clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Call it by its name: anti-Semitism

Trump finally condemned violence against Jews in particular. That doesn’t let him off the hook for good.

David Bohrer / Los Angeles Times via Getty

President Donald Trump has finally learned how to call anti-Semitism by its name.

Asked on Tuesday about a wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers — 69 of which have occurred in the first weeks of 2017 — and the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis on Monday night, Trump finally acknowledged these as specifically anti-Semitic threats targeting specifically Jewish institutions, and decried them as such.

It was a fairly rote condemnation of an attack on a minority group, the sort of thing that presidents do all the time. But despite his claim that he denounces anti-Semitism “whenever I get a chance,” until this point, Trump simply hasn’t.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, the White House put out a statement that commemorated “the victims, survivors, and heroes” in a vague and undifferentiated way, but didn’t specifically mention the 6 million Jews killed. Then the White House made matters much worse by defending the decision on the grounds that Jews weren’t the only ones who suffered, which critics called tantamount to Holocaust denial. Making matters worse, the White House reportedly vetoed, on dubious grounds, sending out a State Department statement that did mention Jews specifically.

Then, last week, when Trump was asked at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if his rhetoric contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism, he bragged about his Electoral College victory instead. The next day, a reporter for a Trump-friendly Orthodox Jewish weekly asked about the bomb threats. Trump didn’t answer the question, but he lashed out at the reporter, telling him to “sit down” and calling his question “very insulting.”

Trump actually calling anti-Semitism by its name is a welcome change of pace. But this isn’t something the president can just say once and point to every time he’s asked about anti-Semitism in future. President Trump had better learn this statement by heart, because it’s going to be imperative on him to say these words, or something like them, relentlessly and zealously.

Hostility toward Jews is growing — both among “anti-globalist” ideologues and among young people who simply think that anti-Semitism is funny. Both of those groups believe that, on some level, President Trump is on their side. If they’re wrong, it’s on him to say so.

The importance of calling things by their names

President Trump and his administration don’t actually need it explained to them why it’s important to call specific phenomena by their names. They care about that a great deal — maybe even too much — when it comes to the term “radical Islamic terrorism” (or extremism).

President Trump’s commitment to using those three words is so total that at times, on the campaign trail, he implied it would be the most important thing the US could do in war on terror. It’s so total that his administration is weighing renaming and reorienting a federal anti-extremism initiative to stop monitoring right-wing extremism and focus exclusively on radicalization of Muslims in the US.

Any argument that can be made for the importance of calling it “radical Islamic extremism” — that it’s important to be specific in naming the enemy; that the public should recognize when hatred is grounded in an ideology — applies to “anti-Semitism.” Meanwhile, the problems with caring so much about “radical Islamic extremism” — that it plays into the hands of Islamophobes who believe Islam is inherently radical, and that it’s a strategic blunder when dealing with the Muslim world — don’t apply to “anti-Semitism,” which is a term for an animus rather than a belief system.

Trump’s default response, asked about prejudices against disfavored groups in America — African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, Jews — is to generically condemn “prejudice” or “hate.” That makes it easy for anyone listening to assume he’s not talking about them.

The problem is very few people think of themselves as hateful, and fewer still think of their hatred as a problem that needs to be overcome. Call generically for everyone to overcome prejudice, and you open the doorway for people prejudiced against Jews to conclude that it’s really the Jews’ job to get rid of their prejudice against you.

Using the term “anti-Semitism” might make some Trump supporters uncomfortable. That’s exactly why it’s necessary.

In some respects, this same argument applies to any prejudice — racism, white supremacism, Islamophobia. But there’s something distinct about the way anti-Semitism has manifested itself in the Trump era. The other prejudices have long bubbled under the surface of American life, and are now foaming into the open; anti-Semitism, on the other hand, has become more prevalent and popular than it was before.

Anti-Semitism isn’t tied to government policy, or to the kind of entrenched economic and social discrimination that continues to shape black and Latino life. Jews are fairly well-integrated into the American elite. But that makes the resurgence in anti-Semitic sentiment, while not more imminently dangerous or powerful, more striking because of its novelty.

The old-school populism that many Trump followers gravitated toward isn’t inherently anti-Semitic — although some other influences on Trump’s movement are, such as the “anti-globalist” conspiracies of Alex Jones and the “alt-right” philosophy of Richard Spencer. The gateway to anti-Semitism in the Trump era, though, is more than any particular ideology. It’s the idea that Jews, and sensitivity toward anti-Semitic persecution, exist to be mocked.

The Trump supporters who respond to Jewish journalists by Photoshopping their faces onto lampshades or sending photos of gas chambers are often young trolls who haven’t read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They see their acts as blows against “political correctness” and victories for lulz.

Somewhere down the line, recognition of historical atrocities became seen as some kind of pansy liberal piety. The culture of lulz that gave rise to online alt-right meme culture, in which it’s funny to break any taboo because it will offend other people, sees “don’t make jokes about genocide because genocide is bad” as just another taboo. And this culture sees the descendants of that genocide as just more people who, if you successfully offend, you win.

President Trump sees himself as an anti-PC truth teller, as do many of his closest advisers and allies. The people who turned Pepe the frog into a white supremacist meme see themselves the same way.

And while President Trump and company may not believe that they and the Pepe brigade are engaged in the same project, the Pepe brigade most certainly does.

If President Trump and company see a distinction there, they are obligated to voice that distinction — to actively kick people out of the tent. This isn’t because they have some abstract obligation to “refudiate” (in the immortal words of Sarah Palin) acts being committed by anyone who shares a label with them. This isn’t about communicating to the general public that they are not on the same team as the extremists. It’s about communicating to the extremists, who do believe that Trump and advisers like Steve Bannon are on their team, that this is not in fact the case.

President Trump gets deeply uncomfortable when asked to do things that people who support him may not like. Instead of saying “I disavow David Duke,” he treated it as an intransitive verb — “I disavow” — rather than singling anyone out. But the reason he’s uncomfortable is exactly the reason it is necessary. These people believe he is on their side. If he doesn’t agree, then he needs to say so, because they certainly won’t believe anyone else.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.