The right-wing fringe has a long history of anti-Semitism. The Trump-era Israel obsession didn't help
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, the Republican Party's latest right-wing lightning rod, has a long history of anti-Semitic remarks that the GOP leadership wants us to forget. A recent Morning Consult poll found that 30 percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of her in the aftermath of those remarks coming to light — an 11-point increase from where she stood previously. (Overall, 41 percent of all voters have an unfavorable opinion of Greene, with only 18 percent reporting a more favorable view.)
I was a 12 years old when I was attacked by a mob of children and called "Christ killer" — the same age Jesus was, according to the Gospel of Luke, when he lingered in the Temple of Jerusalem and impressed the elders with his intellect — so this issue is undeniably personal. That wasn't the first or last time I was bullied for being Jewish, but it was the only time I nearly died because of it: Those kids held my head underwater, chanting, "Drown the Jew!"
This incident sprang back to mind this month as Republicans tried to figure out what to do about Greene, a particularly obnoxious Christian right-winger who has suggested that a "space laser" affiliated with Jewish banking families caused the 2018 Camp Fire in California, expressed sympathy for the anti-Semitic QAnon fantasies, promoted a video that claimed Jews are trying to destroy Europe, posed for a picture with a Ku Klux Klan leader and liked a tweet linking Israel to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Republican leaders, naturally, have tried to distance themselves from Greene, characterizing her views as a freakish anomaly that have nothing to do with the "conservative" movement. Yet when Democrats in the House of Representatives stripped her of her committee assignments more than a week ago, only 11 Republicans joined them, while 199 voted in solidarity with Greene.
None of this is surprising for anyone who is familiar with the history of American anti-Semitism. Greene is not an aberration, some inexplicable pimple of hatred that blemishes the American right's otherwise Jew-friendly visage. The American right has long had an anti-Semitism problem, and she's just the latest symptom.
This history of hatred "tells us much more about the anti-Semite than it tells us about Jews," Dr. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, told Salon. After citing an Israeli historian who refers to anti-Semitism as a "cultural code," Sarna explained that beliefs that vilify Jews as malevolent plotters who secretly control the world have a long history in American political life. "These ideas, which I think many on the left frankly had thought were done and over with, we suddenly see them full blown," he said
Before the 19th century, Sarna explained Jews were stereotypically depicted as being cursed: They were "wandering Jews" for their supposed role in killing Jesus Christ. In the modern era, however, the stereotype emerged that Jews secretly controlled the world and were responsible for everything that a given anti-Semite might regard as sinister. During the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant blamed the Jews for cotton smuggling and expelled the entire Jewish community from areas he controlled in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. When the populist movement arose to address agrarian economic concerns in the 1890s, Jewish bankers like the Rothschilds were a frequent target among ideological leaders like William Hope "Coin" Harvey.
After a hoax text known as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" was published in the early 20th century as "proof" of a secret Jewish plot to control the world, it was popularized by Henry Ford, who created his own newspaper to blame Jews for anything modern that he disliked — urbanization, jazz music, left-wing politics, you name it. Ford's ideology strongly influenced Adolf Hitler, and became popular among American right-wingers as well, with Jews being accused of controlling the Federal Reserve and being conflated with Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs. Many anti-Semites point to the fact that, ever since FDR, Jews have overwhelmingly voted for Democratic presidential candidates.
Virulent anti-Semites like the radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin associated prominent Jews with a sinister conspiracy, suggesting that the entire Jewish community was implicated. Aviator Charles Lindbergh, who nearly ran for president against FDR (and whose slogan was the awfully familiar "America First!"), attacked Jews as being warmongers and expressed sympathy for the Nazi regime.
There's a direct line between those conspiratorial fantasies ideas from previous decades and the anti-Semitic attacks of the 21st century. "Conspiratorial thinking, by its nature, argues that everything is connected," Sarna explained. "There are no coincidences and it eschews complexity. It believes there are simple explanations based on sinister individuals who are manipulating the universe. Unsurprisingly, in a Christian setting, those are Jews."
Those ideas can evolve — Sarna pointed out that the QAnon belief in a giant child abuse ring run by Jews is analogous to the "blood libel," the medieval myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children for rituals — but the underlying assumptions have been consistent. It just so happens that, in the modern right-wing incarnation, Donald Trump's cult-like following believes that "all the enemies of Mr. Trump are now child molesters."
I also reached out to Jewish comedian Larry Charles, who wrote many "Seinfeld" episodes, directed the first "Borat" movie and has explored movements like the alt-right in his Netflix series "Larry Charles' Dangerous World of Comedy."
"I think the modern history of anti-Semitism is very tied in with the right-wing movement," Charles said. "There are these various mythologies of white supremacy, and in many of those mythologies the Jews are the villains." Of course it's true that there are prominent Jewish conservatives and Republicans, and the conservative movement professes immense love and loyalty for Israel — which is a complicated issue, to say the least. But the tendency of far-right politics to intersect with anti-Semitism is undeniable.
Charles brought up community organizer and political theorist Saul Alinsky, a favorite target of the right. "He is almost like the devil in a way," Charles observed. "He's like this radical leftist Jew, he fits all the categories. He checks all the boxes."
"Shooting some of these movies, we would see reasonable people who have this blind spot," Charles said. "They have this crazy belief, and there were all different applications and manifestations of it, that the Jews control everything. That is like a mantra amongst a certain segment of the population."
Reflecting on the fact that right-wing marchers at the 2017 Charlottesville rally chanted "Jews will not replace us," Charles wondered: "Where did they even come up with that? People actually believe that Jews are going to replace them. It's really absurd, but very hard to argue with because, again, these are ingrained belief systems."
With the election of Trump in 2016, those ingrained belief systems — which for many years had been kept outside the American political mainstream — became more prominent, and their adherents more emboldened. David Weissman, a military veteran and former conservative Republican who stopped being a self-described "Trump troll" after a 2018 conversation with comedian Sarah Silverman in 2018, told Salon about his encounters with anti-Semitism on the right.
Back when he still supported Trump, Weissman recalled, he got into a "little spat" with an alt-right commentator who calls himself Baked Alaska, who was recently arrested after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Ultimately they moved past it, Weissman said: "We both realized we were Trump supporters" who believed "Democrats were the bad guys." Once he left MAGA world, however, Weissman said "the anti-Semitism definitely escalated" in interactions with his former allies.
"When I became a Democrat, I was called 'the k-word'" and targeted by "anti-Semitic slurs and tropes," Weissman said. Trump supporters sent "memes of me being Jewish in the oven," and "put my name in parentheses," a common tactic used by the far right to target someone for being Jewish.
Jason Weinman, a longtime friend who attended Bard College with me, talked about his experiences working for the Libertarian Party, where he served in a number of positions, including youth director for Gary Johnson's 2016 presidential campaign, secretary of the Libertarian State Leadership Association and executive director of the Libertarian Party of Nevada.
"When I first got involved with the Libertarian Party in 2012, I found a strong undercurrent of conspiracy theorism," Weinman told me by email. "While leadership was happy to ridicule this nonsense behind closed doors, they were unwilling to confront or address it. For decades, the LP had been willing to pander to fringe movements in order to expand their membership. This is why unscrupulous grifters like Lyndon LaRouche, paleocon loons like Pat Buchanan (and frankly Ron Paul), 9/11 truthers, anti-vaxxers, and ultimately anti-Semites and bigots all took shelter under the libertarian label."
He added, "There are countless daily examples of bigotry and anti-Semitism in Libertarian spaces, now routinely featuring overt support for Trump and some of the other most extreme and psychotic Republicans. They're represented by the Libertarian Party Mises Caucus (LPMC), a group which despises everything the real Ludwig von Mises (Jewish, liberal, and consequentialist) stood for, and nominally opposed by the 'Libertarian Pragmatic Caucus,' which is committed to party unity, and unwilling to call for the censure, much less expulsion, of these elements."
"Anti-Semitism certainly did not start with Marjorie Taylor Greene, nor did it start with Donald Trump, but we have seen an exponential increase in violent anti-Semitic incidents during Donald Trump's presidency," Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told Salon. "That is no doubt related to the fact that he emboldened and aligned himself with white nationalism." She mentioned Trump equating the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville with the peaceful protesters by "commenting that there were very fine people on both sides," refusing to denounce white nationalism and telling the right-wing Proud Boys during one of the campaign debates to "stand back and stand by."
"White nationalism had existed in our country prior to that, and anti-Semitism as an element of it, but white nationalists had never had an ally in the White House until Donald Trump," Soifer said.
I've had my own encounters with anti-Semitism in the Trump era. After my family left the upstate New York town where kids had tried to drown me, I spent the rest of my childhood and early adulthood without any similarly ugly encounters. When Trump began his 2016 presidential campaign, however, I was targeted by some of his neo-Nazi supporters after I wrote articles criticizing him. One of them was Andrew Anglin, a prominent neo-Nazi and founder of the Daily Stormer who wrote articles personally attacking me. Less than two years later, I was doxxed by an anti-Semite, again for writing an article criticizing Trump.
Of course there is also anti-Semitism on the left. But often those on the left who are accused of anti-Semitism are simply criticizing the state of Israel, and doing so is not inherently anti-Semitic. (I oppose Israel's human rights violations against the Palestinians and many Jews both in Israel and the U.S. feel similarly.) When people on the left do slip into anti-Semitism, there's a strong tendency to use those incidents as learning experiences. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, for example, reached out to Jewish groups to engage in dialogue after making comments that were construed as anti-Semitic.
Donald Trump's supposed pro-Israel policies were closely aligned with those of Benjamin Netanyahu, and did nothing o correct for Trump's history of anti-Semitic words and actions. He accused Jewish Democrats of "great disloyalty" toward Israel (feeding into the stereotype that Jews have dual loyalties), removed any specific reference to Jews from a 2017 State Department statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day and has frequently used anti-Semitic dogwhistle terms by opposing "globalists" and describing himself as a "nationalist." When I interviewed Charlotte Pence, the daughter of former Vice President Mike Pence, she talked about her family's love of Israel but refused to answer a question about whether she believes Jews are going to hell — or discuss the creepy messianic theories underpinning the Christian right's support for Israel.
When I asked Larry Charles whether, based on his experiences, there's an opportunity to build bridges with anti-Semites, he was skeptical. "I have not seen a lot of opportunities for bridge building in the situations that I've been in," Charles explained. "The people that I've met through Sacha [Baron Cohen] were very rigid and dogmatic in their prejudices. There was no crossing that gulf with them. There might be tolerance, temporarily. There might be patience, temporarily. But there's no changing that belief."
I hope that Charles is wrong but suspect he is right, which raises the question of how American Jews should react to the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world. For want of a better alternative, I think the only solution is to be intolerant toward intolerance. House Democrats were right to strip Greene of her committee assignments, but that is not nearly enough. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter need to do more to limit hate speech, even if conservatives cry foul in bad faith (the First Amendment only protects people from government censorship, not consequences from private corporations). Right-wing politicians who attack prominent Jews in ways that can be plausibly construed as anti-Semitic, or by denouncing "globalists," need to lose their funding. People who oppose anti-Semitism must lead boycotts against right-wing media figures who cover for people like Greene, such as Fox News' Sean Hannity.
On a broader level, critics of anti-Semitism must recognize that this form of bigotry is part of America's long history of hate — a history which holds that only white, straight Christian "manly" men have a right to rule — and recognize our responsibility to be allies to African Americans and the Latinx community, Muslims and the LGBT community, women suffering under the patriarchy and the poor struggling to make ends meet. If we limit our empathy merely to other Jews, the implicit message is not that systemic oppression is wrong, but only that we happen to dislike it when our group is targeted. The Jewish tradition at its best instills a moral responsibility to see all the layers of oppression, and align ourselves with its victims.
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