Don’t believe Trump’s cynical lies: He is not the protector of Jews but our greatest threat.
On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York announced sweeping new restrictions on parts of New York City with rapidly rising rates of coronavirus cases, placing a particular focus on neighborhoods with large proportions of Orthodox Jews. The news came just days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio specifically asked the state to roll back reopenings in viral hot spots in Brooklyn and Queens.
Gov. Cuomo’s decision to place new restrictions on businesses, schools, and synagogues has not, to put it mildly, been well-received in the Orthodox and Hareidi communities. As Yosef Hershkop, a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, put it, “People are very turned off and very burned out… It’s not like we’re the only people in New York getting COVID.” And the backlash against the new restrictions has been swift and intense, culminating in protests and marches on Tuesday night in Borough Park where masks were burned.
Needless to say, the situation is tense, and the stakes of getting this right, of finding a way to help the Orthodox and Haredi communities get past this COVID uptick, are impossibly high.
Which of course made it the perfect situation for President Trump to wade into and make worse. Sharing video of the protests, right wing Twitter activists decided to portray the tensions between Orthodox Jews and the police as “rounding up Jews,” which President Trump retweeted with the added commentary, “Wow, what does this grim picture remind you of? I am the only thing in the Radical Left’s way! VOTE.”
Wow, what does this grim picture remind you of? I am the only thing in the Radical Left’s way! VOTE https://t.co/gnlvm4swFv
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
It’s not the first time President Trump has sought to portray himself as a defender of the Jews, though comparing Democrats to Nazis is a new low.
But in light of new evidence confirming where the true threat to Jews comes from, it went from dangerous and disingenuous to absolutely galling. On the same day that the massive protests against new coronavirus restrictions broke out in Borough Park, the Anti-Defamation League released a massive new study of social media usage in the run-up to the 2020 election. The organization had uncovered what it called a “deluge” of antisemitism directed against Jewish members of Congress. According to the ADL’s findings, at least 10% of social media attacks against Jewish politicians are explicitly or implicitly antisemitic in nature, with 39% of those attacks focused on the false, antisemitic claim that Jewish Holocaust survivor George Soros is responsible for “funding and organizing the political careers of Jewish incumbents, the media, and Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests in order to assert a Communist or ‘Jewish supremacy’ agenda in the United States.”
The ADL particularly attributes what it calls an “alarming” rise in Soros-linked antisemitism directed against American Jewish politicians to the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory on the far-right. But Trump himself has played a role in mainstreaming this fringe, antisemitic view, praising supporters of the conspiracy theory for their support for his candidacy and calling some its most prominent adherents “rising stars” in the Republican Party.
For President Trump to try to cast himself as some champion of the Jews in light of his own mainstreaming of one of the biggest antisemitic conspiracy theories of our time is absolutely ludicrous.
It’s true that Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo have made many mistakes in handling the outbreak in the Orthodox community, and they deserve to be criticized for all of these mistakes. Gov. Cuomo’s used a photo from 2006 to blame Hasidic Jews for holding “super-spreader” events — a disgustingly antisemitic error that is utterly inexcusable, and he needs to apologize forthrightly and fully.
Moreover, community leaders have reported that the state of New York employs virus contact tracers who are “ignorant of our community” and who overwhelmingly do not speak Yiddish, the primary language of the Hasidic Jewish community of New York.
While this may not justify mask-burning protests, it is clear that more can and must be done by city and state authorities to approach the Orthodox community in a kind and respectful manner, and to work within community norms to find solutions to stop the spread of the virus, rather than simply sending police into Orthodox neighborhoods to forcefully shut down Sukkot celebrations.
But the coincidence that these anti-mask protests happened on the same day that the ADL released its new report on rising election-related antisemitism in the United States, showing that the overwhelming majority of this antisemitism comes from the far-right directed against Democrats and the left, reveals the breathtaking cynicism of politicians like President Trump trying to portray themselves as some kind of protector of the Jews.
On a week when the Department of Homeland Security has itself acknowledged far-right white supremacy as the leading cause of terror in the U.S., no one should be taken in by President Trump’s cynical attempts to portray himself as the protector of the Jewish people. A lot of new information came out this past week about where the real violent threats to the Jewish community in the U.S. lie in the final weeks leading up to the 2020 election. And President Trump is not going to protect us from those threats.
Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.