to act as an American citizen—great, be my guest. I don’t want to see the Jewish community being pushed by Democrats or Republicans on issues that, if you will, are existential to us.

Is there anything a leader of an American political party could say about Israel that you would say, if the party supports this, it is incumbent on Jews to not support that party?

Sure. If a political party stood up to say Israel doesn’t have a legitimate right to exist, yeah. But again, I am saying it as a Jew, OK, because Israel is so important to the Jewish present and future. And it deals with anti-Semitism as well. Because if God forbid anti-Semitism continues to rise again, and America closes its doors to all immigrants, Israel becomes even more important in terms of our agenda and well-being.

I guess I don’t understand why someone saying Israel doesn’t have a right to exist is an existential issue that you would urge people to become politicized by, but the American president speaking up for anti-Semites and neo-Nazis is not.

You know what—with all due respect, your analogy doesn’t work. This is a political platform which says Israel has no right to exist. The president of the United States does not go out and say, “You should go against the Jews.” Whatever he is, he is a demagogue—he may be a bigot—but he is not an anti-Semite. Listen, we have had anti-Semitic presidents. It happened to be a Truman, it happened to be a Nixon, it happened to be a Wilson. OK. He’s not.

Why are you so certain he isn’t an anti-Semite?

I spent 50 years of my life fighting anti-Semitism. He may be a lot of things. In my mind, he is not an anti-Semite. He takes on issues which anti-Semites love and embrace. The fact that David Duke loves him or likes him doesn’t make him a racist bigot or anti-Semite.

He said there were good people in a group that was yelling “Jews will not replace us.”

And we criticized him. Hold it. We criticized him. But not in a political sense. Listen, Democrats have a right to do whatever they want, and God bless them if they should do it. But I don’t want to do it in that context. I criticized what he said because I thought it was un-American, immoral, un-Christian, unacceptable—not un-Democratic or un-Republican. The political parties are using this. I don’t want to be used.