Trump's Fraught Relationship With American Jews

by Raina Lipsitz

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has offended a lot of people: Women, Latinos, Muslims, black people, and people with disabilities. That's just naming a few. One group that could be added to that list — and that has an especially complicated relationship with The Donald — is American Jews.

Throughout his campaign, Trump's relationship with American Jews has been fraught. Not only have some of his supporters engaged in overtly anti-Semitic acts, Trump doesn't always properly distance himself from them — and he himself has trotted out ugly Jewish stereotypes.

Earlier this year, Trump hedged before disavowing the support of former KKK grand wizard David Duke. Last week, Trump disavowed him more promptly when Duke slammed anti-Trump Jews. "I think these Jewish extremists have made a terribly crazy miscalculation because all they’re really going to be doing by doing the ‘Never Trump’ movement is exposing their alien, their anti-American-majority position to all the Republicans," Duke said on his radio show last week. Trump told the New York Times in a statement he “totally disavows” Duke's comments.

There have been other incidences that raise concern. Trump came under fire from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization devoted to combating anti-Jewish defamation, for using the slogan “America First.” That phrase was used in the late 1930s by Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh and others to argue against U.S. involvement in World War II (Trump is using it to describe his foreign policy approach). The Trump campaign did not return my request for comment.

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“We want to state clearly that we have not seen anti-Semitic rhetoric from Donald Trump himself. We know that he has deep personal and professional ties to the Jewish community,” ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt tells Bustle in an email. "Nonetheless, there’s been a marked increase of anti-Semitism on social media in recent months, activity that seems to be generated by individuals who self-identify as Trump supporters." Or, as Republican strategist Rick Wilson told The Forward, a Jewish publication, in October, “On social media, it seems that while not all Donald Trump supporters are anti-Semites, many of the vocal and vicious anti-Semites seem to be Donald Trump supporters."

Recently, Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe received anti-Semitic death threats because she published an article about Trump’s wife, Melania, that the Trumps didn’t like. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Trump how he felt about people who appear to be his supporters sending anti-Semitic death threats to Ioffe, Trump refused to condemn them. Instead, he responded: “I haven’t read the article, but I heard it was a very inaccurate article ... I heard it was a nasty article."

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Ioffe, who tells me in an email she has “said all I want to say about this,” discovered Trump supporters' bigotry the hard way. Ioffe described her treatment by Trump supporters to The Guardian as a “rude shock," saying it involved the kind of “horrible anti-Semitic sh*t” she’s “only ever seen in Russia,” a country her family fled to escape anti-Semitism. Ioffe has since filed a police report related to the backlash from her article, citing “threat to kidnap or injure a person," according to a Washington Post story.

Trump supporters have exhibited some incredibly virulent anti-Semitism. Short of a physical attack, few incidences are more boldly, disturbingly anti-Semitic than screaming "Go to Auschwitz," as a Trump supporter appeared to shout at protesters at a rally in March.

By no means are all Trump supporters anti-Semites, but it is clear that some are and that they are relying on anti-Semitism to intimidate anyone who questions their leader. What's not clear is whether Trump is consciously exploiting his supporters' anti-Semitism or actually shares their views (neither scenario is particularly comforting, in my opinion).

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As a bulwark against criticism, Trump is quick to bring up his Jewish grandchildren. His daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner. When criticized during a Republican debate in March for being insufficiently supportive of Israel, Trump countered by citing his Jewish family members: “I have a lot of — I have tremendous love for Israel. I happen to have a son-in-law and a daughter that are Jewish, OK? And two grandchildren that are Jewish.”

Having Jewish relatives certainly hasn't stopped Trump from relying on dumb, lazy stereotypes about Jews. In December, Trump spoke before the Republican Jewish Coalition and said, "I'm a negotiator like you folks; we are negotiators." Further playing into stereotype of Jews as cunning (among other less than favorable qualities), he added, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals?”

Still, the Republican Jewish Coalition is unconcerned enough about Trump to have endorsed him. However, as The Forward reported, many Republican Jews are not pleased about it.

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Many who are disgusted by anti-Semitism and/or Trump's behavior in general hesitate to label him and his campaign as anti-Semitic. Democratic strategist Holly Shulman tells Bustle in an email she wouldn’t label Trump’s campaign anti-Semitic, but she does believes its success is “fueled by lazy, divisive stereotypes that … should seriously concern Jewish Americans.”

Amy Herzog, illustrator of the picture book D is for Dump Trump, tells Bustle in an email that she and her husband, the book’s author, are Jewish, and "what motivated us to create the book was our personal disgust and disbelief about the Trump candidacy." However, she is personally unsure of if she'd label him and his campaign as anti-Semitic. "I don’t know if Trump is anti-Semitic or not. What I do believe is that he is more than willing to appear as such if it means it might garner him favor with the sector of his voter base that IS most certainly anti-Semitic (and anti-every other minority as well).”

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Joseph Lowndes, associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, tells me he doesn't think Trump’s rhetoric is anti-Semitic so much as it “exposes something really disturbing about the campaign more generally.” According to Lowndes, Trump is helping to build a “bridge” between mainstream political campaigns and “a broad substratum of racist white nationalist groups” willing to act as “shock troops” on Trump’s behalf. “He’s made clearly anti-Semitic comments … and traded on longstanding caricatures of Jews,” says Lowndes, but “that’s a different level from organized anti-Semitism.”

David Myers, professor and Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish history at UCLA, says he's actually surprised there hasn't been more overt anti-Semitism during this election. “I don't think that anti-Semitism has been a major and explicit part of this year's campaign, which is all the more remarkable since we have a candidate who is a self-described Jewish socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent,” Myers tells Bustle in an email.

“I don't know that [Trump] has veered into anti-Semitism directly," Myers says. Though he also notes: "There are many discomfiting features of his campaign, two of which have indirect bearing on Jews and anti-Semitism. First, his refusal to condemn forthrightly and squarely David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan was cause for concern, given the anti-Jewish ideology of both [Editor's Note: As mentioned above, Trump did, eventually, disavow Duke]. Second, his unwillingness to dissociate himself from a quote of Benito Mussolini reveals a deep insensitivity to the ignominious history of Fascism (which included racial laws directed against Jews).” In February, Trump was criticized for retweeting a quote attributed to the Italian dictator that was originally posted by a parody account. He told NBC's Meet the Press "What difference does it make whether it's Mussolini or somebody else? It's certainly a very interesting quote."

Myers says he would ideally want a serious presidential candidate to “show no hesitation in denying any link to the ugly Fascist past.” But “the problem with [Trump] has been less the Jewish question than his contempt and hateful words for many others, beginning with Mexicans, Muslims, and women.”

What has happened to Julia Ioffe and other Jews who have dared to criticize Trump is despicable and should be condemned by the candidate himself. Whether Trump has any personal animus toward Jews, I have no idea. But I believe his campaign's appeal among some anti-Semites, as well as other discriminatory and hate-filled groups, should give serious pause to anyone who is tempted to vote for him.