It seems rather paradoxical that President Donald J. Trump, the most pro-Israel President in U.S. history, by adopting the broad International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism and strengthening Title VI mechanisms against the vicious anti-Israel and anti-Zionist hatred spreading on campuses, has himself now been denounced as an antisemite by “progressive” critics.
Upon closer attention, this seeming paradox is a kind of prism, through which we can see refracted larger, and deeply concerning socio-political issues, which deserve closer attention.
First is an assertive anti-religious stance on the part of “woke” left progressive activists, for whom religion generally and religious affirmation specifically, express ignorance and bigotry. The oft-noted “anti-Zionism” of the current “secular” left in fact draws, in part, on this larger rejection of religion and belief.
A second and related sub-theme informing the paradox is anti-“nationalism”. This politically “ideological” motif is connected to, but not identical with, “anti-globalism”, Uneasy with and distrustful of the nation, and less directly “economic”, anti-nationalism expresses a residual leftist “internationalist” vision, which sees in the national community only an exclusionary and repressive vehicle of “dominant-class” (“elite”) political and ideological imposition.
This negative association of religion, nation and Israel-Zionism rests, in turn, upon a broader and deeper rejection of precisely that Western civilization which, produced by Judaism, Christianity, and Roman law, birthed the very idea and reality of the nation, individualism, and human rights. Since Western civilization is precisely the seed-bed of individualism, critical rationalism and human rights, its rejection by “progressive” advocates in the name of “diversity” and “equality” is not only ignorant and illogical, but intolerant and psychologically unstable, and also capable of profound self-hatred and loathing.
Turned inside-out and projected upon “the other”, radical “progressive” egalitarianism becomes exclusionary and, at its most radical, aggressive. (Hence, the “deprogramming” and “cancel-culture” riots on campus to shout, and shut, down alternate points of view held to be antithetical by supposedly “egalitarian” diversity advocates).
This paradoxical negative dialectic, presenting Trump’s anti-antisemitism as itself antisemitic, also has a specifically “Jewish” component, at once interesting and depressing. This component is, in part, a product of the contemporary left-liberal assimilationist mentality. But it also is tied to, and expresses, in a modern setting, a traditional phenomenon, Jewish assimilationism and, in the extreme, a very old affliction, Jewish self-hatred.
Israel’s very existence has since 1948, and especially after its defeat of Arab aggression in 1967 and 1973, triggered the so-called “new” anti-Semitism. Focused not on old and hoary negative Christian, and later secular, stereotypes about Jews’ presumed debilities (as persons or as a group, a religion, and, from the late nineteenth century, a race), the “new” anti-Semitism fastens on modern Israel as a Jewish nation-state. Jewish Israel once achieved became, as the socio-political expression and renewed center of Jewish Peoplehood, the ”Jew among the nations”.
Of course, long before 1948, Zionism and its project, Jewish nation-hood, drew the ire not only of hostile right, left and center European political and ideological entities (including nascent socialist, and later Communist, as well as fascist and Nazi movements), but also, within Jewry itself, of secular-liberal, Reform, and leftist Jews.
Recent Jewish critiques of Trump’s Title Six edict draw on and express different elements of these “traditions”. An almost text-book example of the paradox is provided by a recent article by Marcia Gessen in the New Yorker, “The Real Purpose of Trump’s Executive Order on Anti-Semitism” (Dec.12, 2019). Focusing on the essence of Trump’s (and the IHRA’s) broadened definition, which turns on Israel being the state of the Jewish People and Zionism its cultural-political expression, Gessen notes that Jared Kushner, defending Trump’s Hannukah edict in the New York Times, makes it clear that what is at stake (and what is for her problematic) is that “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism”.
For Gessen, who informs the reader that she grew, up in the Soviet Union, this “sleight of hand” renders any opposition to Israel and Zionism “anti-Semitic”, which is, she claims, to shut down any criticism. (An odd conclusion, given the ubiquity and sharpness of political division and debate within democratic Israel and Zionism themselves.) Citing [Israeli!] anti-Zionist groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, she is certain that Israel ”has effectively created an apartheid state”, and that invoking “the memory of the Holocaust stands as a warning…in Palestine…”.
Trump, then, by supposedly illegitimately delimiting criticism of Jewish Israel, winds up being “a pro-Zionist anti-Semite” (which evidently accounts, as she claims later, for the 60% rise in anti-Semitic incidents during the first year of his Presidency [!]).
A similar reaction, and critique, was advanced by the “liberal” Jewish Democratic Council of America, whose executive director, Halie Soifer, termed Trump “the arsonist attempting to serve as the firefighter”, and his edict a “political stunt” used as part of his “re-election bid”. As with Gessen, the anti-Zionist J-Street group denounced “a cynical harmful measure designed to suppress free speech on college campuses”, which “unilaterally declares a broad range of nonviolent [sic!] campus criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic…”.
(The radical groupuscule “Bend the Arc of Jewish Action”, denouncing Trump for being a “white Nationalist” who “time and time again… undermine[s] the civil rights” of black people, Muslim Americans, and “LGBTQ folks”, accuses him of “perverting the Civil Rights Act for political ends.)
These “Jewish” critiques of pro-Israel Zionism have a long and checkered historical pedigree. Jews, since the advent of modernity, have been attracted by the allure of participation in the national community (whether English, American, French or Austrian, German, Polish and Russian). This attraction was mediated by fear that assertions of Jewish national identity and rights would alienate potentially hostile “host-nations”. Jews had long lived with “the Jewish question”, the query by “liberal” advocates of nascent modern nationalism as to whether Jews, as an Am, a people or nation bound by their Tanakh’s call to Covenant and the Promise of Return to their Holy Land, could in fact be reliable citizens of the new post-1789 nation-states emerging across the nineteenth, with their shared language, culture, political community, and history,
Reform Judaism was born in nineteenth century Germany in this context, and one of the first reflexes in its project of modernizing Judentum, Judaism, was to remove from its prayer-books any reference to Jewish Peoplehood, sovereignty or return. One Reform-assimilationist answer to “the Jewish question” was—one finds the expression in all the European languages—“to be a Jew at home, and a [Frenchman or German, etc.] in the street”.
Another was to give up one’s Jewishness entirely and submerge one’s identity in the asserted new secular community, whether of the liberal or conservative nation-state, the (anti-Zionist) egalitarian international socialist, and later communist, variety, or the culturally-“Jewish” and linguistically-Yiddish, but equally anti-Zionist and anti-religious, Bundist socialists.
(There also emerged, often as a consequence of rejected assimilation, in whatever direction, a long-standing and now re-emergent phenomenon, Jewish self-hatred, represented by that paradoxical, yet recurrent “type”, the “Jewish anti-Semite”.)
These different Jewish responses to modernity were seemingly shattered by the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust and the well-demonstrated inability, on the one hand, of Communist regimes to welcome Jews as Jews into their asserted communities, and on the other by the very success of Zionism in overseeing the coming-into-being and success of the democratic Jewish State of Israel. But elements of Jewish left, liberal, and [pre-1967] Reform assimilationism and anti-Zionism have, mutatis mutandis, now once again been energized and fused, now by and in progressive leftist Western, and especially, American, Israel-focused anti-Zionism.
Using the reaction to Trump as a kind of metaphorical prism through which to peer into the refracted workings of contemporary antisemitism would lead to a much more detailed analysis of key contextual social and political formations. Suffice it here to say that one would want to weigh the impact of the Vietnam War crisis and the related rise of the New Left in delegitimating liberal values and institutions, especially on university campuses, the impact of Israel’s 1967 and 1973 victories, and the successful post-1967 Six Day War marketing of the Palestinians as “occupied” “victims”.
One would also have to consider the emergence of the “progressive” movement, on- and off-campus, the 1993-95 Oslo Accords and their failure, 9/11 and the advent of Islamist terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2009 UN Durban II Conference on Racism, the role of social media and the politicization of the mass media, the “surprise” 2016 advent of Trump and the years-long current impeachment campaign, and so on. All of these contextual factors would have to be factored in fully to explain how we have come to the present the current fraught moment, in which commentators and the major media take seriously so conceptually-confused and politically-“loaded” a notion as “pro-Zionist anti-Semitism”.
Here, one key factor needs specification. Within the North American Jewish world, specifically, demographic factors, intermarriage and assimilation, have created an increasingly large pool of Jewishly uneducated, institutionally non-affiliated, and politically malleable young people. Passing through colleges and universities, and exposed to mass media riven with anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and pro-Palestinian propaganda, some of these idealistic but ignorant youth are easily recruitable and manipulated by on-campus pro-BDS (“Boycott, Divest, Sanction”) anti-Israel groups, like Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Justice for Palestine, campus Palestinian Solidarity committees, and so on.
The sources, off- and on-campus, of negative “Jewish” response to Trump’s defining of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist campus actions as potential human-rights violations are clear. At the same time, Jewish students on campus are praising this long-overdue action, which has finally put some teeth into the fight against rampant campus antisemitism by invoking Title VI fiscal penalties. Adele Cojab Moadeh, a student at New York University, a campus long afflicted like scors of others by confrontational BDS anti-Israel demonstrations, cancel-culture, and Administrative weakness and unconcern. tried unsuccessfully to sue the University in order to force it to defend Jewish students, She enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s intervention, arguing it will work against the exclusion of Jewish students from campus life (see her New York Post piece, “Student Who Sued NYU for Anti-Semitism: Trump “Empowered” Jews on Campus” (Dec.13, 2019),
Another NYU student, Jordana Meyer, a “proud progressive who often disagrees with the Trump administration”, nevertheless feels that the executive order was “completely necessary”, and that resort to Title VI “which protects race, color, and national origin…is the best that could happen” (Washington Post, “Trump’s Executive Order on Anti-Semitism Adds to the Fierce Campus Debate About Israel and Palestinian Rights”, Dec.12, 2019).
And, despite the liberal-progressive opponents, Trump’s action has generally been welcomed by most of the organized Jewish community, and especially by the modern Orthodox (and even many haredim, or ultra-Orthodox), for whom Jews as a People is not only not an existentially threatening concept but, quite the reverse, is part of the warp and woof of their Judaic world-view and commitment. (See Jackson Richmond, “Jewish and Israel-Related Groups React to Trump’s Executive Order on Anti-Semitism”, JNS, December 11, 2019).
Stepping back a bit from the specific issue, it is evident that Trump’s action has sharpened and illuminated a chasm already opening up within the American Jewish world, On the one hand one sees a “liberal-progressive-assimilationist-secular” coalition, Jews for whom an asserted ”national” identification (being part of an Israel-centered Jewish People) is threatening, calling into question its presumed “universalist” identity and, more viscerally, its standing within the larger community.
On the other hand there is a smaller but much more religiously committed, institutionally-unified, and basically modern Orthodox, sector, Jewishly-conscious and Israel-centered, This group is allied with a (diminishing) number of semi-affiliated/semi-secular but proudly pro-Zionist, Jews. Resistant to assimilation, they are proud, rather than uneasy or afraid, of identification with Israel and Zionism. And unlike the liberal and leftist assimilationists, who are graduallly diminishing as their “Jewish” consciousness, commitment, and familial integument progressively dissipate, this Jewishly-committed group is growing in numbers and self-confidence.
Importantly, here one must take into account the fundamentalist Christian pro-Israel movement, itself under “progressive” attack as a “bigoted” group of religious deplorables. A large swath of mIddle American Christians (but not, note, pro-Palestinian traditional Presbyterian and United Church denominations, and the World Council of Churches) enthusiastically supports Israel, and backs Trump’s pro-Israel and anti-antisemitism efforts.
And here what began in paradox over antisemitism can perhaps conclude on another paradoxical, but hopeful, note. It surely augurs well for America generally that, despite current tensions and dangers, a peculiarly American alliance of modern-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians not only exists, but is flourishing. Mediated by a shared love of Bible, Israel, and American constitutionalism, this union can blunt the explicitly anti-Zionist secularist-progressive drive, now lodged within the Democratic Party, to radical political-ideological dominance. Supplemented by support from persons of concern and goodwill of whatever political or religious affiliation, this alliance can play a key role in addressing the current crisis.
Our democratic American nation’s republican Founders drew upon deep Western values, Hebraic, Christian and Enlightenment, of individualism, freedom of speech and religion, of equality before the law, equity, and due process. This is reflected in the traditional Pledge of Allegiance’s “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”. These core values, values, threatened today as never before by deepening division and a radical, excessively abstract and social-media driven egalitarian populism, need to be defended, and restored.
It may well be that the work of restoring, maintaining, and safeguarding, the Constitution, which safeguards the practice of religion by guaranteeing its institutional separation from the state, will prove to be the work of a republican revival at the heart of which stands a Jewish-Christian coalition. And finally, insofar as Donald J. Trump’s supposed antisemitism is concerned, as John Podhoretz (no great friend of the President) put it recently (New York Post, Dec.12, 2019), “if Trump’s support for Israel and this policy war against anti-Semitic outrages on campus marks him as an anti-Semite, all I can say is, I wish everybody was an anti-Semite”.
(Prof. Frederick Krantz is Director of the Canadian Institute
for Jewish Research, and Editor of its Daily Isranet Briefing)