(July 7, 2016 / JNS) By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is hardly in a happy place at the moment. Now that she’s avoided federal prosecution for compromising national security through her use of a private email server—a breathtaking turn of fortune that, critics say, would be denied to lesser mortals—the public are going to regard everything she says and does as a test of her basic integrity. One might even say that Clinton’s fate is to be assumed guilty unless she expressly proves otherwise.
With November’s face-off with Donald Trump bearing down upon us, it’s clear that many Americans regard the contest as involving the selection of the least troubling candidate. In terms of making a decision in the voting booth, we will need to rely, perhaps to a greater extent than we would normally be comfortable with, on the public statements and on-the-record positions of both candidates, as well as on their reactions to the broader themes underlying this election.
Sadly, and almost inexplicably, one of those themes is anti-Semitism, which has had a presence throughout most of the current campaign cycle. Both candidates have had to deal with it. And both of them have done so in different ways.
Let’s consider Hillary Clinton first. Some readers will remember that during her speech to the AIPAC convention back in March, Clinton delivered a rousing message of support to Jewish students confronting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on university campuses. “I hope you stay strong,” she told them. “Keep speaking out. Don’t let anyone silence you, bully you or try to shut down debate, especially in places of learning like colleges and universities.”
But what do you do when one of the most notorious of those bullies is the son of your closest adviser? This isn’t a hypothetical question. Clinton’s long-serving confidante Sidney Blumenthal is the father of the anti-Semitic writer Max Blumenthal, whose ravings about Israel are liberally quoted by extremists from white supremacists to leftist campus activists.
The younger Blumenthal has for years attracted the ire of American Jews. More recently, several liberals and left-wingers have denounced him for offenses ranging from pitiful argumentation to careless sourcing—but most of all, for his enthusiasm in deploying the most hackneyed anti-Semitic tropes. Lest little Max should doubt his influence on the less salubrious members of our society, recall that Frazier Glenn Cross, the Klan devotee who went on a shooting spree at a Kansas City Jewish center in 2014, cited Blumenthal’s screeds approvingly.
Clinton has been aware of Max Blumenthal’s activities for some time. Among the emails examined in the wake of the brutal 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi were several exchanges with Sidney Blumenthal, who sent his boss links to Max’s articles. “A very smart piece” and “he’s so good” were just two of the comments Clinton sent back.
Over the last few days, however, it became untenable for Clinton not to address the deep anxieties among Jews over her connections with the Blumenthal family. The trigger was Max Blumenthal’s libelous rant on Twitter about the legacy of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and human rights advocate who passed away on July 2 at the age of 87.
Wiesel was a moral giant who spoke out not just on behalf of Jews. I remember in particular his impassioned defense of Bosnian Muslims facing genocide at the hands of Serb militias in the mid-1990s. But none of that prevented Blumenthal from slandering Wiesel as a supporter of apartheid and a friend of the very same people who incarcerated him in Auschwitz.
Faced with this sickness, and worried about the impact it might have on Clinton, her campaign issued a most welcome rejection of Blumenthal’s comments as “hateful” and “patently absurd.” The key point is this: Whether or not you believe Clinton’s sincerity, she is now on record as condemning one of today’s most noxious anti-Semites, in spite of her myriad connections with his father. This at least give us a basis to judge her future responses on the same subject.
Donald Trump has done the same thing, except that his response to the latest of the several anti-Semitism scandals that have plagued his campaign merely expands our concerns, rather than contracting them. After retweeting an image sourced to a white supremacist website which showed a grinning Clinton superimposed onto a pile of money and a Star of David, Trump compounded the offense by blockheadedly sticking to his guns, criticizing his staff for deleting the tweet instead of “defending it.”
At the same time that Trump engages in anti-Semitism denial—something he does every time the issue of his white supremacist supporters comes up—his campaign pursues the tiresome tactic of putting his Jewish daughter and Jewish son-in-law before the media in his defense. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, went as far as publishing an op-ed in his Observer newspaper insisting, in a faux hurt tone, that Donald doesn’t hate Jews.
Except that nobody serious has called Trump an anti-Semite. The charge is that he tolerates anti-Semites and even enables them when it suits him to do so. Citing your Jewish relatives and friends is a favored method of the Israel-haters—“Some of my best friends are Jews!”—and most Jews aren’t fooled by it. They also aren’t fooled by Trump, who further insults our community by insinuating that we’re stupid enough to believe that he understands what constitutes anti-Semitism better than we do.
What both candidates need to do is declare a zero tolerance policy for anti-Semitism around their respective campaigns. As things stand, Clinton has responded to that demand far more satisfyingly than has Trump.
Thankfully, we haven’t reached a stage in this country where anti-Semitism is tearing up established political parties as it has done in Europe, with both the United Kingdom’s Labour Party and Germany’s nationalist AfD Party. Nor is anti-Semitism serious enough to be the issue upon which voters, Jewish or otherwise, make their choice. But come November, if the odor of this garbage persists, it could be a very different story.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of“Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).