Anti-Semitism in its rawest form motivated the Oct. 27 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The detectives who investigated the killing reported that the gunman, once in custody, told officers that he “wanted all Jews to die.”
In his initial reaction to the shooting, President Trump said, “It looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime.” But the president seemed surprised it had happened, saying it was “something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on.”
In fact, anti-Semitism — the ideology that Jews are malevolent and out to control the world — has persisted for nearly 2,000 years. Analysts who study the phenomenon say it’s important to understand the roots of anti-Semitism, why it continues to flourish, and how political leaders, including President Trump, may nourish it, wittingly or not, through divisive rhetoric.
Jeffrey Herf, a historian at the University of Maryland who has written widely on the anatomy of anti-Semitism, argues that particular arguments and habits of thinking underlie its power. Most important, he says, is a willingness to buy into conspiratorial thinking.
The original conspiracy theory
“The core of every conspiracy theory,” Herf notes, “is the basic notion that the world is governed by small groups of people who operate behind the scenes and are enormously powerful and enormously evil.” A leader who promotes a conspiracy theory, Herf argues, is necessarily implying that, “thousands of people are liars and hiding the truth and that he is the heroic one who is revealing the secret of what they’re trying to conceal.”
By that interpretation, President Trump himself has promoted conspiratorial thinking on various occasions. Most notable was his contention before and during the 2016 campaign that Barack Obama may not have been born in the United States. It is a habit he has continued in office.
The caravan of Central Americans headed to the United States prompted a tweet from Trump on Oct. 22, offered with zero evidence, that the migrants included “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners.”
The major television networks, with the exception of Fox News, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, report “fake news,” Trump says, and he claims the protesters they interview are actually people who are hired by somebody, like philanthropist George Soros.
“They’ll go to a person hiding a sign, who gets paid by Soros or somebody,” Trump charged at a campaign rally in Missoula, Mont., earlier this month. “That’s what happens,” he said, to a chorus of boos.
Organizations supported by the Soros-financed Open Society Fund have vigorously denied paying any protesters, and there is no evidence to support Trump’s charge.
Soros is a Hungarian-born Jew, and some writers see evidence of anti-Semitism in the accusation that he is secretly financing liberal movements.
Whether President Trump himself is promoting anti-Semitism is debatable. His daughter and son-in-law are Jewish, and a small but significant segment of the U.S. Jewish population supports him, including about 70 percent of Orthodox Jews. That support may be due, at least in part, to the president’s strong advocacy for Israel, including his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Trump’s continued promotion of conspiracy theories, however, strikes Herf as “extremely dangerous,” because of where it may logically lead.
“I can’t think of a major conspiracy theory that at some point or other doesn’t bump into the most famous conspiracy theory,” Herf says, “[which is] that the Jews run the world.”
Among other key elements of anti-Semitic thinking, Herf has argued, is a deep distrust of intellectuals and the elite class in general.
Here again, President Trump’s rhetoric is relevant. At campaign rallies, he repeatedly singles out “the elite” for contempt.
“You’re the smartest people,” Trump told a boisterous crowd at a campaign rally in Ohio in August. “You know what they talk about? They talk about ‘the elite,’ the elite. They’re not elite,” he said, as the crowd roared. “You’re the elite.”
Herf argues that Jews get understandably nervous when people are encouraged to resent the elite.
“The danger for Jews,” he says, “is that we are very small in number, but we are very prominent, whether it’s Hollywood, academia, banking, [or] the print press.”
Herf recognizes that any connection between Donald Trump and his rhetoric to an environment in which anti-Semitism grows is controversial, and he is careful how he describes it.
“I think it’s unwitting,” he says. “I think he loves his daughter, and he has a lot of Jewish friends, from having spent his entire life in New York. So I don’t think his intention is to bring harm to the Jewish people. No.”
Nevertheless, Herf says, “[Trump] wants to win, and he sees this is working. He has a special talent of knowing how to appeal to the resentments and hatreds of his base, and if, in order to win, he needs to fan the flames of conspiracy, then he is perfectly willing to do it.”
Role of social media
To be sure, other factors may contribute to any worsening of anti-Semitism, some of them having nothing to do with Trump’s rhetoric.
“I think what has fueled the surge [in anti-Semitism] in recent years is social media,” says Nathan Diament, the director of public policy for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, representing Orthodox Jews.
“You can have individual anti-Semites who might have been very isolated in years past but now have these technology platforms in which they can not only express their views [but also] find other people that share their views and second them and urge them on,” Diament notes. “It’s really fostered and accelerated a climate of hate and anti-Semitism.”
Whatever the reason, it does seem to be an increasingly dangerous time for Jews in America. The Anti-Defamation League says the number of anti-Semitic incidents has risen sharply in the last two years.