Trump, Kanye, antisemitism: An expert explains the dangerous rhetoric

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Trump, Kanye and antisemitism: An expert tells us where their language comes from and why it is so dangerous

Over the weekend, and seemingly apropos of nothing, former president Donald Trump told American Jews to “get their act together,” ending a paragraph-long screed on his Truth Social platform with what seemed to be a warning: “before it is too late.”

The post accused American Jews of being less supportive of his former policies toward the nation of Israel than Evangelical Christians have been, reflecting age-old myths that Jews split a “dual loyalty” between their countries of citizenship and Israel, or act as secret double agents on behalf of some foreign or global power.

“No President has done more for Israel than I have. Somewhat surprisingly, however, our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S.,” Trump wrote.

Trump’s statement repeats an antisemitic trope conflating the personal and political beliefs of nearly 8 million Jewish-identified people in the United States with foreign policy that affects the state of Israel, said Emily Tamkin, a senior editor at the New Statesman and author of “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities.”

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“One can, for whatever reason, support a country and its foreign/domestic policy and still, at the same time … use rhetoric that is conspiratorial, that is hateful and that puts Jewish people and other minorities at greater risk,” she said in a conversation with Grid’s misinformation reporter, Anya van Wagtendonk.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: What was your first response to that Trump statement?

Emily Tamkin: It does read to me as antisemitic. Obviously, telling Jewish people to vote a certain way or else — whether he meant it as a threat, or whether he meant it, like, it would be in our own self-interest to vote for him — to warn a group of people that they need to vote a certain way is not ideal. But I also think that it just betrays a deep lack of understanding of the majority of American Jews. And so, was it discomforting to see a former president and such a prominent Republican politician say this? Of course, but it also just was a deeply ignorant comment.

G: What do you make of that “before it is too late” line?

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ET: American Jews have long voted with the Democratic Party. And there are a number of reasons for this. We could point to the leftist leanings of many Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century; we could point to FDR and the New Deal and how closely he worked with American Jews. We could look at Jewish support for the civil rights movement. We could talk about the reality that many American Jews understand ourselves to be a religious minority in this country and thus understand that maintaining a pluralistic society is important.

But for decades, there have been people, Jewish or not, who have wondered why American Jews still vote for Democrats given that many are more socioeconomically advantaged now, [and] given that the Republican Party is more openly supportive of a very hawkish stance on Israel. So Trump is not unique in this confusion. But it’s important to remember that, according to one study, only 4 percent of American Jews say that Israel is the most important issue. We live here, in the United States.

G: You spoke about this idea in the post that Israel should be the primary concern of Jews who do not live in Israel. There’s also kind of a parallel idea at play: that Jews should be grateful to the leaders of the countries where they do live for allowing them to be there.

ET: People don’t always share the same working definition of antisemitism, [but it is] generally understood as a conspiracy theory in which Jews are all-powerful, all-controlling and responsible for society’s ills. To me, there’s a very important component that often goes unstated, which is that Jews are understood as foreign in the societies that they live in. Because why would a person living in a society try to corrode it, unless they weren’t really a member of it, unless they were somehow apart from it even while nestled within it?

So what you just said, that is such a good example of “Jew as perpetual foreigner,” of that trope. Like, I owe allegiance to Trump, and it’s confusing that I’m not thankful enough, that we are not thankful enough for his policies. As though we owe something to him, and he, as a person who is ostensibly a public servant, does not owe something to us as he does to all American voters and all American citizens.

G: Did it surprise you to hear these ideas come from Trump — not just as an individual, but given his position as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party?

ET: I was surprised six years ago. I was surprised back when he was running and the ad came out that had money and the Star of David on it with Hillary Clinton’s face. Or when he said to a gathering of Republican Jews [that] you guys won’t vote for me “because I don’t want your money.” I was always aware that antisemitism existed in the private realm, but I was surprised in 2016 when it came to the fore politically in the way that it did.

G: Is this part of the Republican Party, or do you hear antisemitism expressed across the political divide?

ET: Antisemitism does not belong to one political party and one part of the spectrum. Of course, one hears antisemitic remarks on the left. But the language that we hear often today about, you know, “elite cabals,” about Hollywood and the media, about George Soros hijacking democracy — the rhetoric that we’ve seen that the Jews are flooding the country with migrants or that Soros is responsible for Black Lives Matter — we’re seeing that far more on the political right.

When you say this, it’s difficult to say it without sounding like you have political bias. I’m really trying to be fair in my assessment of this. I do not think that there is a comparison right now between these two parties and how they’re using antisemitic tropes and symbols and language. And we should say that, according to the research from the American Jewish Committee — which itself came under criticism in the Trump years for not being critical enough of Trump — most American Jews are more worried about antisemitism on the right. So, this is my own analysis, but I’m not the only one saying this.


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G: Some people would point to prominent Jewish Republicans like Jared Kushner or Sheldon Adelson to push back against the idea that there is antisemitism on the right. They also might point out anti-Zionist rhetoric from some corners of the left. How do you respond to those arguments?

ET: Employing a Jewish person doesn’t mean that you’re not an antisemite. Trump has also said that he only wants Jews counting his money. I personally don’t think that that’s a good defense against charges of antisemitism.

On the left: I don’t believe that anti-Zionism is necessarily antisemitism. And I think that if you look at the language coming from the political left right now and the language from the political right right now, there’s just no comparison in terms of the scale of the problem. Saying, like, “Well, what about this politician said that we should freeze funding if Israel doesn’t do such and such?” You can disagree with that as foreign policy, but we are simply not hearing the same level of antisemitic rhetoric used in politics from the Democratic Party right now.

G: In that same statement, Trump talked about the idea that American Evangelicals are more supportive of Israel than American Jews. To ask a basic question: Is that true? And if so, why?

ET: There are some American Jews who are as supportive of the current manifestation of Israeli government and Israeli policy as evangelicals. There are right-wing Jews who didn’t see anything wrong with what Trump said. So I do want to acknowledge that these people are real.

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Why evangelicals? [Politically] conservative Jews and evangelicals have, for some time now, been in a sort of political alliance. And it’s true that many evangelicals are less critical of Israel than many American Jews.

American Jewish political life has evolved, especially for secular Jews, for Jews of no denomination, for Reform Jews, have evolved to have a certain set of political beliefs, by and large. Israel’s politics have gone in a different direction. And so it makes sense that there would be more criticism there than from conservative voters of whatever religion, including evangelical Christians.

[There is also] the idea, basically, that all the Jews need to move to Israel for the Messiah to come back. I don’t want to simplify it too much, but that’s the basic point [of Christian Zionism]. Now, Jews generally believe that that’s not going to happen. Both Jews who work with evangelicals and evangelicals sort of get what they need from each other, each believing that they’ll be proven correct.

G: The other news of the last couple days has been about Kanye West, who has been accusing Jews of controlling finance and the media in order to manipulate Black people. Does that have political resonance or import beyond pop culture spaces?

ET: What he said was just textbook. Like I said earlier, there are different definitions of antisemitism people use, and we can debate it; I cannot imagine somebody making a good-faith defense of what Kanye West said and arguing compellingly that it’s not antisemitism.

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Having said that, to be honest, I’m less concerned with that, and more with the fact that it is embraced by Tucker Carlson, by, say, the Republican House Judiciary, by people who I think are more empowered to shape politics and policy, and who perhaps use dog whistles and tropes and stereotypes and know not to say the word “Jews” or “Jewish,” but whose message is, to my mind, largely the same.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.