By David K. Shipler
On a December evening twenty-some years ago, Fern Amper, a Jewish resident of Teaneck, NJ, made a startling statement to a small group of Jews and African-Americans who gathered at her home periodically to discuss the issues of race, privilege, and bigotry. When the Jews spoke of anti-Semitism, the blacks mostly minimized it, preferring to see themselves as the country’s primary victims of prejudice and picturing Jews—who were white, after all—as comfortably powerful.
So, to make her point about Jews’ vulnerability, Amper claimed that they were always poised to flee. “I would venture to say that there’s no Jew sitting in here—and I’ve never spoken to you about this—who does not have an up-to-date passport for yourself and your kids in your desk drawer,” she declared. “Tell me if that’s true.”
“It’s true,” one said. “Absolutely,” said another. “Absolutely,” said all the Jews in the room.
The blacks were flabbergasted. “Why? Why?” asked Ray Kelly, an African-American. “Are you really serious with this paranoia?” A moment of silence followed, then a couple of voices said, “Yes.”
If the scent of perpetual danger seemed exaggerated in the 1990s, it seems more warranted in the era of Donald Trump’s winks and nods to the neo-Nazis and white supremacists among us. It is no coincidence that since his election, anti-Semitic attacks, both physical and verbal, have soared, culminating in the mass murder of 11 Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday.
As president, Trump has created an environment favorable to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that American society has long harbored. It has surfaced dramatically since his election in 2016. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, counted a rise in the number of neo-Nazi organizations from 99 to 121 between 2016 and 2017. Murders by white supremacists have doubled, and the Anti-Defamation League reports “a 258% increase in the number of white supremacist propaganda incidents on college campuses.”
In addition, the ADL found that a 57% jump during 2017 in anti-Semitic incidents, defined as harassment, vandalism, and assault, was the largest one-year increase since the organization started keeping tallies in 1979. “Schools, from kindergarten through to high school, were the most common locations of anti-Semitic incidents,” the ADL reported. Jewish journalists and critics of Trump have been flooded with online threats, anti-Semitic portrayals, and disinformation, according to a voluminous study by the ADL.
The demons of hatred have been unleashed. And they are inside our own borders, not outside—not outside in the trade practices or climate agreements or weapons pacts that Trump despises, and certainly not outside in the ragtag “convoy” of desperate, impoverished children, women, and men fleeing violence and poverty in Central America to seek refuge in the United States. The demons live inside our own fears, not fears of true threats but of the phantasmagoria conjured up by the master manipulator in the White House.
What measure of responsibility for the rise of anti-Semitism, among other forms of hatred, can be laid at the feet of Trump? Anti-Semitism has grown more virulent in Europe as well as in America. Its ingredients have roots even earlier than the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Prejudice masquerading as admiration for Jewish power has long contained encrypted aversion: Some of the African-Americans at Fern Amper’s house, for example, slid close to traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes by portraying Jews as controlling business and the media, and therefore as too influential to be at risk.
Trump has not stood up and attacked Jews per se, as he has journalists. He operates behind the cover of his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism, and her Jewish husband, Jared Kushner. He wears the camouflage of a pro-Israel zealot and, for that, garners campaign money and support from right-wing American Jews such as Sheldon Adelson.
But Trump is indirectly responsible. He has denounced “globalists,” which some white supremacists take as code for Jews, akin to the age-old libel “cosmopolitans.” He recently called himself a “nationalist,” bringing praise from the rightwing fringe. He buoyed the neo-Nazis who marched last year in Charlottesville, VA chanting, “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” They included “some very fine people,” Trump said afterwards. Supremacists have declared themselves emboldened by what they interpret as his implicit sympathy and endorsement.
Trump did not pull the trigger in the Pittsburgh synagogue. Yet his vicious attacks on immigrants as criminals who “invade our country” fed into the stated motive of the shooter, Robert Bowers, and informed the killer’s vocabulary. Bowers cited the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, which is under contract with the State Department to assist refugees entering the US. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers posted online shortly before taking his guns to the synagogue. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
That hard connection between Trump’s rhetoric and the shooter’s impetus has not deterred the president, who continues to inflame our fears against immigrants, awakening the lurking demons that now stride across this troubled land.