Small “d” democracy
By Mark Lurinsky
In the wake of the horrendous shooting attack in the synagogue near San Diego, California, on the last day of Passover, we have to consider whether President Donald Trump is capable of leading our country in any meaningful way to combat an upsurge in anti-Semitic violence. Trump’s response to the shooting, in which an avowed white nationalist wielding an AR-type assault rifle killed one woman and injured the Poway synagogue’s rabbi and a young girl, was to do three things: He tweeted the usual “thoughts and prayers” to those affected. He assured the injured Rabbi Goldstein that “I have a son-in-law who’s Jewish, a daughter that’s Jewish ….” And he stated, “I love Israel.”
But what else do we need to know in order to see the bigger picture?
Trump’s affinity with anti-Semitic prejudice
Trump’s family connection with the Jewish Kushners through his daughter Ivanka’s marriage and conversion notwithstanding, his record of public comments about Jews reveals a strong affinity for anti-Semitic stereotypes. In December 2015, then-candidate Trump told an assembly of Jewish Republicans, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” and added, “You want to control your politicians…” He went on to say, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken,” and further, “I’m a negotiator, like you folks.” Trump has also frequently singled out prominent Jewish Americans, such as investor George Soros, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and former Fed chair Janet Yellen, as embodiments of the “global power structure …” that “robbed our working class.” At least one of Trump’s 2016 tweets prominently featured a Star of David and a picture of Hillary Clinton over a pile of money along with the caption, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” momentarily provoking outrage from some Jewish leaders.
The Trump presidential campaign, largely engineered by former Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon, unapologetically pursued the support of white nationalist elements. Internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos, a key Bannon hire at Breitbart, focused on inciting “alt-right” social media enthusiasts. The 2017 book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green recounts that shortly after Yiannopoulos began his activities, “denizens of sites such as 4chan and reddit were coordinating support for Trump’s campaign. One aspect of this ‘support’ was flooding Twitter feeds of prominent journalists, particularly Jewish journalists, with vile anti-Semitic imagery. A study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets, many of them directed at journalists, were sent in the year leading up to the election and that the ‘aggressors are disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the ‘alt-right.’”
William Regnery II, a reclusive alt-right publisher and moneyman whose grandfather and namesake was a major financier for the earlier America First Committee, summarized Trump’s relationship with the “white nationalist” movement in July 2017: “I think Trump was a legitimizer…[We] went from being conversation you could hold in a bathroom, to the front parlor,” as Buzzfeed reported.
From Charlottesville to Pittsburgh—new levels of violence
Throughout the Trump campaign and term, we have seen an unprecedented surge of the most violent elements of the racist right emerging from under their rocks to claim the public stage, most notably during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of one counterprotester. The image of the torch-bearing self-proclaimed white nationalists—some of Trump’s “good folks on both sides”—is now infamous. The implication of their slogan “Jews will not replace us” is even more chilling.
This “replacement” mantra is a reference to a conspiracy theory closely linked to the “white genocide” invention first propagated by European hate groups that holds that a global and liberal “elite” (especially seen as Jews) is deliberately and systematically “replacing” white Christian populations with non-European people, specifically Middle Eastern, North African, and sub-Saharan African immigrants. “Whites are undergoing an extermination, via mass immigration into White countries …the Jews are at the center of this agenda,” in the words of Andrew Anglin, the editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, in a 2016 on-line diatribe. Alarmingly, a study by George Washington University researcher J.M. Berger in the same year found that white nationalists, a quickly growing group, have used “white genocide” as their single most popular hashtag on Twitter.
Predictably, the public surfacing of these previously fringe groups, rallying around Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, has encouraged a variety of aggressive racists—and some lone wolf domestic terrorists—to ever more horrendous actions. There has been an increase in street attacks on people appearing to be of Middle Eastern descent; defacements of Jewish graveyards with swastikas; and then, last October, the assault with four semi-automatic weapons on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed eleven and injured seven, the deadliest attack on a U.S. Jewish community ever.
The alleged perpetrator of the Pittsburgh massacre, 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers, was reportedly obsessed with the role of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in providing humanitarian aid for immigrants and refugees. Before his rampage, Bowers posted a link to a Shabbat ceremony HIAS planned for refugees in locations across the country, with the caption, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us,” adding, “It’s the filthy EVIL jews (sic) Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” HIAS, founded in 1881 to aid Jewish refugees from the Russian empire, calls on Jews and others to “Welcome the Stranger” in line with its understanding of Judaic traditions, and, admirably, it currently directs resources to refugees of all religions, ethnicities, nationalities, and backgrounds, including those fleeing the civil war in Syria. (It’s important to note that in the wake of this terrible crime, the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh was one group that stepped forward and raised $238,000 in contributions to assist survivors, bury the dead, and to support “projects that help foster Muslim-Jewish collaboration, dialogue and solidarity.”)
Trump and the “religious right”: a purely transactional approach to Israel
For many decades, successive Republican and Democratic presidents have attempted to present themselves, however well or badly, as honest and impartial brokers around Middle East policy: supporting Israel’s right to exist while seeking a lasting peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict that would also recognize the rights of the Palestinian people. Since Trump took office, he made a point of boasting of his personal ties with the current right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, regardless of such considerations, leading many to accept at face value the president’s assertion that he truly cares about the fate of Israel and its Jewish population.
However, close observers of Trump’s moves have concluded that his Israel policy is just another example of a “purely transactional foreign policy,” which, under the slogan “America First,” puts his personal political (and perhaps financial) interests above those of long-standing U.S. allies and above universally recognized principles like support for human rights.
While he did not hesitate to seek donations from a few wealthy Jewish individuals, such as casino owner Sheldon Adelson, in terms of votes, an infinitely greater source of his support has been the so-called “religious right.” Various leaders of this voting bloc, while fervently supporting Israel's existence and continued expansion, don’t hide their adherence to a dark theological dogma that Jews are “unsaved” people destined for hell. Elizabeth Oldmixon, political science professor at the University of North Texas, recently explained to Vox the chilling, inherently anti-Semitic, views of so-called Christian Zionists, who form an important part of this interest group: “There is a subset of the evangelical community for whom the status of Israel is really, really important because of the way they understand the end of time…These are the folks who believe that there will be a millennium in the future, a golden age, where Christ reigns on Earth, [and] they believe that before Christ will return, there will be a tribulation where Christ defeats evil. There will be natural disasters and wars …Then at the end of that period, the people of the Mosaic covenant, including the Jews, will convert [Emphasis mine. - M.L.]. Then after their conversion, the great millennium starts.” As for Jews who don’t convert, “they’ll end up with the rest of the unsaved, which means they’ll be wiped out and sent to hell.”
Under this creed, the founding of Israel in 1948 is seen as merely a signpost of the end of times prophecy, advancing the foretold Christian millennium era; the fate of Jews, both in the future tribulation and, presumably, in the currently ongoing cycles of Middle East violence, falls into the category of collateral damage.
One prominent spokesperson for this offensive doctrine is Robert Jefress, the pastor of the 13,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board and his White House Faith Initiative, who was selected by the administration to give the prayer opening the new U.S. embassy to Israel, despite the objections of the president of the Union of Reform Judaism and others. While it’s hard to say this with certainty, the so-called Christian Zionists have been widely credited as being the single most instrumental force in influencing the president to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem last year, which was viewed by many analysts as a step that exacerbated tensions in the Middle East. (Leaders of this lobby certainly make this claim; for example, Johnnie Moore, the spokesman for the Evangelical Advisory Board, who told Reuters, “I don’t believe it would have happened without them.”) While Trump has multiple personal ties to Christian right groups, he also heavily relies on Vice President Pence as a liaison with them.
An even clearer example of Trump’s purely transactional approach to the Middle East was his surprise move last December to announce an immediate pullout of U.S. forces from Syria (since delayed), which would allow consolidation of the murderous Assad dictatorship, supported by Russian air power, on Israel’s northern border. Trump’s announcement of the policy change came immediately after his phone call with Turkish president Recep Erdogan, who had repeatedly pressed the U.S. for just such a shift so his own autocratic regime could attack Syrian Kurdish forces, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the terror group ISIS. (“You know what? It’s yours… I’m leaving,” Trump reportedly told Erdogan.) Trumpologists will have an extended field day guessing what specific quid pro quo the president might have asked of Turkey for this concession. (My money is on that Erdogan go easy on objections to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil last October, which has complicated the administration’s close ties to the Saudi kingdom.) The Syria shift led conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, among others, to conclude that Donald Trump is “bad for Israel.”
To the extent that the actual interests and opinions of American Jews have been a consideration for Trump, they have been merely an afterthought and similarly transactional, which is to say, offensively pandering. This reached a new low at a White House Hanukkah party last December, when Trump praised Israel to a group of Jewish Americans and referred to it as “your country.” (The irony of Trump’s insulting remark shouldn’t be lost on us when we weigh the level of outrage Republicans subsequently marshalled against the Muslim-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her reckless reference to “allegiance to a foreign country” in connection with U.S. policy toward Israel.)
More to the point, Trump utterly refuses to disavow organized white supremacists among his core supporters. Emory University Jewish Studies scholar Deborah Lipstadt, best known for her toe-to-toe legal battle with an international Holocaust denier, noted ominously, “I think he’s an anti-Semitic enabler. …He’s very careful not to criticize his followers. …He’ll enable anything that’s going to get him elected or get him support.”
Where is Trump’s leadership in combatting violent attacks?
Several reports by the Anti-Defamation League have pointed to both a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in our country since Trump’s election and the fact that 49 out of 50 extremist murders in our country in 2018 were committed by right-wing extremists. The kinds of national leadership responses that would be meaningful in this defining moment are coming from people like Representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ-7th District) who has suggested a domestic anti-terrorism statute. Malinowski has also pointed to the common ground between American Jews and U.S. Muslims in stopping this kind of violence. The important role that limiting ownership of military-style assault weapons could have has also been advanced by many.
Unfortunately, this kind of leadership has not and will not come from Donald Trump.
Mark Lurinsky has been an activist on matters of public policy since 1968. He is currently a member of BlueWaveNJ’s Electoral Reform Working Group and is co-chair of the Healthcare Committee.
Under the blog title Small “d” democracy, Mark will continue to weigh in on the current issues that define how our country can become a more just, equal, and democratic society.