Storm and Menace

A Nazi flag hangs next to a Donald Trump banner at the Bloomsburg fair in Pennsylvania.
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Jews are one of the most consistently Democratic voting groups in the country, going back many decades. The only comparable group, whose percentages of voting for Democrats greatly exceeds that of Jews, is African-Americans. But Jews’ propensity to vote for the Democratic party actually significantly predates that of African-Americans. Given this history, it’s not like Jews needed a lot of riveting. But I think – and polls back this up – that one of the less discussed aspects of the 2016 political cycle is how it has deeply intensified Jews’ collective attachment to the Democratic party, both in voting and political giving.

I’m 47 years old. I was born in St Louis, Missouri but I grew up in Southern California and since I was 18 I’ve lived on the East Coast, as far north as Sommerville, Massachusetts and as far south as Washington, DC. I know a lot about anti-Semitism. It shapes a lot of my view of life. Of course I’ve seen instances of it. But in almost half a century of life it’s pretty hard for me to think of many or even any examples where I’ve witnessed or been the target of the menace of anti-Semitism directly. Here I’m not talking about awkward comments or subtle discomfort or intense arguments about Israel. There was that one time in grade school where a friend called me a “Jew” and not in a nice way during a fight. I’m talking about neo-Nazi cartoons, threats and jokes about ovens, kike, juden, the rawest kind of avowed hostility and intentional menace. It’s been so constant for the last six months that it feels like a new normal. The change has been that dramatic and that fast. I suspect there are few American Jews reading this who don’t get immediately what I’m talking about.

Chemi Shalev, an Israeli who is the US correspondent for the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz writes on this subject today. I think some of what he writes is overstated. But broadly I agree. There’s also this story from Politico about Jewish millennials experiencing anti-Semitism for the first time as something not discussed in a history book. Many note that Trump has a Jewish son-in-law to whom he appears to be quite close. His daughter Ivanka is actually a convert. But to put much stock in that is to show an ignorance of the history of anti-Semitism. Many of the most virulent and consequential anti-Semites had Jewish friends and even relatives. One of the key forerunners of Adolf Hitler was a man named Karl Leuger, who served as Mayor of Vienna from 1897 until his death in 1910. Leuger was a key figure, perhaps the key figure, who brought anti-Semitism from being part of the fabric of European culture and the outlet for the episodic violence of illiterate peasants to making it a force in a modern political context.

In one of the ironies of modern German history, Otto von Bismarck, the unifier of modern Germany who had all the ingrained anti-Semitism of his fellow junker aristocrats, nevertheless managed his own finances and later bankrolled German unification with a Jewish banker named Gerson von Bleichröder. The ‘von’ is there because Bleichroder’s relationship with Bismarck led to his family’s ennoblement in 1872. The ironies of this relationship, one which mixed the ingrained anti-Semitism of German society, especially among the aristocracy, and genuine friendship and interdependence over decades are so rich that they inspired an entire book by one of the great historians of the 20th century: Gold and Iron: Bismark, Bleichroder, and the Building of the German Empire by Fritz Stern. It was Leuger who took this ingrained anti-Semitism in European culture and crafted it into a tool of modern politics, the politics of cities and educated people.

And yet Leuger had many Jewish friends. He dined with them. When asked about this seeming contradiction, Leuger said famously: “I decide who is a Jew.” Was Leuger a hypocrite or just conflicted and complicated? It’s a fascinating historical question. But as a practical matter it didn’t matter. Anti-Semitism, like racism, isn’t a matter of what you feel but what you do. My own read is that Trump has some instinctive anti-Semitics beliefs. He’s said before that he thinks Jews are good with money and wants them, not African-Americans, counting his money. But I don’t get the sense he has a deep animus toward Jews. He may even been pro-Jew in a way that many soft anti-Semites are. But none of that really matters. He’s embraced the normalization of anti-Semitism in American politics. That’s all that really matters. What he feels in his heart is unknowable and largely irrelevant.

It’s fair for me to point out that the greatest volume of this that I see is on Twitter and mostly from anonymous or semi-anonymous accounts. For some this makes it a kind of hate novelty, like imagining the crazy you see in a particularly toxic comments thread is representative of real, normal people and society as a whole. There is a limited truth to that. But it misses some essential points about mass communication, political culture and how political movements operate.

Most of what we call public opinion and even political culture itself only goes back a few hundred years. In a limited sense it goes back to the invention of the printing press in the late 15th century. But it only really gets underway in the 17th and 18th centuries with the beginnings of what we now call newspapers. There is a vast academic literature on this subject, much of it illuminating, some of it overdone and precious. But at its root it is essential to understanding the world we live in. Public opinion, political culture and mass action in the way we understand it today doesn’t really exist until individual people realize that their thoughts aren’t just ideas circling in their heads and those of a few friends and family members but tied to something much larger. It’s not just me who thinks this. I’m part of this larger group. In this way, through newspapers and other forms of interactive communications (and now websites) a group becomes conscious of its own existence. And in becoming aware of its own existence it comes into existence.

Individuals begin to see their thoughts and ideas aren’t simply their own. They’re tied to others. They are powerful or weak in relationship to the thoughts of others. They are either reinforced or subtly changed by the thoughts of others. (This is a vast historical literature. But as good a place to start as any is a man named Benedict Anderson and the phrase “imagined communities”.)

For these purposes, the point is this: if 20% of the country is anti-Semitic and 5% is aggrieved or potentially violent in their anti-Semitism (and I’m just taking those percentages at random), their becoming conscious of each others’ existence and even coming into communication with each other through mass media (in the broadest sense of the word) isn’t some footnote to the phenomena. It actually makes all the difference in the world, especially when high profile personages begin to normalize or accept the legitimacy of their thought.

One of the thing Jews carry with them instinctively is the knowledge that when one group gets targeted, even one they have no particular connection to, it will almost certainly, eventually come around to them too. This is, I believe, one of the things that keeps Jews anchored on the center-left and left of the political spectrum, even as they’ve become distinct and more Republican-looking by wealth, education-levels and other demographic characteristics. Breitbart News, the outfit that figuratively merged with the Trump campaign when it’s CEO took over the Trump campaign, got started with whole sections about ‘black crime’ and a smorgasbord of anti-black and anti-Hispanic racism. But it didn’t take them long to get on to full-throated anti-Semitism. Jews are a tiny minority of the US population. Most demographers would put their number at between 1.5 to 2 percent of the population, and closer to the lower end of that range. When race purity and tribalism become the order of the day it’s going to be very hard for them not to end up as outsiders.

In this sense, whether or not some variant of liberalism and pluralism is rooted in Jewish political culture, an attachment to pluralism is also strategic. We’re better off supporting a coalition either made up of or containing a lot of other non-majority groups – whether that’s African-Americans or Catholics or Latinos or Asians or gays and lesbians or whoever else.

It’s not GOP elites or the great mass of Republicans who are driving this change, the normalization of anti-Semitism in US political discourse. But the great mass of them (with some very honorable exceptions) are standing by and standing with the man and the movement that is doing these things.

I doubt very much that there are many Jews who don’t feel the change from 2015 to 2016 and very few who don’t know where the change is coming from. I doubt Paul Ryan has an anti-Semitic bone in his body. But he’s going to campaign with Trump on Saturday, the day before the second presidential debate. That’s all I need to know.

I should make clear that I know that Blacks and Hispanic Americans – not to mention American Muslims – have been treated to as much and in many cases far more hostility and racism this year. It is the faintest kind of silver lining to what I’ve described above that the relative power and influence of many Jews has highlighted for them what our non-white brothers and sisters are experiencing routinely. But that only makes the larger point. When purity and tribalism become the order of the day in a country that is still largely white and Christian, we won’t be part of the club.

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