On September 13, 2017, I was privileged to attend a conference at LIU Post on the State of Anti-Semitism. It was called by congressman Steve Israel because of the “alarming 86 % rise of anti-Semitic incidents in 2017,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, both on Long Island and around the country. It was attended by diplomats, local law enforcement officials, politicians and the public. Various causes and impulses were discussed. But I was amazed not to hear a single mention of where I believe a significant part of the cause lies — at the top, with the president.
Now I am not here to call Trump an overt anti-Semite, and indeed he may not be. But his campaign was nativist, sought scapegoats, vilified minorities and coddled, for whatever reason, the radical right — all things that unwittingly or wittingly have historically encouraged and enabled anti-Semitism. But there was more than that. There was the famous “tweet” in June, 2016 of Hillary on a bed of money and the Star of David, a classical anti-Jewish slur. There was his campaign’s closing TV ad which referred to the “evils of international banking” and then scanned photos of Yellin, Lloyd Blankfein and George Soros — all Jews. If one had substituted the Rothschild family and played the ad in black and white it could have been 1935 Germany. The anti-Semites got the message. Scores of journalists with Jewish sounding names were getting emails threatening them with Auschwitz and gas chambers and other assorted nastiness from neo-Nazis.
Charlottesville was recent enough. Let’s even cut Trump some slack that “there were fine people on both sides”. But again the anti-Semites got that message, too, loud and clear and knew what America’s leader meant. David Duke and Richard Spencer, white nationalist leaders (“Jews will not replace us”), tweeted “God bless you Mr. President. We know you have our back.”
But Jews on Long Island, and across this country as well, want to know “But do you have OUR back?” Because it doesn’t matter whether any of Trump’s excesses were intentional or unintentional, a political move to shore up radical right support as an essential element of his coalition, or something else. The message of Charlottesville, and the campaign, is that wink-wink, anti-Semitic marches and even violence are respectable and, it would appear, the president and his people will look the other way. So now those from the underbelly of society, who are secretly sympathetic, but would never do more than just think these thoughts in more normal times, now wonder, well maybe the time is right to join, and the neo-Nazi ranks swell.
I am an historian by training. I cannot think of another time in the past century when we have had a national leader — a president — who made a deliberate attempt to stimulate these negative impulses in American society. Historically, anti-Semitism has always resided just beneath the surface in Western societies, and even here, but has been controlled by strong leaders, national and local, who condemned it, and, consequently, at least in the post WW II period, it has not been a major threat.
This period — the time since WW II — has been what many Jewish leaders have called a “Golden Age” for Jews both on Long Island and across our nation. It has been a time of educational achievement, economic advancement and most of all acceptance by our fellow citizens. It has not always been thus. My uncle and mother went to college in the 1930’s, at a time when only 5% of high school grads went on to higher education. Nevertheless, it was a time of “Jewish quotas,” sort of a reverse affirmative action. My mom, part of the educational elite of her time, with a bachelor’s degree, was interviewed for a bookkeeper’s job, way below her station. They asked her religion. The interviewer put a big “H” on the application (Hebrew) and dropped it in the trash as she was leaving. Mom’s neighbors, buying a new Ford car here on Long Island in the 1930’s, would find a copy of the “Dearborn Independent” in the glovebox. It was an anti-Semitic rag but no doubt helped many to form their biased opinions of Jews at the time.
When you consider all of this, what is most surprising is not that there is a rise in anti-Semitism, but that my fellow Conference attendees at LIU did not devote at least some time to what we do about the impulses coming from the president and the attendant fallout. I cannot imagine that if any one of the other 16 Republican candidates had won, or Hillary Clinton, that these conditions would be confronting us, or that we would be seeing this alarming rise of anti-Semitic incidents. This is an ongoing public discussion we must continue. Because most critically, I do not think any of us want to see a reversal of the conditions that have blessed us with our “Golden Age.”
Mr. President: “Do you have our back??”
This story "The LIU Anti-Semitism Conference and Its Implications for New York’s Jews" was written by Bill Bernstein.