clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Donald Trump and the Jews, explained

GOP Presidential Hopefuls Address Republican Jewish Coalition Candidates Forum Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a Saturday tweet, Donald Trump deployed a meme accusing Hillary Clinton of having made history by being "the most corrupt candidate ever." It was a somewhat banal charge that probably wouldn’t have gotten much attention except for the graphic design: It featured a Star of David superimposed on a bed of money.

Further sleuthing by Anthony Smith of Mic indicated that the meme had previous appeared on the 8Chan forum /pol/, a hotbed of "alt-right" internet activism where overt racism and anti-Semitism flourishes. The original author appears to have been a Twitter user who, among other things, has sent out an image of a swastika made from Hillary Clinton heads.

Trump campaign social media director Dan Scavino released a statement Monday night in which he said the graphic "was not created by the campaign nor was it sourced from an anti-Semitic site." Rather, "It was lifted from an anti-Hillary Twitter user where countless images appear."

So here, then, is the campaign’s defense: It is so slapdash and unprofessional that it is recycling random Twitter memes without any effort to divine their provenance. Worse, no one in Trumpland had the judgment to look at this and say, "Hey, maybe let’s not use a meme that slaps the Star of David atop a pile of money."

Part of what makes this so odd is that there’s not much indication that Trump himself has any kind of problem with Jews (there was this weird Tweet about Jon Stewart), and in fact there’s considerable evidence indicating the reverse. But different forms of bigotry have a way of commingling, and Trump has unleashed forces that are bigger and darker than even he is.

This is the larger context for the outrage over Trump’s tweet. Dating back to the primary, many of Trump’s leading boosters have been alt-righters who feel mainstream conservatives went wrong when National Review started purging anti-Semites and overt racists from its ranks. Trump’s online fan base includes a loud and vocal chorus of anti-Semites who’ve targeted Jewish journalists far and wide (including yours truly). His campaign has done nothing to combat these sentiments, and though it has previously been burned after retweeting memes from racist sources (including, famously, a Twitter user named "WhiteGenocide"), it hasn’t developed even the barest level of caution about recirculating these images.

What’s up with this meme?

This was Trump’s original, now-deleted Tweet:

It’s a strange image, but to be honest, I think it’s unlikely anyone would have seriously considered deliberate anti-Semitism as an element if not for the fact that for months now Trump supporters have been tweeting anti-Semitic stuff at all kinds of people. But that context raised suspicions.

And as Mic’s Smith discovered, the image did indeed originate in racist and anti-Semitic circles.

Trump’s campaign did not say which Twitter account the image was lifted from, but the 8chan forum in which it originally appeared features a watermark pointing to the Twitter account of FishBoneHead1, which has since been deleted. And as Sarah Kendzior revealed, FishBoneHead1 was certainly no stranger to bigoted imagery that is even less ambiguous:

Trump’s official position is that the star on the image was not a Star of David at all, but rather a "Sheriff’s star" or perhaps just a "plain star."

Now, it obviously wasn’t a plain star — it has six sides, not five.

It’s true that sheriff’s badges often feature a six-pointed star, but this is what a Google image search for "sheriff’s badge" looks like.

So, yeah, it’s a Star of David. It is believable that neither Trump nor anyone on his campaign thought hard about what kind of star this was, but then, that’s the problem.

Some of Donald Trump’s favorite daughters are Jewish

To be clear, there is no sign that Trump is personally motivated by anti-Jewish bias.

He’s been dogged by accusations of anti-black bias since at least a 1973 housing discrimination lawsuit brought by the Justice Department. Trump’s Atlantic City ventures were also docked for violating anti-discrimination laws. And of course, Trump has indicated that a person of Mexican ancestry can’t be competent to serve as a federal judge, that Mexican immigrants are "rapists," and that Muslims should be barred from entering the United States.

Trump even delivered a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition that was filled with anti-Semitic stereotypes, though largely of the "positive" kind, like about how Jews are good with money and shrewd at negotiating.

So it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility that he would harbor bias against certain ethnic or religious groups.

But Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is Jewish, and his daughter Ivanka converted to the faith as part of her marriage. And these aren’t just people Trump knows — Ivanka is a major partner in his business, and Kushner appears to play a leading role in Trump’s campaign. Even before Ivanka and Kushner met, Trump battled in the 1990s against exclusive Palm Beach clubs that refused to admit Jewish members. And Trump’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was a rare example of a disciplined, prepared, scripted, on-message address that adhered strictly to the conventional conservative "pro-Israel" line and didn’t remotely touch alt-right notions about the Jewish state.

Trump’s campaign has tons of anti-Semitic fans

That Trump personally seems to draw a distinction between anti-black, anti-Latino, and anti-Muslim bigotry on the one hand and anti-Jewish bigotry on the other is often lost on his supporters, a vocal subset of whom have been engaged in anti-Semitic harassment of journalists and bystanders on Twitter and email for months now.

For example, this happened Monday night:

And it’s not just me. The New York Times’s Jonathan Weisman recorded his anti-Semitic harassment at the hands of the Trumpers in a memorable essay:

THE first tweet arrived as cryptic code, a signal to the army of the "alt-right" that I barely knew existed: "Hello ((Weisman))." @CyberTrump was responding to my recent tweet of an essay by Robert Kagan on the emergence of fascism in the United States.

"Care to explain?" I answered, intuiting that my last name in brackets denoted my Jewish faith.

"What, ho, the vaunted Ashkenazi intelligence, hahaha!" CyberTrump came back. "It’s a dog whistle, fool. Belling the cat for my fellow goyim." With the cat belled, the horde was unleashed.

The anti-Semitic hate, much of it from self-identified Donald J. Trump supporters, hasn’t stopped since. Trump God Emperor sent me the Nazi iconography of the shiftless, hooknosed Jew. I was served an image of the gates of Auschwitz, the famous words "Arbeit Macht Frei" replaced without irony with "Machen Amerika Great." Holocaust taunts, like a path of dollar bills leading into an oven, were followed by Holocaust denial. The Jew as leftist puppet master from @DonaldTrumpLA was joined by the Jew as conservative fifth columnist, orchestrating war for Israel. That one came from someone who tagged himself a proud future member of the Trump Deportation Squad.

It’s worth emphasizing how genuinely new this sort of thing is.

In a digressive aside to his own account of Trumpist anti-Semitic harassment, Jeffrey Goldberg says that in his opinion, "opposition to the creation and continued existence of a Jewish state" constitutes "a form of anti-Semitism." Larry Summers memorably dubbed a certain strand of anti-Israel activism as "anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent."

Whatever one makes of these formulae, they capture the pre-Trump state of discourse around anti-Semitism in the United States. It was about Israel, and the people accused of it would generally deny that they had any kind of problem with Jews.

Since Trump, we have something much cruder, more straightforward, and more concretely linked to historical anti-Semitism and generalized bigotry — people lauding Hitler, throwing around the word "kike," and making memes that mash up Hillary Clinton with swastikas and/or the Star of David.

Ethnic nationalism is bad for the Jews

That Trump’s efforts to mobilize white nationalism as a force in American politics has inadvertently also mobilized anti-Semitism does not come as a surprise to either white nationalists or Jews.

Jews have historically fared very well in the United States versus in other Western countries, in part because the United States — for all its deeply troubled racial history — has generally not defined American identity in ethnic blood and soil terms.

Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan that have wanted to bring more of that spirit to American politics have not looked kindly on the Jewish presence in American life. At the same time, even though Jews have never been subject to formalized legal discrimination in America, Jewish people were massively overrepresented in the ranks of white supporters of the civil rights movement — recognizing a shared interest in promoting an American civic identity and strong culture of nondiscrimination.

The idea of an ethnically conscious political mobilization of white people that garners heavy Jewish support makes a certain amount of sense in the specific context of late-20th-century New York City where Trump comes from. David Dinkins, the city’s first (and so far only) African-American mayor, defeated the Jewish incumbent mayor in the 1989 primary. Dinkins’s Republican opponent, Rudy Giuliani, lost narrowly in 1989 and won narrowly in 1993, both times securing many Jewish votes. But these electoral dynamics are entirely disconnected from the larger logic of American politics in a way that Trump’s Jew-bashing supporters see quite clearly even if Trump himself does not.

Meanwhile, Trump has not acted to distance himself in any way from the anti-Semitic behavior of his followers. There’s been nothing remotely in the vicinity of Barack Obama’s famous race speech from the 2008 campaign, and Trump has consistently appeared angrier about being criticized for ties to anti-Semites than about the anti-Semitism expressed by many of his fans. His campaign is promoting ethnic nationalism in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades, and that mobilization of majoritarian ethnic identity is bad for the Jews, whether Trump likes it or not.

Donald Trump's rise is a scary moment in America

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.