American Antisemitism, 2019: Neither Political Party Has Clean Hands

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg describes the experiences of his grandparents' immigration to America from Eastern Europe in contrast to the recent pronouncement by Ken Cuccinelli, who serves as Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director, that the US should only admit immigrants who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.

I am Squirrel Hill. 

My Squirrel Hill family roots have been continuously the most powerful influence on my life.  Accordingly, immediately after the end of Shabbat, October 27, 2018, the day of the Squirrel Hill massacre, I authored this column for InsiderNJ, “My Roots Are in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh – And I Can’t Stop Crying.”  

The worst antisemitic violence in American history had taken place in the original community of the Steinberg family in America, in the neighborhood where 1) my immigrant grandfather had established his kosher butcher shop and become Squirrel Hill’s leading kosher butcher; and 2) where my parents had been married at a synagogue two blocks away from the Tree of Life Synagogue, the site of the massacre.  

I felt that my very home had been subjected to antisemitic murders.   My intermittent crying would continue for nearly two weeks after the catastrophe. 

At first, I did not fully grasp the ramifications of the Squirrel Hill massacre on the political universe which had been my home and career throughout my adult life.  I did initially understand that the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue had been committed by an adherent to white nationalism, the leading haven and home for American anti-Semites.   

And I also understood that the murder weapon was an AK-47, an assault weapon whose prohibition I had long advocated.  White nationalists are a core element of Trump’s base, and Trump has been totally subservient to the National Rifle Association in opposing any prohibition on assault weapons.

Within days, however, the full responsibility of Trump for the Squirrel Hill catastrophe became more abundantly clear.  The murderer, Robert Bowers was motivated by xenophobia, and Donald Trump has done more to generate and legitimize xenophobia than any contemporary American political figure.  The Pittsburgh Jewish community has long been characterized by unsurpassed support for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organization that assists immigrants of all ethnic origins.

So Squirrel Hill in the era of Trump was a perfect target for a ghoulish, xenophobic antisemitic killer.   The blood of the victims is on the hands of Donald Trump.  This is why the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill did not want Trump to come to Pittsburgh for the funeral.   

Yet Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Ron Dermer, Bibi Netanyahu’s political advisor and Trump acolyte felt that a Trump photo-op in Squirrel Hill was more important than the sensitivities of the Pittsburgh Jewish community.  So Trump went to Squirrel Hill, and the anguish of that Jewish community was deepened.

The Squirrel Hill tragedy was a manifestation of the ultimate truth about Donald Trump and American Jewry.    Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite.  Yet he is without question an enabler and facilitator of American antisemitism. 

On a personal level, Donald Trump can best be described as transactional.  He will do whatever it takes to advance his political or business interest.   

He became an enabler of anti-Semitism when he realized that it was essential to his retaining the allegiance of the White Nationalist movement.  His original success with White Nationalism was due to his virulent bigotry against the African-American community, the worst hatred of people of color of any president since Woodrow Wilson. 

Trump’s hatred of African-Americans manifested itself most significantly in three controversies: 1)the U.S. Justice Department’s litigation against the  Trump Organization (of which Donald was then president)  in 1973 in order to end and remedy their discrimination against prospective African-American tenants in Brooklyn and Queens; 2) his vile defamation of the Central Park Five (African-Americans) as having raped a jogger in Central Park, even after DNA evidence resulted in their convictions being set aside; and 3) his leadership in the shamelessly bigoted ‘birther” movement, which falsely claimed that President Obama was not born in the United States and  sought his removal from office. 

Yet in order to hold the allegiance of the White Nationalist movement, he would have to assure them that he would not obstruct their anti-Semitic practices. Accordingly, Trump began his practices of enabling anti-Semitism. 

Trump’s communication device to reassure White Nationalist anti-Semites is the “dog whistle,” which is a type of strategy of communication that sends a message that the general population will take a certain meaning from, but a certain group that is “in the know” will take away the secret, intended message.   

And with Trump, every dog whistle is more offensive than the previous one.  In the summer of 2016, he refused to initially disavow the endorsement of David Duke, lying outrageously by claiming that he knew nothing about Duke or the Ku Klux Klan.   The message of that dog whistle:  I’ll take support from and protect the most extreme anti-Semites.  He recently reinforced this dog whistle with his refusal to disavow one of his leading allies in the US House of Representatives, anti-Semite Republican Steve King of Iowa.

Later in the campaign, he retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton in front of piles of money and alongside a six-pointed star, on which were emblazoned the words, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever.”  The message of that dog whistle:  Clinton had close connections with crooked Jews. 

The Trump 2016 campaign’s final commercial featured Hillary Clinton and three Jews: George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.  The Trump voice-over: “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election for those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests.  They partner with people who don’t have your good in mind.”  The Trump dog whistle was all too obvious:  Hillary was part of an international cabal of greedy global Jewish capitalists.   

But the worst was yet to come.  

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017 constituted a Trump national disgrace of the presidency.  He asserted a moral equivalence between the Neo-Nazi, KKK and White Supremacist marchers with the civil rights advocates who had come to protest against them.  The only fatality was caused by an avowed White Supremacist. 

Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor at Emory University is an Orthodox Jewish woman of true goodness and greatness and America’s leading intellectual on the subject of antisemitism.  Her new book, Antisemitism Here and Now, is a must read.  In this book, Dr. Lipstadt summarizes the Trump enabling of antisemitism as follows: 

…. The simple fact is that Donald Trump was, and still seems to be, unwilling to castigate, much less mildly criticize, actions by the white supremacists, racists, and anti-Semites who voted for him and continue to support him.  Rather than be outraged by what they say and do, he enables and emboldens them because it serves his political purposes.  While Trump is probably not an anti-Semite, enabling anti-Semites is itself an antisemitic act that causes as much damage as something that comes from an ideological anti-Semite.  When challenged, antisemitic enablers will often cite their personal relations with  

Jews (e.g. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are Jewish).  But the rationalization that “some of my best friends/relatives are Jewish/black/gay so therefore the antisemitic/racist/homophobic things that I say cannot possibly be antisemitic/racist/homophobic” is both ridiculous and deplorable. 

Yet in spite of this disgraceful Trump record, the American Jewish Right has made a Faustian bargain with Trump, asserting that in spite of his enabling of anti-Semitism, “Trump is good for the Jews” because “Trump is good for Israel,” which is a most dubious contention. 

During the 2016 Republican nomination contest, Trump contended that Israel should pay for defense aid it receives from America.   This would be an economic nightmare for Israel. 

The Jewish right prevailed upon Trump to refrain from restating this position.  In order to placate them, Trump promised to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  He did move the embassy in May, 2018.  But he did not make any decisions regarding whether Jerusalem should be undivided under Israeli control or whether the city should be divided between Israel and the Palestinians and if so, where the border should be. 

And the Embassy opening ceremony in Jerusalem was an obscenity. 

Trump invited two Evangelist clergy allies of his to speak at the ceremony, Robert Jeffress and John Hagee.  Jeffress had once said that Jews would be going to hell, because of their rejection of Jesus.   Hagee had said that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan to return Jews to Israel.  For Jewish families of Holocaust survivors, such claims are offensive in the extreme. 

Yet the worst aspect of Trump’s policies on Israel is with regard to Israel’s most extreme enemy, Iran. 

To his credit, Trump did oppose Obama’s 2015 agreement with Iran, which does have a deleterious long-term effect on Israeli security.  But he has put Israel in a most disadvantageous position regarding Iran with his plan to appease Putin and Russia by withdrawing American military forces from Syria.  This has already allowed Iran, a Russian ally to strengthen its position in Syria and emboldened the Iranians to launch a missile at the Golan Heights in January, 2019.  Due to Trump’s policies, the danger of a war between Israel and Iran has increased dramatically. 

The Jewish Right’s bargain with Trump is not only Faustian – it is stupid as well.  They will see how the transactional Trump can turn on Israel in a minute if it serves his interests. 

I have left the Republican Party.  It is no longer the party of staunch Presidential allies of Israel and American Jewry like Ronald Reagan, for whom I campaigned and George W. Bush, the president I proudly served. 

But I will not join the Democratic Party.   

At one time, the Democrats had national leaders who were loyal and devoted friends of Israel like Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey.  Today, the strong support American Jewry and Israel once enjoyed in the Democratic Party is being eroded by the influence of the Progressive Democratic movement and the American Islamic community, where antisemitism has increased both in numbers and intensity. 

There has been an alarming tendency among progressive Democrats to turn away from the longstanding core Democratic support for the American-Israel alliance.  This trend has worsened with the election of three new virulently anti-Israel Democratic members of the House of Representatives:  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the last a virulent antisemite who was recently rebuked for her flagrant antisemitic rhetoric by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

There are two negative effects the Progressive Democrats have already had on the relationship between the Democratic Party and American Jewry and Israel. 

The first is with regard to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which is a serious threat to the economic future of Israel.  The Progressive Democrats have fully embraced this anti-Israel cause, and there is growing support for the movement on college campuses.   

This is already having the alarming effect of all the currently announced Democratic presidential candidates, with the exception of Minnesota US Senator Amy Klobuchar, weakening in their resolve to oppose BDS.  Klobuchar is a rarity among the current Democratic presidential field, a candidate with an unequivocal passionate commitment to the American-Israel alliance in the tradition of her fellow Minnesotan, Hubert H. Humphrey. 

The second is the attempt of various Progressive Democrats making anti-Israel appeals to African-American voters.  Since the Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn teachers strike in 1968, in which local control advocates in this African-American community wanted to transfer teachers, most of whom were Jewish, to other school districts, there have been from time to time tensions between the African-American and Jewish communities over conflicting economic interests.  The anti-Israel appeals made by Progressive Democrats to African-American communities have exacerbated these tensions. 

So American Jewry is faced with serious issues with anti-Semitism in both political parties.  With regard to the Republican Party, the question is whether the embrace of White Nationalism by Trump base voters, which constitutes today the largest segment of the GOP electorate, will cease once Trump leaves office.   With regard to the Democratic Party, the question is whether the Progressives will increase their influence and power in the Democratic Party once Center-Left leaders like Pelosi depart, making the Democratic Party a less hospitable place for Jewry. 

There is an old Yiddish saying, “Es is schwer zu zein a Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew).  There is a Hebrew verse from the Hallel prayer on Jewish festivals, “Tov la’Chasot BaShem, Mibtoach Bindivim” (“It is better to trust in the Almighty than to trust in princes.”)   

As they face a troubled future with both political parties, American Jews must keep these two sentences very much in mind. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under Gov. Christie Whitman.

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