What the Jewish Cemetery Attack and Trump’s Movement Have in Common

The president is not an anti-Semite, but he is the head of an anti-Semitic movement.


Tom Gannam / Reuters

Why did it take the desecration of a Jewish cemetery for President Trump and Vice President Pence to finally condemn anti-Semitism?

There were, of course, multiple factors that finally teased out a condemnation from the president (issued, rather bizarrely, at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture): Ivanka Trump’s tweet on Monday, following the fourth round of bomb threats against Jewish community centers. The dread felt throughout the Jewish community after Trump not only failed to condemn anti-Semitism in response to a question at his press conference, but scolded the questioner, an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Surely some of that concern had percolated inward to Trump’s inner circle, as his own Jewish allies began asking just what was so difficult about condemning Jew-hatred.

But there’s something about cemeteries in general, and Jewish cemeteries in particular.

To desecrate an individual grave is a personal insult, but to vandalize an entire cemetery is to insult an entire people. Though the perpetrators are still unknown, it was against Jewish identity itself. It’s an outing, an othering: no, Jew, you are not one of us. Even in death, we will despise you. You are not an individual, not a person; you are a Jew. It’s a uniquely personal act of depersonalization.

There’s another reason why Jewish cemeteries, like African American ones, are laden with historical significance.

Twenty years ago, when I was a college student on a rail pass across Europe, I visited the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. Its crooked, crumbling stones seemed the fitting memorial to a community once proud, now devastated. And on one of them, someone had left a note saying, in German and English, vergeben und vergessen: forgive and forget. I left a second note, with the piety of a 21-year old, zachor: remember.

In fact, this cemetery had not been affected by the Holocaust. But we both knew what we were taking about.

Jewish cemeteries are a reminder of Jewish death, and Jewish death means the Holocaust, a genocide still unprecedented in scope and scale.

The bigoted, racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, white supremacist far right knows this. (Their wanna-be “alt” signifier can go to hell.) Whoever committed the acts of vandalism in the Chesed Shel Emet cemetery, they knew that defiling a cemetery is a particularly loathsome act, and defiling the graves of dead Jews, many of whom were surely Holocaust refugees or survivors, has a very particular resonance.

This is also why, after calling out white supremacy last Spring and being promoted for doing so by the Daily Stormer, I received hundreds of tweets with pictures of me in a gas chamber, me wearing a Jude star, my head on the body of a rat. And why, despite myself, they actually hurt.

I’m not a snowflake. Yes, I choose to actually feel my feelings, and to care about the people being rounded up and deported across the country right now. But I can give as good as I get. I’m a New York Jew, a journalist, and a general pain in the ass. Ask anyone who knows me.

I also am not a Holocaust Jew. As I’ve written many times over the last 15 years, I can’t stand how the Holocaust is trotted out as a kind of moral trump card—Godwin’s Law!—or used as a last-ditch effort to get apathetic young Jews to care about Judaism. In many parts of the American Jewish world, venerating the Holocaust has become a substitute religion, a kind of Jewish idolatry.

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It also generates a fair amount of income for professional Jewish insiders like Rabbi Marvin Hier, who has supported Trump and defended his refusal to condemn anti-Semitism.

Why, then, did a bunch of tweeted images actually get to me? Was it because of my grandparents’ brothers and sisters, people I never knew who were shot in the forest by the einstatzgruppen in present-day Ukraine and Lithuania? Was it the photograph of a young cousin, killed in the camps, that my sister has hanging in her living room?

No—nothing that rational or that obvious.

The power of the Holocaust is almost mystical in nature, especially for Jews. Most of us grew up on films and photographs so gruesome as to put any contemporary horror movie to shame. In addition to whatever trauma has been passed down in our genes, the American Jewish educational system deliberately traumatizes children all the time. I have vivid mental images of the wasted bodies, the overcrowded barracks, the naked people herded into gas chambers. (When I was a child, the forced nudity—with your family—seemed as horrifying as the rest of the story.)

It’s the invocation of this Holocaust—not the actual events, inestimably tragic as they were, but the symbolic Holocaust—that is so powerful among Jews and anti-Semites alike. This is the pain that most Jews carry inside ourselves, whether we admit it or not. We try to transmute it into the violent machismo of right-wing Zionism, or the social justice mission of left-wing American liberalism. But it’s still there: a wound, a vulnerability. This is what they think of you. This is what they will do to you.

Every swastika evokes that dread, but vandalism of a cemetery makes it explicit. Cemeteries are haunted, even if the ghosts don’t look the way they do in movies.

2017 is not 1933. Acts like these are widely condemned, and indeed can bring us together; the Arab American Association of New York, led by Linda Sarsour, raised over $20,000 in a few hours to help repair the damage. Orthodox and Non-Orthodox Jews worked together to speedily right the fallen stones. Vice President Pence’s strong condemnation of the attack, while on a visit to St. Louis, was even more powerful than President Trump’s. The threat of another Holocaust is not imminent, no matter the hyperbole in some quarters.

But the threat is present symbolically. Like a ghost, it haunts not just Jewish cemeteries but Jewish consciousness itself.

And that is what Trump, despite his Jewish grandchildren, seems not to understand. When he uses the phrase “America First,” coined by Nazi sympathizers, we hear it. When he omits Jews from a garden variety Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, we hear that silence. When Steve Bannon calls his former website the “platform for the alt-right,” we can’t un-hear him.

Trump is not an anti-Semite, but he is the head of an anti-Semitic movement. No amount of hard-right Israel politics, Jewish relatives, or Jewish advisors can change that. That’s why it took the most blatant act of desecration to finally wake him up, and why Trump’s generic condemnation was so blatantly insufficient.

He still doesn’t take responsibility. He still doesn’t get it. He will never have the nightmares that I have had.