Something disturbing has been happening in the Orthodox world. White Nationalist language is infiltrating our public spaces. It’s happening in our synagogues, in our communities, in our schools and, of course, online. And those of us who see it are looking on in increasing horror.
There was always some racism in our communities, of course; we’d begun to address it around the time Barack Obama was elected president, when calling black people shvartze — a derogatory term for a black person — finally started to become taboo.
But what we’re seeing now is new. It’s different. It’s not just plain racism, or hatred and judgment of a group of people because of their skin pigment. Rather, what I and others have been noticing in our communities is the emergence of a philosophy, one that the Trump era is increasingly bringing into stark relief.
It’s the philosophy of white nationalism that justifies racism, and it’s spreading like a virus among many Orthodox Jews.
Fifteen years ago, you might hear the word schvartze in synagogue. But you wouldn’t hear justifications for deporting black people to Africa. Today, you probably won’t hear a racial slur, at least, not without some sheepishness. But you will hear talking points that you could find on David Duke’s Twitter feed.
In other words, a significant group of Jews have moved from casual racism to an embrace of all-but-the-anti-Semitic aspects of modern white nationalist philosophy, with many of the assumptions and talking points that go with it.
A few weeks ago, President Trump reportedly called Haiti and other countries in Africa “shithole” countries. The white nationalists crowed. “I must come to the defense of #Haiti!” tweeted Richard Spencer, a leader of the nativist “alt-right.” “It’s a potentially beautiful and productive country. The problem is that it’s filled with shithole people. If the French dominated, they could make it great again.” David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan was also thrilled. “Trump spoke Blunt, hard truth that makes PERFECT TRUTH!” he tweeted.
But they were far from alone. When I posted my dismay about Trump’s “shithole” comment on my Facebook page, I was amazed at how similar many of the pro-Trump Orthodox Jews I knew sounded in comparison with Spencer, Duke and Trump himself.
As one argued, “Option A: El Salvador isn’t a ‘shithole,’ so they don’t need 17 years of Temporary Protected Status, and migrants from there should be sent home immediately. Option B: El Salvador is, in fact, a ‘shithole.’”
Another Orthodox friend, who had left South Africa for Israel, remarked, “I’m so glad I emigrated from a shithole.”
And another frum Jew wrote, “So, how many snowflakes would like to move to Haiti?”
When I facetiously wondered if that commenter also believed in “white genocide” (a term popular in the white nationalist community), the person responded: “I have no idea what you are talking about. I don’t know any white supremacists, so I don’t know what they ‘sound like.’ By ‘genocide’ do you mean blacks murdering white farmers in South Africa?”
And it wasn’t just in my own orbit, either. Soon I heard from friends, liberal Orthodox Jews like me, who listened in horror as online comments were repeated in synagogue on Shabbat.
And it always boiled down to the same rationalizations, those used by Spencer and Duke: Haiti and Africa are indeed shitholes, and Trump was right not to want people from those countries.
What I learned from Trump’s “shithole” comment was that the president’s dog whistles aren’t being heard by only the “alt-right” anymore. That countries dominated by blacks are shitholes was the broad consensus, it seemed to me that weekend. Despite the concerns about Trump’s “crass” wording, far too many Orthodox Jews agreed with the content.
Was it the majority of the Orthodox world? Doubtful. But was it a portion large enough to be concerned about? Absolutely.
And those who didn’t openly agree with the racist rhetoric remained silent, choosing to celebrate the naming of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or the release of Sholom Rubashkin, rather than call out the racism in their midst.
Similarly, our leaders maintained a stiff silence. While the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Reform movement spoke out stridently and bravely against Trump’s words, there has not been one word from the Orthodox Union or any Orthodox groups. They are no doubt afraid of the backlash of these extremists, as when Alex Rapoport’s Masbia, a soup kitchen run by an anti-Trump Hasidic Jew, lost donors when he protested the Muslim ban.
And this isn’t the first time. Since a majority of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump, they are the only group in the United States reporting growing approval ratings of Trump — up to 71%, according to AJC. So approving are they that immediately following the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s subsequent defense of white supremacists with the claim that some neo-Nazis are “fine people”, there was the same deafening silence from Orthodox leadership, at least at first, the same defenses, and the same parroting of white nationalist talking points.
Remember the article entitled “I’m an Orthodox Jew in Israel but liberals have become so deranged with hypocrisy, I’m actually standing with the KKK on Charlottesville”?
While an outlier in its framing, this author put into words what many in his community were feeling: Ultimately, even the KKK may not be as bad as the liberal world.
How this is even possible? How could Jews, any Jews, no matter their affiliation, possibly embrace white nationalist ideology?
Look to their influencers for the answer. It’s not Spencer or Duke who Orthodox Jews are parroting. Right wing Jewish commentators, some Orthodox, have an enormous impact on the right wing Orthodox community. These establishment figures aren’t in any way as marginal as Duke and Spencer, and yet, their response to Trump’s “shithole” comment was almost identical. Think of Dennis Prager who said, “Those who truly care about Africans, many of whom are terrific people, need to honestly describe the moral state of many or most African countries.” Or think of Ben Shapiro who wrote, “The argument that Trump is wrong to call some countries s***holes comes down to nicety, not truth.” Joel Pollack, senior-editor-at-large for Breitbart, warned his followers not to ask U.S. military personnel serving in Africa to describe some of those countries: “You may be disappointed.”
Rather than Duke and Spencer, it’s these writers whose names you hear at shul. It is these voices that the average politically engaged and Orthodox Jew listens to (both Shapiro and Pollak are Orthodox Jews). It is these voices that filter their way into the discourse, who influence the way frum Jews develop their own values and political positions.
These thinkers and leaders are influencing Orthodox values – with hate.
If Shapiro is not himself a racist, by the time his arguments make it to shul, they are indistinguishable from Richard Spencer’s.
That is why, for example, so many of the same people shrugged when Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a rabbi well-known known for his love of media attention, buddied up with Steve Bannon, who, while running Breitbart, directly oversaw the publication of articles written in conjunction with people from places like the Daily Stormer.
It’s also why there was so little objection when Bannon attended the Zionist Organization of America’s dinner, run by another influencer of Orthodox Jewry, Morton Klein.
All of these voices and influencers and access points, which are either directly or indirectly tied to the white nationalists of our country, have culminated into a sort of funnel of information for right wing Orthodox Jews. It is this information funnel that has been spreading these ideas into mainstream Orthodox discourse.
In some respects, this should not surprise us. It’s a dynamic that has been happening to the right wing world in general, which has become more and more radicalized. From the rise in hate crimes across the board for two years straight to the sharp increase in white supremacist groups to the doubling in deaths caused by white nationalists from 2016 to 2017, America’s white right has become more and more infected with not just racism but radical white nationalism. This process has been aided by the internet, an evolving language and community of the most overt hate-mongers, and a president who validates it all as acceptable in mainstream discourse.
And just as mainstream pundits like Shapiro and Prager have begun to sound more like the alt-right, so it is with Orthodox and right wing Jews, many of whom only read sites like the Daily Caller and Breitbart and watch Fox News, remaining unaware that they, too, have started to soak it up.
But there are also particular reasons that the alt-right worldview might appeal to the Orthodox. It’s no secret that there’s a healthy dose of bigotry among some Orthodox Jews against blacks and Muslims — and a stubborn refusal to criticize Islamophobia and racism, even on the part of those who themselves don’t engage in these behaviors. To those who see Muslims as the ultimate enemy — as the virulently pro-Israel Orthodox community tends to — the white nationalists’ racism will certainly appeal as a justification for their hatred. Of course, being pro-Israel doesn’t necessarily mean being Islamophobic; I myself am stridently pro-Israel. But too few Orthodox Jews are doing the work of separating their Zionism from other racist tendencies.
The irony is that Shapiro and Prager and their fellow neo-cons may be often anti-Muslim, but they are never anti-Semitic. Not so for the “alt-right.” Indeed, to white nationalists, Jews are in fact the key to the whole problem. It is the “globalist” Jew who can hide in plain sight as a white man who has pushed forward the liberal agendas. Also ironically, Laura Loomer, an alt-right Jewish star who attended the ZOA gala, seems quite aware of this, as when she tweeted, “I am a Jew who actually admits that globalist Marxist Jews run the media.”
Like the mainstream right, Orthodox Jews believe they can separate the anti-Muslim and anti-black facets of the white nationalist agenda from the Jew hatred. This, of course, is nonsense.
The fact that a portion of a community can swallow up talking points that ultimately would call for their own destruction is not only sad; it’s dangerous. Because Orthodox Jews are giving neo-Nazis cover by parroting their ideas.
By granting these ideas access in the Jewish community, the Orthodox and any others who choose to absorb it are also tacitly sending a message to the world that the ideas themselves are not problematic. When Boteach stands happily with a man who has had perhaps the biggest influence on the growth in white nationalism in America, he sends a message to the American mainstream that these ideas are acceptable, because Orthodox Jews accept them.
When Orthodox Jews stand up and defend, en masse, the use of the word “shitholes” to describe non-white nations, the mainstream right sees this and thinks, “We can’t possibly be allowing neo-Nazi ideology into our worldview. Look at all the Jews who accept this phrasing.”
It is only Jews who think they can absorb and use white nationalist ideas and still keep them under control. No one else, no other group in America, will actually care about this exclusivity when push comes to shove. If enough white nationalism soaks into our national discourse, the control these Orthodox Jews think they have over this discussion will be revealed as an illusion.
For white nationalists, there is no separating racism and anti-Semitism; the two are one and the same. And since they are part of a coherent philosophy, no amount of Jews in Trump’s court, or working on Breitbart, or parroting the talking points of those who wish to exterminate them, will change that reality.
This is the difference between the past and the present discourse around this subject in the politically conservative Orthodox world. Before, the racism that existed could theoretically be localized. Now, as an entire philosophy accompanies and justifies that racism, it will also mean actively being part of a movement that is determined to either eliminate or ethnically cleanse the Jewish people themselves.
But my fellow Orthodox Jews must reject hate, and guard against the dangers of racism, bigotry, and other white nationalist tendencies. We lose our Jewish soul if we embrace hate.
Correction: An earlier draft of this story stated that Laura Loomer had been invited to the ZOA gala. Ms. Loomer bought a ticket, but was not personally invited. We regret the error.
Elad Nehorai is the writer behind the blog Pop Chassid, the co-founder of the creative Jewish website Hevria, and one of the leaders of Torah Trumps Hate, a new Orthodox Jewish activist organization and community.