Eight mistakes the media makes about anti-Semitism in America today

Our collective understanding of anti-Semitism has been warped by Donald Trump. Time for some historical truth

Published March 21, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Ilhan Omar; Donald Trump; Jamie Raskin (AP/Susan Walsh/Evan Vucci/Jacquelyn Martin)
Ilhan Omar; Donald Trump; Jamie Raskin (AP/Susan Walsh/Evan Vucci/Jacquelyn Martin)

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When House Democrats managed to turn an ill-conceived attack on one of their own into an all-inclusive condemnation of bigotry, they dodged a bullet — but not the war, as Donald Trump made clear.

"The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They've become an anti-Jewish party. And I thought that vote was a disgrace," Trump claimed after the vote, in a typically mendacious statement.

The resolution’s author, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, is of course both Jewish and a Democrat. In fact, the vast majority of Jews in Congress are Democrats — eight of nine senators (plus independent Bernie Sanders) and 25 of 27 House members.

What’s more, the resolution's first clause “rejects the perpetuation of anti-Semitic  stereotypes in the United States and around the world, including the pernicious myth of dual loyalty and foreign allegiance, especially in the context of support for the United States-Israel alliance," directly refuting Trump’s claim. The second clause further "condemns anti-Semitic acts and statements as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”

The rejection of anti-Semitism could not be clearer. Yet, 23 Republicans voted against it! And Trump — whose last 2016 campaign ad was “packed with anti-Semitic dog whistles, anti-Semitic tropes and anti-Semitic vocabulary” as TPM’s Josh Marshall described it — calls Democrats “anti-Jewish”?

If Trump were alone, it would be laughable, if only in the darkest of ways. But of course he’s not. He’s got the vast majority of his party marching in lockstep with him — and pretending that Democrats are anti-Semitic is one of the few cards they’ve got to play going into the 2020 elections. Which is one more reason why we must be very clear about what anti-Semitism really is, what purposes and interests it serves, how it relates to other forms of bigotry, and why it’s being politically manipulated by Trump and his allies.

Above all, the media has a responsibility not to further anti-Semitism by clouding and obscuring what is going on. There is no place for neutrality here. One cannot be neutral in the face of hate. With that in mind, here eight key mistakes the media needs to avoid — and help the rest of us avoid as well.

1. Failing to define anti-Semitism as an ideology, worldview, belief system and social identity characterized by animosity to Jews.

The meaning of “anti-Semitism” is relatively straightforward. The Holocaust Encyclopedia says, “The word antisemitism means prejudice against or hatred of Jews.” The Anti-Defamation League defines it as “The belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish” and Jews For Racial & Economic Justice defines it as "the form of ideological oppression that targets Jews." Hostility to Jews because of their identity is the central feature, bolstered by some form of rationale, and creating a social identity for anti-Semites in opposition to their fantasy of Jewish identity, whatever that may be.

2. Failing to recognize anti-Semitism as inherently connected to wider sociopolitical issues.

As the Holocaust Encyclopedia explains in its definition of anti-Semitism:

In 1879, German journalist Wilhelm Marr originated the term antisemitism, denoting the hatred of Jews, and also hatred of various liberal, cosmopolitan, and international political trends of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often associated with Jews. The trends under attack included equal civil rights, constitutional democracy, free trade, socialism, finance capitalism, and pacifism.

Thus, hatred of Jews is used to justify attacks on a wide range of liberal policies associated with them, and conversely, opposition to those policies serves to justify hatred of Jews.

3. Failing to understand modern anti-Semitism as primarily the historical product of European Christianity and its culture.

The ADL notes that while animosity to Jews as distinct socio-religious group dates to ancient times, “The rise of Christianity greatly increased hatred of Jews,” with the first rationalizing ideology — blaming Jews “as a people who rejected Jesus and crucified him — despite the fact that the Roman authorities ordered and carried out the crucifixion.” Crucially, the Roman authorities who were responsible for the crucifixion weren’t around anymore. Jews were.

The unified impact of this ideology became much more dire in the 10th and 11th centuries, as described by the Holocaust Encyclopedia, “in part because of the following: threat to the Church hierarchy from the impending split between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy (1054); successive waves of Muslim conquest; end of millennium fervor; successes in converting the heathen ethnic groups of northern Europe; and military-spiritual zeal of the Crusades.” In this context, “Jews became bearers of the only minority religion on a now Christian continent of Europe,” and thus, the universal “other.”

In the early modern period, “Jews were permitted and encouraged to perform managerial and commercial tasks that the ruling classes had neither the skills nor inclination to perform themselves.” In particular: “Since the Catholic and Orthodox Churches banned usury (lending money at interest) and generally looked down upon business practices as immoral, Jews came to fill the vital (but unpopular) role of moneylenders for the Christian majority,” as well as engaging in commerce and the professions, and working “as managers on landed estates and tax collectors.” As modern states consolidated, Jews were excluded from the high-status professions of the time, “landed aristocracy, military service, and state service.” The patterns of what they were allowed or forbidden to do became fodder for further invidious stereotypes.

Then, with the Enlightenment, as the ADL notes, “religiously based hatred of Jewishness gave way to non-religious criticism: Judaism was attacked as an outdated belief that blocked human progress. Jewish separatism was again targeted.” In response to those who did assimilate, anti-Semitism evolved even more:

At the same time … anti-Semites turned to the new "racial science," an attempt, since discredited, by various scientists and writers to "prove" the supremacy of non-Jewish whites. The opponents of Jews argued that Jewishness was not a religion but a racial category, and that the Jewish "race" was biologically inferior.

Thus, there is a constant core of hostility to Jews as “other,” rationalized by an ideology or worldview whose details incorporated inconvenient aspects of the changing social order. The worldview may change in overall theme, as well as in detail, but its functional purpose and significance does not.

4. Failing to note or explain anti-Semitism's long history of association with the right, in Europe as well as America.

The main page of the Holocaust Encyclopedia section on anti-Semitism contains two passages that help underscore its historical association with the right. First was the above-noted passage about Wilhelm Marr’s original coinage of the term, not only to denote the hatred of Jews, but “also hatred of various liberal, cosmopolitan, and international" issues or causes associated with Jews,” including which “civil rights, constitutional democracy, free trade, socialism, finance capitalism, and pacifism,” all of which were attacked by the right.

Secondly there's the following paragraph:

The nineteenth century xenophobic "voelkisch movement" (folk or people’s movement) — made up of German philosophers, scholars, and artists who viewed the Jewish spirit as alien to Germandom — shaped a notion of the Jew as "non-German." Theorists of racial anthropology provided pseudoscientific backing for this idea. The Nazi Party, founded in 1919 and led by Adolf Hitler, gave political expression to theories of racism. In part, the Nazi Party gained popularity by disseminating anti-Jewish propaganda. Millions bought Hitler's book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which called for the removal of Jews from Germany.

This is not to say that anti-Semitism was always or exclusively found on the right. But it was found there far more often than elsewhere, and for good reason: Jews were a hated, demonized other, alienated from the established order. Any change that afforded a better future for them meant a shift of power away from those who traditionally held it. Moreover, Jews were highly sensitive to their vulnerable minority status, and thus tended to support broader systemic changes benefiting a wider population, which in turn made them even more hated and feared by defenders of the old order.  

There have been exceptions, of course. As noted above, the Enlightenment gave rise to attacks on Judaism “as an outdated belief that blocked human progress,” specifically targeting Jewish separatism. So Jews have been attacked from both the right and the left, as agents of change and opponents. But attacks from the right have been far more common and consistent. What’s more, as also noted above, many Jews were willing to abandon (or at least relax) their traditional separatism, a reflection of their own progressive tendencies.

5. Failing to recognize anti-Semitism’s key role in American white nationalism in the post-civil rights era.

From around 1980 onward, white nationalists have focused on the Pacific Northwest with the avowed intention of creating a white homeland, freed from the grasp of “ZOG” (“Zionist Occupied Government," the white nationalist term for the United States). Their actions there clarify the essence of what they’re about, and those who have opposed them on the ground and tracked these struggles have a level of understanding all Americans should seek to learn from.

One such person is Eric Ward, now executive director at Western States Center, who summarized some of what he’s learned in a 2017 article “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.” Ward was a black punk rocker who moved to Eugene, Oregon, with a multiracial group of Los Angeles punks, and subsequently became an organizer who, despite his skin color, was adept at infiltrating the white nationalist movement, precisely because it saw Jews as its main enemy. As he explains:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. ... To recognize that antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within White nationalist thought is important for at least two reasons. First, it allows us to identify the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia — as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear.

How could the inferior black race succeed in overthrowing traditional white power in the 1960s? Ditto for similarly inferior feminists and gays? How could a black man get elected president? It must have been the Jews:

Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious. ... The White nationalist movement that evolved ... in the 1970s was a revolutionary movement that saw itself as the vanguard of a new, whites-only state. This latter movement, then and now, positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of white dispossession — which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on antisemitism.

This brings me to the second reason that White nationalist antisemitism must not be dismissed: at the bedrock of the movement is an explicit claim that Jews are a race of their own, and that their ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played.

This is why anti-Semitism is so fundamental to white nationalist thought. And white nationalists have no bigger, better representative on the world stage today than Donald Trump.

Another expert on white nationalism from the Northwest, David Neiwert, author most recently of “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump,” offered a similar analysis via email to Salon:

I’ve lately come to think of anti-Semitism as essentially the Ur-Bigotry. Hatred of this type replicates itself with a variety of targets, but the origin point of this is anti-Semitism. This is why so many bigots who hate different kinds of people are always anti-Semitic and conspiracist, and why you will find anti-Semitic beliefs common among nonwhites as well. A lot of this has to do with how conspiracism is an essential element of anti-Semitism, which in turns seems to translate into making conspiracists almost universally anti-Semitic. 

Along these lines, white nationalism almost always seems to have a conspiracist anti-Semitism at its core; the whole project of creating a white ethnostate is bound up in the basic notion that there is a conspiracy (by Jews) to oppress and destroy the “white race.” Similarly, anti-Semitism has become far more common on the right, especially in recent years as conspiracism has become dominated by right-wing politics, and in turn right-wing politics have become dominated by conspiracists — all the way to the top in the White House.

Two key points Neiwert touches on here deserve notice as the next two media failures regarding anti-Semitism: The failure to recognize Trump’s role in advancing it, and the failure to demystify the cognitive and psychological aspects involved.

6. Failing to note or explain how Donald Trump has significantly boosted the profile and power of anti-Semitism.

Immediately after Neiwert’s comment above about anti-Semitism and conspiracism becoming dominant on the right, “all the way to the top in the White House,” he said the following:

The really key case to think about here in this regard is Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh massacre perp. He already believed in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories circulating around George Soros, which is why he chose a synagogue as a target — but what he was all worked up about was the hysteria that was being generated at the time around the migrant caravan (part of the plot to destroy the white race, you see) that was being whipped up by Fox News and Donald Trump. These hatreds fuel each other, and often blur over from one into the other.

In fact, the blurring is deliberate. More than just strategic, it is built into the core ideological outlook that Trump has enthusiastically embraced, based merely on his "gut." I wrote about this at the time of the bombing: “How far-right conspiracy theories about 'cultural Marxism' fueled the Pittsburgh massacre.” As I earlier noted during the 2016 campaign, “cultural Marxism” is a term used interchangeably with “political correctness,” one of Trump’s signature bogeymen — and the bogeymen behind it are all Jews!

I had described how Trump’s whole election-campaign package, most of it since neglected or abandoned, fit well into the framework of paleoconservative ideas pushed by a leading activist figure, William Lind. But that wasn't all:

It also includes a bizarre anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about the sinister force of “cultural Marxism.” This is focused on the 20th-century post-Marxist philosophers and social theorists known as the Frankfurt School, nearly all of whom were of Jewish descent, as Lind told a gathering of Holocaust deniers in 2002. In the paranoid imagination, the Frankfurt School is an elaborate scam, in which those who seemingly benefit by not being repeatedly demeaned for who they are — women, people of color, members of non-Christian faiths, non-LGBT people and so on — are merely pawns in the political correctness game. If they think being treated with dignity as human beings is a good thing, they are sorely mistaken. They’re being enslaved to a totalitarian ideology

This is the paranoid conspiracist background on which most of Trump’s different ideological crusades are based. Anti-Semitism sits right at the core of them all. Almost no one in Middle America had heard of William Lind before Trump was elected. Almost no one there has heard of him today. But his profoundly anti-Semitic worldview is dramatically more influential today, precisely because of Donald Trump.

Barely a week ago, the white nationalist terrorist who killed 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, praised Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose."

7. Failing to demystify the cognitive and/or psychological mechanisms involved in anti-Semitism, and the objective realities they serve to obscure.

The above-described blame-shifting, from Roman authorities in Biblical times to contemporary Jews in medieval Europe, is an example of displacement, which plays a recurrent role in anti-Semitism down through the ages. In everyday terms, Jews are scapegoated for different things in different times. But that’s only one of the simpler things involved.

Conspiracism involves a number of different cognitive distortions that interact with one another, six of which have been investigated on a micro-level by Stephan Lewandowsky, which I’ve written about before, (here, here, and here). One in particular is worth noting here, the characteristic of being “self-sealing”: Any evidence presented that would seem to refute a conspiracy theory is instead converted into proof of it. In its simplest form, whoever shows up presenting such evidence is obviously in on the conspiracy.

Another two characteristics constitute a pair that together establish a morally self-justifying framework — hidden conspirators are bad (“nefarious intention”), but conspiracy theorists are good (“persecution-victimization”). When Trump — who lives and breathes conspiracy theories, with his own record of racism and anti-Semitism — accuses Democrats (overwhelmingly favored by Jewish votersby 71 to 25 percent since 1968) of being the real anti-Semites (“Trust me!” you can almost hear him saying), he has this deeply ingrained pair of conspiratorial cognitive characteristics to draw on in seeking to make his case.

One cannot write sensibly about anti-Semitism — or any form of conspiracism — without recognizing and distancing oneself from these and the various cognitive distortions involved. Otherwise, one simply ends up helping to promote them, however inadvertently. Nor can one make sense of Trump’s actions in pretending that those he attacks are the real anti-Semites.

8. Failing to distinguish "anti-Semitic tropes" from anti-Semitism itself.

An AP story last week, "Trump sees advantage in debate over Israel, anti-Semitism" asserted that the president's rhetorical escalation was designed, in part, to "move past his own history of toying in anti-Semitic motifs."  

This is an example of how careless references to "anti-Semitic tropes" or  "motifs" obfuscates rather than clarifies them. That makes it sound as if Trump and Rep. Ilhan Omar are doing something similar. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Consider the origin of the most recent attacks on Omar. She gave a speech in which she said the following:

I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby group that is influencing policy?

I wrote extensively about why this wasn’t an anti-Semitic trope. But just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it was. Is that the same thing as saying that Omar is an anti-Semite? What evidence is there that she hates Jews because they are Jews? Or that she has a worldview or ideology based around that? In fact, there’s evidence strongly to the contrary, right at the very beginning of that same speech:

I know that I have a huge Jewish constituency, and you know, every time I meet with them they share stories of [the] safety and sanctuary that they would love for the people of Israel, and most of the time when we’re having the conversation, there is no actual relative that they speak of, and there still is lots of emotion that comes through because it’s family, right? Like my children still speak of Somalia with passion and compassion even though they don’t have a family member there.

But we never really allow space for the stories of Palestinians seeking safety and sanctuary to be uplifted. And to me, it is the dehumanization and the silencing of a particular pain and suffering of people, should not be OK and normal. And you can’t be in the practice of humanizing and uplifting the suffering of one, if you’re not willing to do that for everyone.

This is, in fact, the exact opposite of anti-Semitism. Rather than identifying Jews as “other,” Omar focuses on the concerns for “safety and sanctuary” that are shared by Jews and Palestinians alike. She focuses on what makes them similar, even the same. What’s more, when she does go on to the passage with the alleged “anti-Semitic trope,” she's talking about specific actors — not Jews in general — who are preventing the kind of healing and peace-making dialogue she seeks to advance. This is nothing like the way in which real anti-Semites use such tropes.  

When Omar was criticized earlier for two other examples, she apologized — which, again, is not how anti-Semites act. But this time, she really had nothing to apologize for, as I argued two weeks ago. Yet she still did not mount the sort of vigorous self-defense that she was perfectly entitled to. She placed a higher value on keeping open future dialogue. This is, quite simply, not what anti-Semitism looks like. It’s offensive to misuse the word that way — offensive both to Jews and to Ilhan Omar, and all who support her.

We know we’re in for a rough 19 months between now and the 2020 election, and Trump’s false accusations of anti-Semitism are just one rancid taste of what lies ahead. The above list is just a partial — yet, I hope, valuable — guide to how we can avoid the worst of what Trump will try to throw at us. He has made a career of selling bogus products and then skipping out on any kind of reckoning. He’s doing the exact same thing once again with his bogus charges of anti-Semitism, both against Ilhan Omar and the Democratic Party.

We shouldn’t let him get away with it. After Christchurch, after Charlottesville, after the Tree of Life massacre, after a nearly 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents the year following his election, there’s just too much blood on his hands for us to let that happen.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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