Sometimes it’s all about timing. My last column in this slot appeared on January 27, and it argued that Jews needed to recognise that Donald Trump — whose presidency was then just a week old — was no friend of ours and that the correct Jewish stance on Trump was one of vigilant opposition.
A matter of hours after that column was published, the White House issued a statement marking Holocaust Memorial Day which did not mention Jews or antisemitism. At first, several commentators gave the administration the benefit of the doubt: surely, they said, the omission was an understandable bungle by a new team. But then it emerged that the White House had received an initial draft from the State Department that had mentioned Jews and antisemitism, but Team Trump had actively and consciously stripped out those references. In the days that followed, Trump officials stuck by the statement, insisting they wanted to be “inclusive” because many people had suffered during that period which was of course “horrible” and “sad.”
One group immediately understood the significance of the move. America’s far right and white supremacists were delighted: they have laboured for years to ensure that the fact of a specific Nazi project to eliminate Jews is forgotten, lost in a generalised sense that, sure, lots of people suffer in wartime.
But Trump has not left it that. In his first 50 days in office, he has gone out of his way to show that, at best, he has no instinctive sensitivity for Jewish concerns. Any condemnation of antisemitism has to be either scripted for him or else extracted under pressure. More troublingly, he has an uncanny knack for speaking to and about Jews in a way that thrills antisemites.
Much has been made, for example, of the way the President dealt with a friendly question from Jake Turx, an ultra-Orthodox reporter, at his first press conference. With an eagerness to be liked that was almost poignant — like a Jew of old hoping to endear himself to the mighty tsar — Turx stressed that he was no critic of the President who was, he said, a “zayde” to his grandchildren. Turx then sought Trump’s views on a wave of antisemitic incidents for which, the reporter was at pains to add, the President of course bore no responsibility.
Well, you’ve seen the clip. Trump told Turx to sit down and shut up and accused him of lying. That moment played especially well with America’s antisemites. Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League who was in London this week, told me that the so-called alt-right lapped up Trump’s put-down of a visibly Jewish journalist: “This was the goyim saying: ‘Enough, yids.’”
But the worst was yet to come. In an episode that received less attention than it should have, perhaps because it was not caught on camera, Trump was asked in a meeting of states attorneys-general about the wave of bomb threats to Jewish community centres. According to those present, Trump speculated that, rather than taking these incidents at face value, they should consider that “sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad.” Trump reportedly used the word “reverse” two or three times.
What can this mean, except an implication that these threats to Jewish buildings were made by Jews themselves, to damage Trump? The notion of “false flag” attacks is a staple theme of the far right. In this context, it is a classic antisemitic trope: that anti-Jewish attacks are invented by cunning Jews to win underserved sympathy.
There are people who still, despite all evidence, want to pretend this isn’t happening. My colleague on these pages, Melanie Phillips, reckons “Trump is one of the most pro-Jewish US presidents ever to be elected.” Imagine what these Trump defenders would be saying had, say, Barack Obama responded to attacks on Jewish buildings by hinting that maybe the Jews were doing it to themselves.
Trump’s allies cling to the fact that he read some nice words off an autocue or that he has Jews in his family, as if those who voice ugly attitudes to Jews haven’t always been able to turn to the Jew in the room and say, “Not you, of course.” They prefer not to look at the harder truth that Trump thinks and talks like a conspiracy theorist — and that’s a way of thinking that often ends in a very dark place.
Those US Jewish leaders eager to explain all this away and hope for the best are the product of an American Jewish community that has felt comfortable for so long, it can scarcely believe what’s now staring it in the face. That shell-shock is understandable. But it’s time to face reality – and see the man in the White House for what he is.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian