On Wednesday, Jared Kushner, who is both a White House senior adviser and President Trump’s son-in-law, published an op-ed article in The New York Times defending the president’s recent executive order supposedly meant to combat anti-Semitism. The controversial measure will establish that “Title VI of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against discrimination based on race, color or national origin covers discrimination against Jews” and defines anti-Semitism using the language of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Notably, the wording is vague and could be easily construed to cover a wide range of opinions that are merely critical of Israel. One example of “anti-Semitism” in this rubric is “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”; another is denying “the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor”; a third is comparing “contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
As I read Kushner’s editorial, I was reminded of my interview last year with Charlotte Pence, the daughter of Vice President Mike Pence, an outspoken Christian conservative who is also staunchly pro-Israel. During that conversation I asked Pence whether she believed that Jews who refused to convert to Christianity when the Messiah returns are going to hell, a relatively common belief among evangelical Christians. She refused to directly answer the question, a reaction that said more than any number of words could have done.
That incident came to mind because it demonstrated how, for at least some people on the right, it is possible to hold anti-Semitic views while still being pro-Israel. In fact, American history is riddled with examples of presidents and other politicians who supported the State of Israel while holding what could mildly be described as unflattering views of Jews as a whole. Since Donald Trump offers a classic example, it is necessary to understand exactly how this particular form of discrimination works.
1. Do not buy into fake news about the executive order.
While the Trump administration is anti-Semitic, that doesn’t mean every news story which claims to identify that anti-Semitism is reliable. One common interpretation of Trump’s executive order was that it redefined “Jewish” to strictly a nationality, a decision that if true would have seemingly put Donald Trump’s America on the same path as Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Yet as Kushner correctly pointed out in his editorial, “the executive order does not define Jews as a nationality. It merely says that to the extent that Jews are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or national characteristics, they are entitled to protection by the anti-discrimination law.”
For all intents and purposes, any effort to apply Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Jews would need to use this definition, since the law does not cover religious discrimination. For the Department of Education to have jurisdiction in situations involving alleged anti-Semitism, this expansive definition of what it means to be a Jew is required.
None of this exonerates the Trump administration’s larger behavior. It simply means that, if Trump’s critics are to set a better example, they must get their facts right.
2. Past presidents have shown that it is possible to be anti-Semitic and pro-Israel.
The two most conspicuous examples of this are Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, a Democrat and Republican respectively. Truman was the president who recognized the State of Israel when it declared itself as such in 1948, despite considerable opposition from his own State Department. He was the first world leader to accept Israel’s existence; had he not done so, it is entirely possible that the nation would not exist at all.
Yet there is little question Truman was also capable of vicious private anti-Semitism. In his diary he referred to Jews as “very, very selfish,” claimed that they did not care “how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered” and said that “neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog.” He reportedly referred to Jews as “kikes” and refused to allow Jews into his home, saying that this was the wish of his wife, Bess Truman.
What was true of Truman was doubly so of Nixon. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War — while the president was struggling with an alcohol problem and the ongoing Watergate scandal — he nevertheless saved Israel when it was on the verge of being wiped out. After a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria declared a surprise war on Israel during Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, Nixon ordered a desperately needed arms airlift with 567 missions by American aircraft. His efforts almost certainly saved Israel from annihilation — yet this is the same president who, expressed vitriolic prejudice toward American Jews.
During his presidency Nixon ordered Fred Malek, the White House personnel chief, to count and name the Jews in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He regularly made comments like “Most Jews are disloyal,” “You can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you” and “The Jews are born spies.” He once complained to his chief of staff that “the Jews are all over the government” and, on another occasion, explained the support for anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in affluent Washington neighborhoods by saying that “there’s a hell of a lot of Jews in the District [of Columbia], see . . . The gentiles have moved out.”
That brings us to our current president.
3. Trump has a long history of anti-Semitic comments.
This should not surprise the casual observer. Trump has demonstrated on a number of occasions that he views groups of people in terms of generalities; when a person does this for some groups, the odds are better than not that they do so for all of them.
When it comes to Jews, Trump has a tendency to forget that being Jewish does not automatically mean that one identifies with Israel. In a speech to the Israeli American Council last Saturday, Trump said, “You have people that are Jewish people, that are great people — they don’t love Israel enough. You know that. You know that.” In that same speech he commented that American Jews need to support Trump in order to prevent a wealth tax (presumably the one advocated by Sen. Elizabeth Warren), arguing, “You’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’ll be out of business in about 15 minutes” if such a tax is enacted.
These remarks were not an anomaly for Trump. In August he said, “Any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty” because specific Democrats (such as Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota) have been critical of Israel. In 2015 he told the Republican Jewish Coalition that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money” and remarked, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.” (Incidentally, this author was targeted by America’s most notorious neo-Nazi, Andrew Anglin, after writing an article criticizing that speech.)
The president has not only been guilty of overt anti-Semitism. He has tended to define himself as a “nationalist” and his adversaries as “globalists,” a term often used as an anti-Semitic dog whistle. Near the end of the 2016 campaign, Trump released an ad that denounced “those who control the levers of power in Washington” and “the global special interests” while showing pictures of philanthropist George Soros, then-Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, all of whom are Jewish. The only non-Jew shown in the ad was the Hillary Clinton, with the clear insinuation that she was the puppet of a Jewish conspiracy.
4. Many conservatives support Israel for reasons that are anti-Semitic.
Let me return to my interview with Charlotte Pence. When I asked her if she believed Jews were going to hell, I did not do so to score a “gotcha” moment. The book Pence was discussing was selling mentioned an anecdote about her family’s visit to the Mount of Olives, which plays a crucial rule in Christian right-wing theology.
“These are the folks who believe that there will be a millennium in the future, a golden age, where Christ reigns on Earth, [and] they believe that before Christ will return, there will be a tribulation where Christ defeats evil,” Elizabeth Oldmixon, a politics professor at the University of North Texas, told Vox in 2017. “There will be natural disasters and wars, and perhaps an Antichrist, as the book of Revelation notes. Then at the end of that period, the people of the Mosaic covenant, including the Jews, will convert. Then after their conversion, the great millennium starts.”
She later added that in this theological vision Jews will “end up with the rest of the unsaved, which means they’ll be wiped out and sent to hell.”
It’s not a huge leap to argue that people who only support what they perceive to be current Jewish interests in order to eventually convert them or else annihilate them aren’t exactly philo-Semites. If someone believes that Jews will go to hell unless they convert to Christianity, they are intrinsically hostile to Jews. It’s that simple. They may temporarily align themselves with Israel out of expedience, but that does not negate their underlying hostility, nor does it wipe away the fact that the same mentality that causes them to support ostensibly pro-Jewish policies could easily be flipped to back anti-Semitic positions later on.
5. Jews are never well served when a group’s legitimate criticisms are silenced. That same precedent is always likely to be used against us.
If there is one sentence in Kushner’s editorial that is most chilling, it is this one: “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
It is there that the true threat of Trump’s executive order becomes clear. If implemented, that doctrine could be used to pressure universities into silencing students who criticize the State of Israel. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) Israel, particularly under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has committed a significant number of human rights violations. The historical suffering of the Jewish people doesn’t mean that the Jewish state gets a pass for criminal actions. (2) One of the core principles of liberal ideology is free speech. When any core tenet of liberal democracy is violated — for any group and for any reason — Jews are ultimately threatened by the precedent thereby established.
As Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, told Salon in August, this philosophy helps explain why Jews have consistently voted for Democratic political candidates since the 1920s.
They have done so for the most part because they have accepted the basic premises of the party: calls for state responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, a state that is active for those who find themselves in need, and efforts, like civil rights broadly understood, which envision an society in which access to resources are not tied to race, religion or national origin, This formula appealed to most of them throughout this period because it worked for them and helped strengthen their own place in America as it also worked for others.
Diner later noted that Jews have also not been particularly inclined to abandon the Democratic Party over the issue of Israel. The statistics back up her assertion: No Democratic presidential candidate has lost the Jewish vote since 1924. While most of them have been accused by the right of insufficient support for Israel, the only one who ever earned less than 60 percent of the Jewish vote was Jimmy Carter in 1980. Since he lost that election to Ronald Reagan by an overwhelming margin, it wasn’t just Israel that accounted for his poor showing among Jewish voters.
If critics of Israel are silenced at America’s universities, it won’t just be an injustice toward those victimized by the Israeli state and those who wish to speak out against that victimization. It will also empower men and women who do not have the best interests of the Jewish people in their hearts, even if they happen to support Israel from time to time. Kushner is emphatically wrong when he says that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. But he also forgets that Zionists can be anti-Semitic.