A good friend chastised me for declaring President Trump to be a racist and antisemite recently.That he is a racist need not detain us long here, he not only participated in his father’s discriminatory business decisions, but publicly railed against his father when his father decided to accede to Federal anti-discrimination statutes. Later, he famously put up billboards demanding the executions of five Black children who ultimately turned out to be innocent of the crime for which they had been convicted–sexually assaulting a white woman. And later yet there was his obsession with declaring Barack Obama’s USA citizenship to be false. The citizenship issue leads to the manner in which has obsessed over Hispanic undocumented workers while ignoring the fact that his current wife was exactly that. Trump’s supporters raise obfuscatory claims such as his dating a woman of color, as if it is somehow odd that a racist might have a sexual interest in a woman of color. Really, the evidence that this man is a racist is deep, long, and incontrovertible.
The evidence for Trump’s antisemitism is more difficult to explain, but within that explanation some profound truths may be discovered. During his first three years in office, Trump has been seen as a staunch supporter of Israel. The two most fiercely supportive segments of America’s religious population have been white, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews (which is not to imply unanimity, both of those populations also have significant numbers of opponents to his policies and personality). Within his family, his daughter converted to Judaism and married a man who professes a commitment to traditional Judaism and is raising their children, Trump’s grandchildren, as Jews. The chief operating officer of Trump’s business is Jewish, and his legal interests represented until recently by an obviously Jewish attorney.
One reason, and perhaps the most important reason, that people have lost the meaning of the word antisemitism lies in the person of Adolf Hitler and the historical fact of the Holocaust. Thanks to the copious, and often excellent, media exposure of the destruction of European Jewry almost everyone (at least in the cultures of Europe and the USA) understands that Hitler was the embodiment of evil and the Holocaust the incontrovertible evidence of where that evil leads.
The problem with this is that it also results in the logically fallacious notion that one cannot be an antisemite if one agrees that Hitler was evil and the Holocaust awful. The bibliography of writings, both scholarly and popular, describing the history of antisemitism over two thousand years is immense. And despite the ready availability of good information about the topic, most people are convinced that if they do not favor burning Jews alive, they cannot be called antisemites no matter how many other stereotypical ideas they might express about Jews and Judaism.
My father was not a deeply educated man, at least not in academic western civ, but he did have a thorough understanding of the nature of antisemitism as it is expressed in America. He owned a small shop in mid-town Manhattan and several of his most important customers were among the business and cultural elite of New York City. He was dependent on them directly for their business, but more importantly because they also referred their friends telling those friends that they could trust him, that he was an honest Jew.
At home, my father would comment bitterly on such things. I can vividly recall him saying, “These people think they can say things like ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’ as if that means anything.” He understood that many if not most of these people did not really care if Jews lived or died, didn’t want them as neighbors or as members of their private clubs. In the early ’70s I was introduced to the world of business clubs when a good friend took me to the Concordia Argonauts Club in San Francisco. The membership was almost entirely composed of Jews of political importance and wealth, but the raison d’être of the club was that the wealthiest club in the city, where the most important business was transacted, did not accept Jews.
Long before WWII, waves of antisemitism swept through the USA. In a blog post I can’t provide lengthy descriptions, but let me just mention the curious case of Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of Temple Emanu-El (San Francisco), himself an immigrant to the USA, who supported legislation barring additional immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe because he feared that enlightened Reform Jews might be overwhelmed by the primitives arriving from the East. That too is antisemitism.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt demonstrates some important aspects of this issue. Regarded as a great savior because he led America out of the Depression and during the most important conflict of the era, and through his efforts millions of Jews did indeed live to celebrate anew. Nevertheless, he was also an antisemite. He was steeped in stereotypical beliefs such as that Jews are “good with money.” This is, of course, an echo of tropes made famous by Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock. More recently, there has been significant conversation about whether Roosevelt’s antisemitism contributed to a lack of actions which might have ameliorated the Holocaust. That is, in my opinion, overstating the evidence. Roosevelt did not hate Jews, and I believe if he understood that he could have chosen to save lives, he would have.
But let’s look at one piece of direct evidence. In 1939 there was the (in)famous incident of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying almost 1,000 Jewish refugees. The vessel was bound for Cuba, and the passengers had legal visas to disembark there, but most were refused because Cuba had abruptly changed its laws. The ship next tried to dock in Miami, and frantic efforts ensued to allow them to enter the U.S. Some of the passengers sent cables directly to Roosevelt begging him to allow them to enter, but no reply was heard. High level officials including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau (himself a well known Jew) made efforts to find a place for the refugees. Ultimately a large number of the passengers did find refuge, but more than 250 were killed in German death camps.
This brings me back to the point I would like to make in this essay. Antisemitism of this “kinder and gentler” sort, just the notion that “we don’t hate Jews, but they’re really not us” can lead to a deadening of the senses. It is easier to allow Jews to die in death camps if you don’t think of them as being of your own tribe.
And that brings me full circle back to our current president. Ultimately, the problem with his various forms of expressed racism is that his sensibilities are deadened towards large numbers of people who are suffering. All this talk and wasting of resources on the “wall” is simply a manifestation of racism, in this case directed at perceived “brown” people. No one is claiming that the USA can serve as a refuge for everyone who might want to come here, but we can certainly find ways to admit more people than we have, and we can certainly avoid the harsh and hostile rhetoric and awful treatment meted out to those who do arrive.