Opinion: Anti-Semitism in the Era of Trump – A Jewish Perspective

Since Donald Trump started his campaign for the presidency–and continuing throughout his short administration–there have been continuing incidents of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial from within his administration and in the country at large.

Jews are acutely attuned to anti-Semitic rhetoric, due to their long history of oppression. Despite living in relative comfort in the U.S., Jews have a personal history where we have experienced anti-Semitism or know friends and relatives who have been its victims or who have been victims of the Holocaust.

I am typical of someone who grew up Jewish in America. In many ways, it was easy for me. I grew up in New York City where there are many Jews. Many of my friends were Jewish. Schools in NYC closed on Jewish holidays. Yet I have memories of several incidents in my life that made me, as a Jew, become acutely aware of the horrors of the Holocaust as well as to become highly sensitive to anti-Semitic comments.

My grandmother, grandfather, my mother, my aunt, and my two uncles came over from Warsaw, Poland in 1929. This was around 15 years before all their remaining relatives were rounded up, either before or shortly after the Warsaw uprising, by the Nazis and their collaborators and sent to concentration camps to be exterminated.

I never had a bar mitzvah. This is the Jewish ceremony which a boy undergoes at the age of 13 to show that he is now accountable for his actions. In other words, he becomes a man.   I once asked my mother why my grandmother (my nana) did not get upset that I never had a bar mitzvah (nor did my sister have a bat mitzvah).  Her reply to paraphrase her: “Nana gave up caring about religion after all of her family back in Warsaw was killed during the Holocaust.”  I never forgot that answer.

My father once showed me horrific pictures of the thousands of bodies piled on top of each other at a concentration camp that he helped to liberate as a soldier during WW II. He said they had to bulldoze the bodies into lime pits because there were too many bodies to bury properly. Here is a link to similar pictures: Please be warned that these pictures are very graphic.

My father gave away those pictures to a relative who wanted to prove to a disbelieving neighbor that the Holocaust was real.

Anti-Semitism has followed me into the present day as well. One day while working in my new job as a software engineer, a co-worker and I were talking and she said that she had been “jewed”.  I had never heard this term used before but it certainly rubbed me the wrong way. I asked her what it meant. She told me that it meant cheated, and I asked her if she understood what I found offensive about that word. She did not.

After I explained that I was Jewish and that term reinforced a Jewish stereotype, she was quite embarrassed and apologized. The point here is that the term was so part of her vernacular (and I presume other people’s vernacular) that she did not realize the stereotype that she was perpetuating by using that word.

Many Jews have memories like mine that have made them keenly aware of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Luckily for those of us living in the U.S., we are not experiencing the explosive rise in anti-Semitism as in some countries in Europe. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the rising incidents of anti-Semitism in the U.S.

What I find so discouraging is that the Trump administration itself has not only empowered anti-Semites, but has actually made several anti-Semitic remarks that are quite troubling.

On April 11, while talking about the chemical weapons that the Syrian government dropped on its own people, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary said, “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II.  You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

He made his situation worse when he followed up by saying: “I think when you come to sarin gas, he”, referring to Hitler, “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad  [sic]is doing.” What Mr. Spicer said is classic Holocaust denial. He may not have realized what he was saying, but he played right into the hands of Holocaust deniers.

He later tried to clarify his remarks and said, “I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”

Spicer equates any attacks on innocent people with the Holocaust, and his statement minimizes the uniqueness of the evil of the Holocaust in history and is typical of Holocaust denial. As horrific as it is to drop chemical weapons on one’s own population and killing close to 100 people, including babies, it is an altogether different order of magnitude to the Nazis’ attempt to wipe out an entire race of people.

Unfortunately, this so-called gaffe by Spicer was not the only time that members of the Trump administration have made anti-Semitic comments.

During the summer of 2016, during Trump’s campaign, Trump re-tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton with a Star of David and the phrase, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” This image originally came from a white supremacist site.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, with Trump as President, the White House issued a statement as follows:

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, and [sic] heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.

“Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. ‎ As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.

“In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good,” he concluded. “Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”

What I find very troubling about this statement is that Trump has substituted the term “innocent people” for “Jews” just as Sean Spicer would do in a few months. This statement minimizes the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which was an attempt to wipe out not just innocent people, but an entire race of a people.

The language of Holocaust denial is to minimize or actually deny the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators in many European countries. Sometimes they deny millions of people died or they may deny that gas chambers (not “Holocaust centers” as Spicer called them) existed. Sometimes they just try to leave Jews out of the equation altogether, as Trump did in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement.

This kind of Holocaust denial rhetoric strikes Jews right at their core. While many non-Jews might not pick up the nuances of Holocaust denial, Jews are very attuned to it.   I do not believe that Trump is necessarily anti-Semitic. What I do believe is that this administration is actively catering to the alt-right, which has large elements that are racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic.

Since Donald Trump became President there has been an increase in hate crimes against Blacks, Muslims, gays, and Jews due in part, I believe, to his giving legitimacy to the worst elements of the alt-right movement.  This is why the rise of Trump has become so dangerous to Jews and other minorities in the U.S. and overseas.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) noticed a dramatic jump in hate and violence–and incidents of harassment and intimidation–around the country immediately after Trump’s inauguration. In the first 10 days after his election, the SPLC reported incidents in every state, including 100 anti-Semitic ones.

Just this past week, the Anti-Defamation League released data which indicated that anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts jumped dramatically from 2015 to 2016.

I believe this should come as no surprise given Trump’s blatant appeals to the alt-right with their racist and anti-Semitic leanings.

Interestingly, Trump’s theme of “America First” was originally used by the America First Committee, which was formed to keep the U.S. out of World War II and had many members with anti-Semitic leanings. I have to wonder if the use of this term with its anti-Semitic roots is a coincidence.

One of Trump’s chief advisors has been Steve Bannon who was the editor of Breitbart, which is a champion of the alt-right and has promoted anti-Semitic views.

To me, Trump’s weak attempts at speaking out against anti-Semitism, like his recent remarks at the National Museum of African-American History, were too little too late*.  Meanwhile, his campaign drew support from racist and anti-Semitic groups such as the Ku Klux Klan while Trump remained mainly silent. I wish he had the same visceral reaction to anti-Semitic incidents as he recently had to the images of babies killed by the Syrian regime’s use of poison gas.

Anti-Semitism should not be tolerated. Neither should intolerance for any religion or ethnic group.

It makes me proud to be a Jew when I read that after a fire destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center in Texas, the leaders of the local Jewish congregation allowed them to use their synagogue for worship.

This is how we must all act. We must reach out to the communities that are the subject of hateful attacks. We must express outrage when there is a hate crime, whether it is against the LGBTQ community, the Muslim community, the Jewish community, or any other community.

Sometimes we might notice some stereotypes in our own attitudes towards certain groups of people. We all have some inherent stereotypes that come to the surface when we least expect it. When this happens, it is important to be aware of them, to examine them, to understand where they come from, and to do our utmost to eradicate them.

It is incumbent upon us to call out people who are spreading this kind of hatred, even in the subtlest of ways. Whether it is a member of our family, friends, acquaintances, or the President of the United States, we must stand up for the American values which have made America a shining light for the world.

* Update: On April 25, President Trump made his most forceful remarks yet regarding the Holocaust. This is a step in the right direction and hopefully will help reduce the growing anti-Semitism in this country.

Opinion blog posts represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Indivisible Groton Area or its individual members. IGA invites input and opinion from among the diversity of its membership.

Weekly Action Items

Congratulations to the New England Patriots for showing us that even the most unlikely victories are possible for those who don’t get flustered, don’t give up, and just keep pushing down the field.

The national Indivisible movement is calling on members of affiliate groups to carry out a number of actions during the week ahead.

One potential win would be blocking the confirmation of Betsy DeVos to the position of Secretary of Education.

IGA as a group holds no opinion on specific education policies, although we take note that DeVos is strongly opposed by educators and school administrators, who we consider to be our most trusted experts in such matters.

Our primary opposition comes from DeVos’ lack of experience in public education, school funding, higher education financial aid programs, and the enforcement of civil rights, among other necessary areas of policy. Her inarticulate confirmation hearing statements did nothing to persuade us that her nomination is due to merit and qualifications, rather than the hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign donations she and her family have made.

We oppose DeVos because her confirmation would weaken an agency that’s vitally important to our children’s futures, and confirm that the levers of power within a Trump administration are for sale to the highest bidder.

Two brave Republicans so far have stepped forward to oppose DeVos’s confirmation, with only one more needed for the block. If you have friends or relatives who share a state with a potentially-wavering Republican senator, this would be the time to urge them to make a call to that senator’s office.

Your weekly dispatch:

  1. Don’t Let the Senate Rubber Stamp Trump’s Unfit Cabinet Picks: The Senate will try to confirm several of Trump’s Cabinet picks THIS WEEK. A confirmation vote is scheduled for Betsy DeVos (Education), with additional votes possible for Jeff Sessions (Justice), Tom Price (Health and Human Services), and Steve Mnuchin (Treasury). For reasons ranging from incompetence to well-documented racism, each is unfit to lead any of these agencies. It’s not too late to stop them. Keep visiting your two Senators’ offices to tell them to oppose these nominees!

    Monday, Feb. 6, 2017:
    Procedural votes on nominees are expected on Monday. Continue to ask your Senators to withhold consent on everything until the Muslim ban is lifted.Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017:  
    The confirmation vote for Betsy DeVos will likely happen Tuesday. Two Republicans have announced their opposition—which means we only need to sway one more Republican Senator to stop DeVos from becoming the least qualified Secretary of Education in history. You can stop this confirmation from happening. YOUR Senator could be the one to sink DeVos.Call your Senators and tell them to vote NO on Betsy Devos for Secretary of Education.Remainder of the Week: Possible Action on Several Nominees
    After the Senate considers Betsy DeVos, it will quickly try to confirm the remaining nominees. It is unclear when these votes will happen, but more confirmation votes could begin as early as Wednesday.Jeff Sessions: Sen. Jeff Sessions has a decades-long history of opposing civil rights legislation. He was rejected for a judgeship by the Senate in 1986 for being too racist, and between his attacks on civil rights and his strong anti-immigration stance, he’s just as unfit to be Attorney General today.Call your Senators and tell them to vote NO on Jeff Sessions for Attorney General.

    Tom Price: Rep. Tom Price is a zealous opponent of Obamacare, and his financial conflicts of interest continue to raise doubts about his ethics and judgment.Call your Senators and tell them to vote NO on Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services.

    Scott Pruitt: Putting Scott Pruitt—who places private profits ahead of the public good—in charge of the EPA is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Unfortunately, in this case the hens are America’s health and the environment.

    Call your Senators and tell them to vote NO on Scott Pruitt for EPA Director.

    Steve Mnuchin: Predatory lender Steve Mnuchin is also under fire for failing to disclose millions of dollars in assets and his role as director of an investment fund incorporated in the Cayman Islands.

    Call your Senators and tell them to vote NO on Steve Mnuchin for Secretary of the Treasury.

  2. Keep standing against the Muslim and refugee ban. Last week, a federal judge—appointed by Republican President G.W. Bush—issued a temporary nationwide injunction on Trump’s illegal and unconstitutional Muslim ban. While this is great news, it is only a temporary halt to the Muslim ban, which Trump continues to fight in court. This isn’t the time for Congress to sit on the sidelines; Congress needs to use its power to defund and rescind the ban.Ask your Senators to continue to withhold consent on all Senate business, and filibuster any legislation until this discriminatory, unconstitutional ban is revoked and justice is restored.Ask your Representative to cosponsor H.R.724, the Statue of Liberty Values (SOLVE) Act, legislation that would rescind and defund Trump’s Muslim ban. We’ve got scripts for these conversations (along with a recording of last week’s emergency planning call) available here.
  3. Tell your Senator “Stop Gorsuch, Don’t Nuke the Senate”: Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. But this isn’t Donald Trump’s vacancy to fill. Early last year, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a distinguished jurist, to fill this vacancy. Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings, let alone a vote, on Garland’s nomination.Now, they want Gorsuch to receive the consideration Merrick Garland didn’t. What’s more, if Gorsuch can’t get 60 votes, Donald Trump wants Republican leaders to deploy the “nuclear option” and do away with the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. Going nuclear would destroy a critical check and balance in our democracy—we can’t let that happen.
    Call your Senators, tell them you oppose Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, and demand they oppose the “nuclear option.”
  4. Tell Congress to put national security over party politics: No Bannon on the National Security Council. President Trump’s decision to remove the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff (actual national security experts) from the National Security Council and instead give a permanent seat to Steve Bannon was an unprecedented politicization of what is supposed to be a nonpartisan body.Call your Senators and ask them to cosponsor S.291 to modify the requirements for membership in the NSC.

    Call your Representative and ask them to cosponsor H.R.804 to prevent political appointees from serving on the NSC.