It began, as most things Trump do these days, on Twitter.
Back in 2013, before he rose to become the 45th president of the United States, and before he fielded charges of anti-Semitism for his telling silence following a rash of anti-Semitic activity stateside, including numerous bomb threats to Jewish community centers and vandalized Jewish cemeteries—which he insinuated were “false flag” operations early Tuesday till finally condemning the hateful acts during his first address to Congress later that night—Donald Trump waged a bizarre, anti-Semitic battle against comedian Jon Stewart.
The then-Daily Show host, who is Jewish, had presumably run a segment poking fun at the brash reality-TV star, real-estate mogul, and de facto leader of the birther movement. This did not sit well with Trump, who took his ire to his favorite outlet.
“On April 24th, 2013, at 11 a.m., someone comes into my office and says, ‘Donald Trump just tweeted: I promise you that I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz—I mean Jon Stewart. Who, by the way, is totally overrated,’” Stewart recounted during the 10th annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit in November.
Stewart, who was born Jonathan Leibowitz, claimed to have no idea what set Trump off. And so the political satirist, tweeting from his show’s account, fired back with the following:
This led many of Stewart’s online followers to start tweeting at Trump, addressing him as “Fuckface Von Clownstick.” A Twitter war had begun, and Trump, as is his wont, replied by first calling Stewart an “overrated asshole” and “total phoney” and then doubling down on the anti-Semitic attacks, accusing Stewart of not being “proud of his heritage” for using a stage name:
“So, I start to think to myself: Oh, I think this guy is trying to let people know I’m a Jew. And I think to myself, ‘Doesn’t my face do that?’” recalled Stewart at the benefit. “Honestly! Where have you seen this face other than a poster for Yentl? In what world are people like, ‘Stewart? That’s a Scottish name! But there’s something about that fella that looks a little schmear-y.’ It would be funny if it wasn’t so toxically fuckin’ crude and horrible.”
Trump’s repeated attacks on his name and heritage, an episode that Trump attempted to deny even happened in 2015, led Stewart to tweet out, “Can’t an overrated Jew have a complicated relationship with his dad without being accused of hiding his heritage? #FuckFaceVonClownstick.”
You see, Stewart has a very complicated relationship with his last name—and his father. Though he once joked to 60 Minutes that he changed it because it “sounded too Hollywood,” the move appears to have come about due to a mix of anti-Semitic bullying and his broken bond with his physician-dad.
Stewart grew up in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, a middle-class town with precious few Jews. In Tad Friend’s 2002 profile of the comedian in The New Yorker, “He recalls being called ‘Leibotits’ and ‘Leiboshits,’ and getting punched out at the bus stop when he was in the seventh grade. ‘I was holding my books and a trellis I had made in shop and thinking, How much more of a pussy can I be?’”
His parents divorced when he was 11, and Stewart was raised by his mother—while remaining mostly estranged from his father. In 1986, while working as a bartender in Hamilton, New Jersey, Stewart said he experienced an early “midlife crisis.” He told Friend, “I started thinking, This is it for the next 70 years? So I told my mom I was going to New York to do comedy. I never discussed it with the—what’s the other one called?—dad.”The following year, Stewart stepped up to the stage for his very first stand-up performance. It was at The Bitter End in Manhattan’s West Village, the same place where his comedy idol, Woody Allen, got his start. As the story goes, “While being introduced, the emcee mispronounced Stewart’s last name, Leibowitz. This led to Stewart renaming himself right then and there. He dropped his last name and changed the spelling of his middle name, Stuart, to Stewart. From that moment on, he went by Jon Stewart as his stage name,” according to the book Jon Stewart: An Unauthorized Biography.
Did Stewart change his last name because of the bullying he experienced growing up? Or was it, as he’s attested, due to the complicated relationship with his father? Perhaps a tribute to Allen, who was born Allan Stewart Konigsberg? All of the above? Who knows. What we do know is that Stewart didn’t legally change his name until 2001, following in the footsteps of many famous Jewish stars who chose to change their names in order to avoid anti-Semitism, from comedy god Lenny Bruce (Leonard Alfred Schneider) to music icon Bob Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman).
Stewart’s relationship with his father, meanwhile, reportedly remained fairly strained until his passing in 2013, and his dad never saw him perform. As for Trump, who has a history of defaulting to anti-Semitic stereotypes when it comes to Jews, intentionally left the Jews out of his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, has a right-hand man in Steve Bannon with deep ties to anti-Semitic activity, and who took two weeks to denounce the recent surge in anti-Semitism, perhaps Steven Goldstein, the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, said it best: “Trump quacks, walks, and talks like an anti-Semite. That makes him an anti-Semite.”