The U.S. Department of Justice devoted a day to a summit this week about combating anti-Semitism. With other government agencies taking part, the event represented a significant commitment to deal with an issue of growing concern across the country.
Just as important, the program reflected a recognition that contemporary anti-Semitism is being driven by three main factors: traditional right-wing Jew-hatred, such as the ideology that motivated synagogue shooters in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., in the last year; the anti-Zionist sentiment of the far left; and radical Islam, with the latter two resulting in the creation of a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students on many college campuses. As such, it was more than just the usual lip service given to this problem.
But even in a normally slow July news cycle, coverage of the anti-Semitism summit was buried underneath the avalanche of attention devoted to the spat between President Donald Trump and the “squad” of left-wing members of Congress whom he told to “go back where they came from.”
The ironies here abound. On a day when his administration should have reaped some credit for devoting attention to the fight against anti-Semitism, much of the organized Jewish world was joining with other Trump critics to denounce the president for attacks on a group of four women—two of them guilty of anti-Semitic statements and positions themselves.
Any discussion of this issue must start with an acknowledgement that no American should be addressed in the manner that Trump tweeted about the squad, no matter how egregious their behavior might be.
With the exception of members of Native American tribes (whose ancestors crossed into North America eons before the dawn of recorded history), all Americans are descended from people who came from somewhere else. There is a long and unfortunate history of Americans seeking to single out groups or individuals as not belonging here. Such rhetoric—no matter its source or motive—is xenophobic and at odds with the basic principles on which the American republic was founded.
Attorney General William Barr rightly noted in his keynote address at the summit that identity politics that seeks to divide Americans is fueling anti-Semitism. The same can be said about any statement—let alone one from the president of the United States—that can be interpreted as supporting the notion that some citizens should be deported. What Trump tweeted was profoundly wrong and should be retracted.
That’s true whether you think Trump was merely playing his usual role as Internet troll-in-chief or if you believe he was playing three-dimensional political chess, in which his true purpose was to bind mainstream Democrats ever more closely to the Squad so as to convince the country that his opponents are led by radicals.
The latter does seem to be the net effect of this contretemps since moderates, as well as liberals, have been rushing to the defense of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the sole immigrant in the quartet.
That’s unfortunate both from the point of view of the effort to preserve civility in public discourse and the fight against anti-Semitism.
One of the most discouraging political events of 2019 was the way that both Tlaib and Omar managed not only to escape accountability for their anti-Semitism, but to actually gain support for it. Both spread anti-Semitic memes about Jews using money to buy political power and for being guilty of dual loyalty. Both are supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement that seeks not merely to promote discriminatory conduct towards the one Jewish state on the planet, but is also aimed at isolating and silencing its American Jewish supporters.
Yet not only did they evade direct censure by Congress and held on to their committee assignments. Much of the mainstream media also bought their claims that they were victims of bias because of their status as minorities. They managed to emerge from these scrapes acclaimed as the young rock stars of their party—a distinction that earned them the cover of Rolling Stone magazine alongside their sometime antagonist House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in addition to fawning interviews on the late-night comedy shows.
So in one fell swoop, Trump not only united the chattering classes in outrage against yet another of his outrageous statements, but more importantly, validated the notion that these four radical members of Congress are heroines to be supported, rather than destructive and hateful extremists who ought to be shunned.
That’s troubling because it also obscures what was significant about the summit convened by his administration. The discussions were not just focused on hate crimes like the murderous attacks on synagogues. They also drew attention to the way support for anti-Zionism in academia, the media and even in Congress has legitimized anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs.
The Trump administration has prioritized the fight against anti-Semitism on college campuses by reversing the decisions made by his predecessor not to pursue efforts to force institutions to prevent anti-Semitic incitement rooted in discrimination against Israel and its supporters. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s declaration at the summit that “BDS stands for anti-Semitism” is a statement that Americans have needed to hear from their government for years. This is particularly important because young Jews are now far more likely to face anti-Semitism than their elders—something that is the product of the way the BDS movement has entrenched itself on college campuses.
Nevertheless, it’s likely that the majority of Jews will ignore not only the content of the summit, but the substantial policies pursued by this administration on both foreign and domestic fronts aimed at combating anti-Semitism. All they know about Trump and anti-Semitism is his damaging conflation of opposition to removing Confederate statues with an infamous neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., which his critics have blamed for every incident of violence against Jews, even as they largely ignore or rationalize the increasing Jew-hatred on the left.
If that is so, then Trump has no one to blame but himself.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.