Donald Trump ran as the alt-right’s candidate of choice. He began his campaign by telling Republican Jews that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” He has promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. His campaign literature and tweeting repeatedly featured antisemitic dog whistles in the form of attacks on “globalists” and “sheriff’s stars.” He regularly retweeted neo-Nazis. He has presided over an unprecedented resurgence of right-wing anti-Semitism the likes of which have not been seen in America in my life time, and his response to that ascendancy has been to provide aid and comfort to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and avowed racists of all stripes.
Is Donald Trump anti-Semitic? For too many on the right, that question can be reduced into a single statement: “Donald Trump is a strong supporter of Israel.”
That’s what Jonathan Tobin said in the Jewish Journal: “Trump is no anti-Semite and has governed as a staunch friend of Israel.”
Trump’s advisers get the same treatment. Is Steve Bannon—house journalist of the alt-right, convinced he is in a war against “globalist” financiers—anti-Semitic? Mort Klein says: “He is a strong supporter of Israel.”
Sebastian Gorka? He (a close ally of far-right extremists in Hungary) and his wife (who interceded to dismantle grants fighting white supremacist organizations at the Department of Homeland Security) are, you guessed it, “strong supporters of Israel.”
Sometimes Trump’s leftist critics get in on the act. Michael Tracey of the far-left “Young Turks” agrees with the conservative line that Jewish concerns of about anti-Semitism in the Trump movement are histrionic—why? “[T]he current president continues to express more-or-less unflinching support for the Jewish state. … [T]here’s scant reason to believe Trump … should be considered anything less than what he publicly and repeatedly claims he is: stridently pro-Israel, and stridently pro-Jew.”
This move predates Trump, of course. A California official, responding to claims that he used the anti-Semitic slur “Jew them down,” defended himself with the seeming non-sequitur “I am a lifetime supporter of Israel.” Years before he falsely accused Jews of tagging a church with a swastika to make Trump look bad, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee responded to yet another anti-Semitism controversy (he compared the national debt to the Holocaust, spurring condemnation from the ADL) by saying “Israel and the Jewish people have no stronger advocate than Mike Huckabee.” Huckabee, indeed, went a step further and leveled a veiled threat against the Jewish community if they had the temerity to object to further spurious Holocaust analogies: “Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have.”
I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing this. Of course, there’s the fact that “supporter of Israel,” in these statements, nearly always means “supporter of Netanyahu’s particular brand of noxious right-wing illiberalism”—something no more synonymous with “pro-Israel” than Trump’s American iteration of the same is with “pro-America.” But leave that aside. Being a supporter of Israel, defined appropriately so that it isn’t coterminous with whatever hallucination Naftali Bennett had this week, is a good thing and an important component of being an ally to Jews more broadly. But it is just that—a component—it is not the whole game. And there’s something gross about dismissing anti-Semitism concerns of Jews in the U.S. by explaining how much one likes Jews when they’re 6,000 miles away.
Leftists, of course, have their own versions of this. The persistent refusal to examine anti-Semitism as even a potential component of their “criticisms” of Israel is something I’ve written on repeatedly and is at this point cliche. And sometimes they go further: defending extreme anti-Zionism not just as consistent with, but as an instantiation of, fighting against anti-Semitism. This was evident when Mondoweiss defended Helen Thomas’s demand that Jews in Israel “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland by saying this would have the “happy consequence” of leading to a “rebirth” of Jewish culture in Poland (quipped one Jewish writer in response: “I’m deeply touched by this gesture of philanthropic ethnic cleansing”). More often, such self-styled progressives, like their far-right counterparts, find their proof of Jewish allyship elsewhere—academic Steven Salaita, you may recall, was obviously no anti-Semite because he once courageously called out out Macklemore for his costume choices. What more could the Jewish people ask for?
It is all nonsense. Indeed, it’s not even nonsense limited to the Jews. Philosopher Rachel McKinnon has written more broadly on the phenomenon of “allies behaving badly”, where (often self-declared) “allies” use that status as a shield to ward off any criticism of their behavior towards the group they’re putatively allied with.
Still, in the Jewish case, it is most frequently found in the context of “strong supporters of Israel” who, in turns out, don’t much like the Jews closer to home. And so, when it comes to Israel and anti-Semitism, American Jewish organizations must make abundantly clear one straightforward principle:
There is no position on Israel—left, right, or center—that entitles one to a get-out-of-anti-Semitism free card.
Simple as that. I don’t care what your position is on Israel: If you’re calling George Soros a Nazi collaborator, you’re being anti-Semitic. If you’re railing against “globalist” conspiracies, you’re being anti-Semitic. If you think the Jews (or whatever euphemism you oh-so-cleverly substitute) have taken control of American, European, or global politics, you’re being anti-Semitic. If you’re talking about the need of real Americans to stand against “New York Values”, you’re being anti-Semitic. I don’t care if you snuggle up to a Bibi Netanyahu plushie doll every night or righteously rail against him at every opportunity. You’re still being anti-Semitic.
No more free passes. No more deflection. No more using “I’m a strong supporter of Israel” as a crutch. There is no position on Israel that absolves or excuses anti-Semitism. Period.
This post has been updated to correctly identify Michael Tracey as an employee of The Young Turks.