What is it with President Trump and anti-Semitism? He kicked off his inauguration with a sermon by pastor Robert Jeffress, who has declared that Jews are going to hell. Just one week in, the administration marked Holocaust Remembrance Day without once mentioning Jews. He is harboring Sebastian Gorka — a frequent associate of Hungary’s anti-Semitic far right — on his national security staff. And who could forget Sean Spicer's claim — during Passover no less — that Hitler never used "gas on his own people" like Syrian President Assad had?
In response, Trump has pointed to his Jewish daughter and son-in-law to assure the nation that he's "the least anti-Semitic person you have ever seen in your entire life," but that hardly put the issue to rest.
Let's put aside the president's trademark bluster and take him at his word — he loves his daughter, and he has a handful of individual Jews in his life that he cares about. But the issue isn’t what Trump believes in his heart of hearts. What really counts are his actions and the company he keeps — including once fringe figures like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. In that sense, tragically, he has been a godsend to anti-Semitic movements and ideologies once relegated to the margins of society.
All the while, alt-right trolls, white nationalist activists and conspiracy theorists have cheered on President Trump from the virtual sidelines. They're cheering because this administration has carried the stain of anti-Semitism from the campaign into the White House and federal government. Sadly, the longstanding taboo in the GOP against overt anti-Semitism has begun to fall, and ties to anti-Semitic figures and thought — once considered to be automatically disqualifying by the Republican mainstream — are no longer an impediment to serving in the executive branch.
But across the GOP and among too many establishment Jewish organizations, no one wants to name the depth and breadth of this pattern. Top administration officials like Jeff Sessions, Sebastian Gorka, Steve Bannon, Michael Anton, Rick Perry and, until recently, Mike Flynn, have deep ties to fringe elements of the extreme Christian Right, the white nationalist alt-right, the European far right and the anti-immigration movement. These ties have played a key role in normalizing anti-Semitic bigotry and advancing political alliances with those who promote or are sympathetic to anti-Semitism. This is dangerous for the Jewish community but it is also perilous for immigrant communities, communities of color, and all religious minorities whose safety is jeopardized by white nationalism.
Look no further than Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a close ally of the president and the first senator to endorse him. Sessions has longstanding and deep connections to groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which tout anti-Semitic figures and leaders. FAIR was founded by John Tanton, who still sits on the group's national advisory board. Tanton practically worshipped the architect of the Immigration Act of 1924, John B. Trevor Sr., a rabid anti-Semite whose pro-Nazi group was later indicted for sedition. He also recommended the work of a radical anti-Semite – Kevin MacDonald – to a major donor and suggested that FAIR’s board discuss MacDonald’s anti-Semitic theories regarding Jews and immigration.
Sessions has also worked closely with two other anti-immigrant groups affiliated with Tanton, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). The president of NumbersUSA has appeared on the radio show of notorious anti-Semite Jeff Rense, who hosts neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers and promotes conspiracy theories about "Jewish control of the world." Meanwhile CIS staff have circulated articles by anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers and appeared on anti-Semitic programs and in anti-Semitic publications. One former CIS Analyst, Jon Feere, provided quotes to an anti-Semitic publication, the American Free Press, in 2012. Notably, Feere was hired by the Trump administration as an advisor to the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Like Sessions, Mike Flynn, who briefly served as Trump's National Security Advisor, helped mainstream extremists during his time as a campaign advisor, transition team member and administration official. Flynn’s frequent Twitter interactions with white nationalists and anti-Semites have been thoroughly covered, including the infamous "not anymore, Jews" retweet. He also called former Breitbart News technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos “one of the most brave people I know.” Yiannopoulos, who has credited Steve Bannon for making him a star, has an anti-Semitic repertoire that includes encouraging people to post swastikas, referring to a reporter as a “Thick-As-Pig Shit Media Jew” and saying that “Jews run everything.”
Flynn is no longer part of Trump’s National Security Council, but another figure with disturbing links to anti-Semitism remains in a national security role: Sebastian Gorka, a Deputy Assistant to the President on national security matters. Gorka recently jumped to the defense of the president over the Holocaust Remembrance Day controversy, dismissing the criticism of Jewish groups as "asinine."
To say the least, Gorka may not be the most credible messenger on the issue. During his time in his parents’ native Hungary, he was intensely involved with Hungary’s far right, which is rife with anti-Semitism. Beginning in 2006, he wrote a series of articles for Magyar Demokrata, a newspaper known for publishing anti-Semitic writers. In 2007, he founded the short-lived UDK Party with two former members of the far-right Jobbik Party, which has been widely condemned for its virulent anti-Semitism. As a leader of the UDK, Gorka appeared on Hungarian television to voice support for the Hungarian Guard, a far-right, anti-Semitic paramilitary group. He also defended right-wing protesters' use of the Arpad flag, which harks back to the World War II-era pro-Nazi movement in the country. The president of the Federation of the Jewish Communities of Hungary described the flag as “a symbol of murder and mass murder.”
Gorka’s fondness for symbols of Hungary’s far right has been noted in the media — most recently his decision to wear the medal of the Order of Vitéz to an Inaugural Ball. His father received the medal from the reconstituted order in exile during the communist era, but it has deeply anti-Semitic connotations. The order was founded in 1920 by the anti-Semitic Horthy regime, which played a key role in the Holocaust in Hungary. During World War II, Jewish real estate was confiscated by the state for distribution to members of the order. Notably, Gorka signed his doctoral dissertation – in which he discusses the role of "the international Jewish elite" in founding Israel — as "Sebestyén L. v. Gorka," with the “v.” referencing the order. When testifying in front of the House Armed Services Committee in June 2011, his official testimony listed his name as “Dr. Sebastian L. v. Gorka,” thus referencing the order under congressional oath. Contemporary leaders of the order say that Gorka is a formal member and has pledged lifelong loyalty to the group.
Back in the U.S., Gorka became entwined with the far right as national security editor for Breitbart News, which Bannon once described as "the platform for the alt-right" — a movement that has been described by former Breitbart staffer Ben Shapiro as "a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism." Like Flynn, Gorka has defended his former colleague Yiannopoulos and promoted his work, including an article that credits the writings of pro-Nazi thinker Julius Evola for helping originate the alt-right. For his part, former Breitbart chief Bannon has cited Evola and has also expressed admiration for Charles Maurras, a notorious French anti-Semitic philosopher who collaborated with the Nazis.
Gorka is ideologically in sync with Michael Anton, another Deputy Assistant to the President focused on national security. Writing as "Publius Decius Mus," Anton ridiculed diversity as a “source of weakness” and has defended the World War II-era America First Committee — which was deeply anti-Semitic — as an "unfairly maligned" organization.
Though the alt-right is a relatively recent public arrival in conservative circles, the extreme Christian right has long been a political ally of the GOP. Now it's a foundational element of Trump's coalition, and its ideological hostility to Jews has come to the fore.
Consider Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who has extensive ties to the American Family Association (AFA), an anti-LGBT hate group with a record of anti-Semitism. AFA's top lobbyist, Sandy Rios, has warned that "powerful Jewish forces" are working to destroy the country and labeled "atheist Jews" as some of the "worst enemies" of America. Bryan Fischer, who hosts a flagship program on AFA's radio network and previously served as the group's policy director and spokesperson, has said that non-Christians don't have First Amendment rights and that “America is a Christian nation and not a Jewish or Muslim one.” He has also blamed LGBT people for the Holocaust. AFA has even published a guide stating that Jews "do not worship the same God" as Christians, offering advice on how to convert them.
AFA was heavily involved in Perry’s “The Response,” a daylong prayer rally that served as an informal launch to his 2012 presidential campaign. The event featured a prayer for the conversion of the Jews to Christianity and was officially endorsed by Mike Bickle, who previously warned that Jews must accept Jesus or face extermination. Bickle and pastor John Hagee, who participated in "The Response" and whose church Perry has visited, have both referred to Hitler as a hunter sent by God. These comments caused John McCain to disavow Hagee in 2008, but Perry has not.
During his first bid for the presidency, Perry was endorsed in 2011 by none other than Robert Jeffress, the same pastor who said Jews are going to hell. A little over five years later, as mentioned above, Jeffress would be given the honor of delivering a sermon to the incoming president on Inauguration Day at historic St. John's Episcopal Church across from the White House. Here we see the not so subtle way that anti-Semitic figures have been given prominent platforms and mainstreamed by this administration.
When all is said and done, what matters most is not what's in the president's heart. He has placed individuals with ties to anti-Semitism into high public office — shattering a hard-won taboo against flagrant anti-Semitism in government. He has invigorated a white nationalist world-view that demonizes Jews, Muslims, and immigrants. He has, intentionally or not, energized white nationalists, neo-Nazis and a legion of alt-right internet trolls. His campaign and early presidency have been marred by anti-Semitic vandalism and threats. President Trump has downplayed these acts while ignoring the pattern he has set in motion. These are not mere coincidences.
The issue of Trump and anti-Semitism keeps coming up because the president has embraced political figures whose conspiratorial and far-right ideologies are highly suspicious of — if not outright hostile to — Jews and Judaism. Regardless of whether President Trump personally holds such views, many people around him do. Short of a major shift in rhetoric and some serious housecleaning at the White House, the stain of anti-Semitism around President Trump will be here to stay.