Wednesday night, a pickup truck pulled up to a densely packed group of Jewish protesters outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Rhode Island. The driver stopped for a second and then accelerated into the protesters, sending several to the hospital — though thankfully, none were seriously injured.
The driver seems to have been one of the detention center’s guards, according to the Washington Post; after the attack, other detention center guards tear-gassed the protesting Jews. All of this was captured on video, yet there are no reports that either the truck driver or the gas attackers have been arrested.
The president of the United States, who claims to care for America’s Jews, has had nothing to say about this. Instead, he spent Thursday morning talking about why Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are the real anti-Semites, championing Israel’s shock decision to ban the two Muslim Congress members from visiting this weekend — a position that President Trump reportedly pushed its government to take behind the scenes:
It is true that both Omar and Tlaib have been supportive of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at boycotting Israel. It’s true that Omar in particular has said a handful of things that play into troubling anti-Semitic stereotypes.
But there is no persuasive evidence that they hate “all Jewish people.” Trump is dramatically distorting the two Muslim women’s records for crassly partisan reasons, a transparent part of his campaign to try to convince America’s overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish voters that they should switch sides. He’s also actively pushing a foreign power to restrict freedom of movement for members of Congress, something no ostensibly patriotic American leader should do.
It’s been a bad couple of years for the American Jewish community — my community. Anti-Semitism is on the rise; three synagogues have been targets of shootings in the past year alone. And the president has shown no remorse for the ways his rhetoric has helped bring alt-right anti-Semites out from the woodwork.
His attack on Omar and Tlaib in the guise of standing up for Jews is obscene.
Trump’s offensive politicking on anti-Semitism
The irony of Trump calling Omar and Tlaib anti-Semites is rich.
This is a man who, in 2015, told a room full of Jewish Republicans that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” adding that “you want to control your politicians, that’s fine.” In 2016, Trump released a campaign ad that played a quote from one of his speeches over footage of George Soros and former Fed Chair Janet Yellen (also Jewish), a visual that comes across as an anti-Semitic dog whistle. This April, he told an American Jewish audience that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “their” prime minister, implying that American Jews have a dual loyalty to Israel — a worse version of the controversial comments Omar once made about the pro-Israel lobby.
The expert consensus is that Trump’s rise to the presidency has energized the alt-right and other fringe anti-Semitic groups — helping them gain recruits to their extreme ideology, and even labeling some of them “very fine people” after the 2017 alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“They perceived him as anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and certainly anti-establishment,” says Mark Pitcavage, an expert on far-right extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish anti-hate group. “They liked him quite a bit. So they really came out in force for him.”
One study of 75 far-right radicals found that many of them “credit his candidacy as the start of their awakening.” In his book The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know, University of Alabama professor George Hawley writes that “Trump’s presidential campaign energized the alt-right and helped the movement reach a new audience,” adding that “had Trump never entered the GOP presidential primaries … the alt-right would not have shown much interest in the 2016 presidential election.”
For these reasons, it’s easy to see through the president’s cynical attempt to pit American Jews against two Muslim members of Congress.
Seventy-one percent of American Jews disapprove of Trump’s handling of anti-Semitism, per a May poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute. Only 27 percent are more concerned by Democrats’ approach to anti-Semitism than the Trump-Republican approach. And a significant majority (59 percent) believe that Trump is “at least partially responsible” for the fatal synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California.
But the certain failure of the attempt to peel off reliably Democratic Jewish voters bothers me less than the sheer nerve of it.
Israel’s decision to bar Tlaib and Omar from entering the country is a slap in the face to both the American government and the idea of Israel as a tolerant and pluralistic democracy. But the Israeli government didn’t come to it on its own; in fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu originally planned to let the two lawmakers visit. Trump instead appears to have actively pressured the Israeli government to change its position, playing a significant role in Netanyahu’s reversal.
The fake concern about anti-Semitism, the attempt to divide American Jews from Democrats and American Muslims, the lack of attention to what’s really threatening American Jews today — the rise of deadly right-wing anti-Semitism and domestic terrorism — it’s all become exhausting.
There are Jews who deserve the president’s concern today. They aren’t the mythical Israelis who could not withstand a visit from Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib; they are the Jews who were out exercising their democratic rights in Rhode Island and were attacked for it.