Ethno-nationalism, petty politics and resentment of Jews: Pittsburgh shows us an antisemitism for the 21st century

The ancient hate is intermingled with contemporary politics, writes Michael Goldfarb

October 30, 2018 15:00

Blood follows us. And yet antisemitism is not like it was. The ancient hate is now thoroughly intermingled with other strands of geo-politics.

Periodically throughout this decade, I have had to explain to my American family and friends why violence against Jews in France or Belgium did not mean the entire Jewish community in Europe is under threat. I had to refute overwrought articles in the right-wing Israeli press. Tens of thousands of Jews are not fleeing France for Israel. (Or leaving Britain for Israel because Jeremy Corbyn might become prime minister.)

What I told my family is that Jews are a soft target for jihadi cells. I reminded them to look at the extraordinary outpouring of solidarity from the state and society after each atrocity, several of which were linked to attacks on other targets: police barracks and the magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Now, I have to explain to my British friends the particularities of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. I have to place this heinous event in its American political context to understand its particularity.

The first thing to say is the obvious: not since Solomon was building the Temple in Jerusalem has there been a time or place where Jews have been more secure than in the US over the last 35 years. And I do mean the US, not Israel. That has not changed.

In my boyhood and adolescence, the 50s and the 60s, the antisemitism I experienced was the old-fashioned, pre-Holocaust kind, the type my father dealt with growing up in the Bronx: name calling, occasional fistfights. My younger brothers endured a knifepoint ordeal - promise to convert or we’ll kill you.

There was quiet social antisemitism. Having to give a fake name on the door in order for a friend to sneak me into Merion Cricket Club (yes, cricket club) to watch a tennis tournament.

But as the decades went by, much of this antisemitism seemed to fall away.

With a new feeling of security, the old Jewish habit of keeping the head below the parapet on questions of politics ended. Jews entered political life.

When I was a kid, the idea that the Treasury Secretary could be a Jew was impossible to imagine. We stayed in our lane, no need to wake up old stereotypes about Jews controlling all the money.

But by the 1990s, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers (a boy from my ‘hood, he and my younger brother were classmates) ran the Treasury. The revolving door between Goldman Sachs and government whirled regularly. Steven Mnuchin, who worked for 17 years at Goldman’s, is Trump’s Treasury Secretary today.

One of the first great fortunes of the information age was made by Michael Bloomberg, who was not afraid to put his name on his enterprise. He used the public profile to run successfully for Mayor of New York. George Soros used his fortune, in the heady days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to help educate Eastern European societies that had gone from Nazism to Stalinism without pausing over how to organise open societies.

A significant minority of American Jews felt so secure that they ventured forth from the New Deal cocoon, leaving the Democratic Party to become Republicans.

And when the Republican Party became a subsidiary of the Trump family businesses, they stayed right with it. In August 2017, neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” After the event, Mr Trump said: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”

None of the Jews in his administration resigned and none of his Jewish supporters I know personally have disavowed him.

Stephen Miller, a Jewish boy from Santa Monica, is a special adviser to the President. Over the two years of the Trump administration, Mr Miller has become the silent consigliere closest to him. He puts the words into Mr Trump’s mouth — when he stays on script — and is regarded as the strongest anti-immigration voice in the administration.

This past Rosh Hashanah, Neil Comess-Daniels, rabbi at the temple where Mr Miller received his Jewish education, denounced him from the pulpit: “We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate … We are all refugees, Mr Miller.”

As the mid-term elections approached, the Trump administration carried on politicising the issue of immigration, fixating about an organised caravan of several thousand would-be immigrants from Honduras walking the 1,800 miles to the Texas border. Mr Trump knows that there are votes to be gained in fear. He tweeted without proof that there were Isis jihadis mixed in with the immigrants.

Aided by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, fears have been stoked further. Fox repeated a lie, tweeted out by Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, that George Soros was funding the marchers. That was on October 17. On October 23, a pipe bomb was found in Mr Soros’s mail box in suburban New York. The next day, more bombs sent to leading Democrats and Trump critics were intercepted.

Then on Saturday, October 27, Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue, open to the world, the softest of targets, shouting “all Jews must die” and killed 11 people.

Trump’s first reaction to the killings came in an impromptu press conference on the rainswept tarmac of Andrews Air Force base.  He was jetting off to  make a campaign speech. The main thrust of his comments was, if there had been armed guards at Tree of Life then Bowers wouldn’t have got away with it. An interesting assertion as Several armed policeman who arrived quickly on the scene were shot.

Later that evening Mr Trump joked at the campaign event that he almost cancelled because his hair had been ruined by the weather while speaking to the press. He was having a bad hair day.

The New York Times reported that it took his daughter Ivanka, a convert and her Jewish husband, Jared, “importuning” him to get the President to explicitly condemn the antisemitic nature of the attacks.

Most of Pittsburgh and the American Jewish community are not buying his words.

This is antisemitism but not the kind I faced walking home through a working class Catholic neighbourhood from school. Soros-baiting is not simply Jew-baiting. Jews do it to.

Benjamin Netanyahu has spread lies about Mr Soros having links to the Iranian regime. He has warmly welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose antisemitic attacks on Mr Soros have helped the Hungarian leader stay in office, on a state visit to Israel.

This confused and terrible confluence: petty politics to maintain power, a return of the ethno-nationalism that has always led to violence, and the always-present resentment of Jews are the strands that undergird the terrible events at Tree of Life synagogue.

An antisemitism for the 21st century.

Michael Goldfarb is a freelance writer

October 30, 2018 15:00

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