As former President Donald Trump has continued his descent into explicit antisemitism and white nationalism, he apparently has caught many of his longtime Jewish supporters in an impossible spot. Reactions among formerly Trump-friendly Jewish leaders have been mixed — with a number defaulting to denial of the dark reality.
In a recent interview, Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, insisted that Trump “is not an antisemite,” while he attempted to make artificial distinctions between Trump himself and his antisemitic actions — which he was at a loss to explain. Tellingly, in the same interview, Klein reiterated his own continued alignment with the long-running racist “birtherism” conspiracy slander that Trump heavily promoted against former President Obama during the run-up to his own campaign for the presidency. Klein’s comments draw attention to something that many of us often overlook — the nature of the ways in which antisemitism is tied into other forms of oppression.
Two things stand out in the couple of thousand years of history during which the Jewish people has experienced organized hostility and persecution in one form or another.
First, between the Crusades to the Holocaust, our persecution most often was tied to the persecution of others — the Spanish Inquisition also expelled millions of Muslims, and Hitler also targeted the Roma and LGBTQ people.
Second, the highly organized and vehement form of antisemitism that we know today began in earnest only in the later part of the 19th century. This racist antisemitism was a trend within the influential Western intellectual movement which styled itself as “scientific racism.” The “scientific racism” idea coincided in origin internationally with the European powers’ scramble for Africa, which gobbled up almost complete colonial control of that continent between 1870 and 1914. In the U.S., the movement corresponded with the emergence of the Jim Crow system of formal segregation as the means of social control over newly freed African-Americans in the South. This pernicious view, as we know, attempted to classify all humanity under the extremely unscientific categories of race, with the theorized “natural” hierarchies reflecting and justifying the existing domination of various groups by white Europeans.
Within this system, Jews were theorized to be a separate race. Under racial antisemitism, Jews were set aside for special abhorrence and distrust not just because of the separateness of our religious practices, but now because of our very success in advancing and assimilating within Western societies, which was depicted as a “racial pollution” of the (white) genetic stock. Today’s white nationalism, actively courted and promoted by Donald Trump, is the continuation of this venomous dogma.
The words of Erik K. Ward, an African-American writer and organizer who calls antisemitism the theoretical core of white nationalism, are helpful in understanding the thought mechanism that links antisemitism and other forms of racism in this movement. “White nationalists in the United States perceive the country as having plunged into unending crisis since the social ruptures of the 1960s supposedly dispossessed white people of their nation,” he writes. “The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem” for the white supremacist belief system. “White supremacism — inscribed de jure by the Jim Crow regime and upheld de facto outside the South — had been the law of the land, and a Black-led social movement had toppled the political regime that supported it. How could a race of inferiors have unseated this power structure through organizing alone?” Then “the election of a Black president?
“Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes,” Ward continues. “This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing white people, rendering them racially unconscious.” Enter the dangerous delusions of QAnon and the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory of Jews bringing immigrants into the country to war on the white race that Tucker Carlson and others on the right continue to promote, and we get the Tree of Life synagogue massacre and other deadly events, which tragically continue to multiply.
Morton Klein and those in his political clique appear to be lacking the basic understanding that racism — white nationalist racism in our country — is the ugly face of antisemitism.
Keeping a clear understanding of antisemitism and racism in mind should tell us a lot about how to fight it and who our proper allies are. In this regard, it’s time for us to return to the vision of such outstanding leaders as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, well remembered for standing shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Martin Luther King and John Lewis on the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. It should also make clear the trap of allowing racists anywhere to speak in our name. And this includes “Jewish Power” racists like the Kahaneite Itamar Ben-Gvir, newly elevated to great power in the pending Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mark Lurinsky of Montclair is recently retired from a career in public accounting. He is an activist in local politics and a member of the steering committee of J Street’s New Jersey chapter.