America needs a co-ordinated national campaign against antisemitism

Washington Watch: What is mostly missing is criticism of an administration that has done more to legitimize overt bigotry than any in our long history.

US President Donald Trump. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Spreading across the US – and around the world – like a side-effect of COVID-19, is a pandemic of antisemitism. It can be seen in attacks on Jewish officeholders, in anti-isolation rallies, in armed militias at state capitols and on social media. It shows up from Manhattan to Montana and all points in between.
Jewish and interfaith leaders speak out in varying voices, but they’ve failed to make a powerful case for fighting this disease at every level, starting with the office of president of the United States, and to demand forceful, unequivocal action.
Many Jewish groups, mostly on the Center and Left, have been expressing concern about the antisemitic attacks, including American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Center for Public Affairs, the ADL, World Jewish Congress and Bend the Arc. They write articles, blast emails, post on social media and express outrage, but what’s glaringly missing is a coordinated national campaign.
And what is mostly missing is criticism of an administration that has done more to legitimize overt bigotry – antiblack, anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish – than any in our long history.
Tragically, some of this hate campaign can be traced to President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, where he regularly vilifies his critics and encourages right-wing protesters to “liberate” their states from social distancing restrictions set by his own administration. He singled out Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia initially, because they have Democratic governors. It is no coincidence those are battleground states critical to his reelection strategy.
Many Jewish and other faith leaders have spoken out against the spreading hate, usually at the local level. The Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association of Bozeman, Montana, is one of those. Montana, a state with a Jewish population smaller than the membership of many synagogues, has seen leaflets showing a torn dollar bill and the motto “With Jews you lose.”
Much of the hate campaign there and elsewhere has focused on a favorite Trump target – liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros, who, JTA reported, has given tens of millions of dollars to coronavirus relief.
One of the most vocal in this focused campaign has been Michael Caputo, Trump’s newly appointed Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, according to JTA. He has said “Soros’s political agenda requires a pandemic.” In March he tweeted a photo of Soros captioned, “The real virus behind everything,” adding skulls and crossbones.
The president himself isn’t blaming the Jews, not directly, but he is provoking groups like white supremacists and militias.
One right-wing group, according to the ADL, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency “is controlled by the Chabad Lubavitch movement,” whose “rabbi” and “messiah” is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
Democratic governors are favorite targets of Trump and protesters, notably J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Jared Polis of Colorado, both Jews, and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.
In a tweet this week and again at Monday’s press conference, Trump accused governors of slow-walking the reopening of their states not out of any concern for public health but just to hurt his reelection.
In Illinois, a woman carrying a “Heil Pritzker” sign with a swastika stood in front of a Trump campaign poster. In Pennsylvania, state representative Cris Dush likened Wolf’s administration to the Nazis and the Soviet Union. The Republican leader of the Colorado House likened Polis’s stay-at-home order to a “Gestapo-like mentality.” And protesters at the Michigan capitol carried a large poster depicting Whitmer as Hitler.
WHILE MANY Jewish groups are speaking out about individual instances of antisemitism, even writing articles and sending letters, their response has been weak and disappointing, and they have consistently avoided pointing any fingers at a president who has made it clear that white supremacist, xenophobic and antisemitic hate groups are a valued part of his political base.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (COP) remains largely on the sidelines. Its web page shows more concern about Iran, Israeli politics, BDS and a German ban on Hezbollah, and boasts about its machers meeting with foreign leaders. The only mention on the home page of a “rise in Jew hatred” in America predated the pandemic and the latest spasm of antisemitism.
At a time like this the COP should be the most forceful Jewish voice in the nation. It should be demanding a personal meeting with the president demanding he quell the fires he has helped ignite.
The president’s call for governors (picking only Democrats) to “Liberate” their states has sparked ugly demonstrations. In Virginia, he warned that “your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” It was a reminder of his campaign call to gun rights supporters — “Second Amendment people” —to take matters into their own hands if they didn’t like the election outcome. This call to “liberate” was another thinly disguised Trump call for violence.
COP was set up at the urging of the Eisenhower administration so the Jews could speak to the government with a united voice. And yet the group, dominated by extremists like the ZOA, remains largely silent.
I’m not accusing the president of knowingly fomenting antisemitism, but it is clear that groups advocating overtly antisemitic positions are welcomed inside the Trump tent. He used antisemitic tropes, speeches, ads, social network postings and imagery in his 2016 campaign. He will long be remembered for saying there were “very fine people” among white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017.
He has been no stranger to race baiting, immigrant-hating, exacerbating cultural divides, pandering to his white supremacist base and spewing incendiary rhetoric.
The silence of COP and other major groups in the face of this assault and their reticence to confront a president who has made bigotry a key part of his reelection campaign is inexcusable.
Maybe it is fear of losing access to the corridors of power, or not being invited to the White House Hanukkah party, or fear of a temperamental backlash from a thin-skinned and vengeful president. Maybe they are scared he will take out his wrath on the State of Israel – not likely, since Israel is a critical part of his appeal to his Evangelical base; the Jews are secondary, a source of campaign money from some deep pockets, not votes.
This president craves adulation, fealty and obsequiousness. He abhors criticism and takes disagreement personally.
This is a historic test for American Jewish leaders. Do they have the courage, the strength? Or are they happy to be court Jews massaging a voracious presidential ego and content to write articles and give speeches to their donor base?