When President Donald Trump on Sunday told several Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” critics railed against the racist attack, a variation on the same “go back to your country” line used for generations against non-white people.
Some in Trump’s party condemned the President, but others, including Trump himself, responded to criticism by changing the topic entirely, accusing the congresswomen under attack of hating Jews and Israel — and deserving, so the implication went, of some kind of exodus from American politics.
“When I hear the anti-Semitic language they use, when I hear the hatred they have for Israel and the love they have for enemies like al Qaeda, I do not believe this is good for the Democrat Party,” Trump said Monday, wildly misrepresenting Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) condemnations of the terrorist group.
It’s a time-tested charge from Trump, who in March said the Democratic Party had become “an anti-Jewish party” and boosted the so-called “Jexodus” movement, an effort to peel American Jews away from their overwhelming identification as Democrats.
Some Jewish lawmakers said they’d had enough.
Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), whose district is adjacent to Omar’s, told TPM in an emailed statement Tuesday that “employing anti-Semitism as a political weapon is as dangerous as anti-Semitism itself.”
Republicans, he said, “are cynically trying to deflect the truth and make this about anti-Semitism.”
“I’m going to tip my hat to the Squad and urge everyone: don’t take the bait. Racism is racism, and using the Jewish people — another community that has long been a victim of prejudice — as a shield ties this whole situation into one of the most sickening knots I can remember,” Phillips added.
On Monday, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) urged in a tweet: “Don’t use Israel politics to obscure or excuse racism. Thanks!”
Referring to American Jews, Schatz implored the President and others to “leave us out of your racist talking points.”
I have been pretty polite about this and so have other American Jews. But you really have to leave us out of your racist talking points. You are not helping us, you are not helping society, you are not helping Israel. Your racism is your thing and we are not your shield.
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) July 15, 2019
In an interview on MSNBC, Anti-Defamation League President Jonathan Greenblatt condemned Trump’s “cynical” use of “Jews as a shield.”
“Speaking for many people in the American Jewish community, President Trump doesn’t speak for me when he says those things, and I want nothing to do with it,” he said.
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said in a statement Tuesday that the council was “increasingly dismayed by President Trump’s abuse of antisemitism and the debate over Israel to demonize his political opponents.” He called Trump’s attacks on the congresswomen “unacceptable.”
But Trump was hardly alone in weaponizing charges of anti-Semitism to deflect accusations of racism.
Earlier, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had been even more blunt.
“We all know that [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] (D-NY) and this crowd are a bunch of Communists. They hate Israel. They hate our own Country,” he said in a Fox News interview, quotes from which Trump later tweeted. “They are Anti-Semitic, they are Anti-America,” Graham alleged.
The Republican National Committee, asked for comment on Trump’s tweets, answered a totally different question.
“Whether it’s supporting the anti-Israeli [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, encouraging the delegitimization of Israel, downplaying 9/11, or comparing migrant shelters to Nazi concentration camps, Democrat Representatives Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez have repeatedly made anti-Semitic comments that disrespect Israel and the tragedy of the Holocaust,” RNC spokesperson Steve Guest wrote in an email.
Aside from abandoning any attempt to defend the President, the statement was misleading on a few fronts.
Omar, for example, didn’t downplay 9/11. That jab from Guest refers to a clip from a 20-minute speech she gave in March, in which she said American Muslims began losing access to their civil liberties after “some people did something,” a reference to the attacks. But former President George W. Bush, Omar later noted, also referred to the attacks as having been carried out by “the people who knocked these buildings down.”
Nor did Democratic representatives compare border detention facilities to Nazi concentration camps. Ocasio-Cortez did compare the facilities to concentration camps, more generally, but the use of such camps pre-dates the Holocaust, and credible historians have recognized parallels to current facilities in the United States.
Outside of official D.C., American Jews are engaged in a roiling debate over the right response to Trump’s racism, and to his use anti-Semitism accusations as a rhetorical shield.
Eli Valley, the outspoken artist, has long written and drawn about the use of Jewish historical memory in contemporary politics. He made international headlines when Meghan McCain called his depiction of her — a characteristically over-the-top criticism of McCain’s own attacks against Omar — “one of the most anti-semitic things I’ve ever seen.”
For Valley, who readily blames the right for inciting what he calls “pogroms” of Jews in recent synagogue shootings, and who called Jared Kushner a “kapo” for participating in the Trump administration, Republicans have engaged in a “redefining” of anti-Semitism, changing the term into a label for any criticism of Israel’s right-wing government.
“On a tactical level,” he wrote to TPM, referring to Trump’s and others’ accusations of anti-Semitism, “they’re deflecting in a Karl Rove sense — accuse your opponents of your own faults.”
“But even more than that, it’s all a game to them, even as they incite pogroms,” he said. “American Jews are pawns, punching bags and punchlines to the GOP.”
Over the phone, he called the current state of American politics “a bizarro world.”
“The party that incited two pogroms is pretending that they are the protector of the Jewish people,” he said.
The White House rejected assertions that Trump’s rhetoric might have inspired the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. But the shooter, critics point out, was reportedly obsessed with the migrant caravans that Trump made a central talking point in the run-up to the 2018 elections, seeing them as invaders.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has leaned heavily on allegations of anti-Semitism in his own comments about Trump and Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the congressman from whom McCarthy stripped committee assignments after King appeared to defend white nationalism to The New York Times. After taking that action, McCarthy demanded Democrats remove Omar from her committee assignments over a tweet she sent that some interpreted as anti-Semitic.
“When I had a member of our conference say something that was, to me, abhorrent … we got together, not with the Democrats but with our own, in our own steering committee, and removed him from any committee at all,” he said in an interview. “Now the Democrats are not doing that.”
On Tuesday, right after saying he would not support a resolution condemning Trump’s racist attacks against Omar and others, McCarthy again pivoted to alleged anti-Semitism on “the other side of the aisle.”
“Are we bringing a resolution up on the House floor about their comments? No,” he said, adding: “This body should be better than this.”