Necessary Enemies

Why Trump’s Jewish Backers Love the Alt-Right

The shocking mainstreaming of anti-Semitism reinforces the Jewish right’s worldview and its support of Israel’s hard-right fringe.


Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty

Will Donald Trump’s belated condemnation of racism be enough to assuage his Jewish backers—at last count, roughly 30 percent of the American Jewish community—even though it took him two days to make it, and even though the Charlottesville march was advertised with violently anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery?

Of course it will.

No amount of cognitive dissonance is too great for Trump’s Jewish backers, from high-profile ones like embattled lawyer Michael “Says Who?” Cohen to everyday Jews in the pews. Why? It’s not just Israel, although that’s a big part of it. Nor is it just about Jared and Ivanka. Nor is it blindness to the anti-Semitism and racism rampant among Trump’s hard core base.

Quite the contrary. Trump’s Jewish supporters are well aware of the alt-right, and in a perverse way, they thrive on it. The shocking mainstreaming of anti-Semitism reinforces their worldview, their political ideology, and their support of Israel’s hard-right fringe.

First, to be clear, the “Unite the Right” rally and Trump’s typical and tepid first response to it, was a watershed moment in American anti-Semitism. While the racism of KKK-supporting, Confederate flag-waving white supremacists was justifiably at the forefront of media coverage, the branding and execution of the event was explicitly anti-Semitic.

“Join Azzmador and The Daily Stormer to end Jewish influence in America,” proclaimed the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer’s advertisement of the event, accompanied by a Nazi-like figure wielding a hammer, ready to smash a Jewish star.

At the Saturday evening march on the University of Virginia campus, tiki-torch-bearing white nationalists chanted “Jew will not replace us” interchangeably with “You will not replace us”—both familiar white nationalist slogans.

And, of course, Trump’s initial statement, condemning violence on “many sides” and refusing to call out his white nationalist supporters, was the most astonishing presidential accommodation of racism and anti-Semitism since the Wilson administration.

Everything about this loathsome affair should have crossed a line for American Jews: the messaging, the violence, the size, and most of all the two days it took Trump to condemn “racism” specifically—although still not the alt-right itself. As one rabbinic friend of mine put it on Facebook, “Egyptians throw Jewish babies in the Nile; Pharaoh condemns violence on many sides.” As a rabbi myself, I have never felt so alienated from my own country as I did on Sunday and Monday.

And yet, none of it did cross a line. There was not a peep of remorse from Trump’s prominent Jewish supporters.

Because, in fact, there is no line. Like a proverbial frog in boiling water, it should be clear by now that almost no increase in anti-Semitsm or racism will separate these Jews from the man who encourages their most bitter enemies.

To be sure, the most obvious reasons for their resilient support—Israel, Israel, and Israel—are quite salient. Some, though by no means most, Jews are indeed “Israel First” voters, and all of them are hard-right-wing. To them, supporting Israel means not coaxing Israel to the negotiating table so that it can reach a sustainable two-state solution with Palestine, but subsidizing settlements, right-wing yellow journalism, and right-wing political campaigns, all the while chanting that Americans should not tell Israel what to do.

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It’s also true that Trump’s personal non-anti-Semitism—after all, he’s got mishpacha—lessens the impact of his support for anti-Semites. Since the president is not himself an anti-Semite, his winking and nodding at millions of anti-Semites is not to be taken seriously.

But I think these explanations miss the deeper reason for the Jewish right’s blasé attitude toward events like “Unite the Right”: that, in a way, they like them.

The worldview of the Jewish right is that it’s us versus them. The world hates the Jews, always has hated the Jews, and if you don’t understand that, you’re naïve. (David Mamet once wrote an entire book making just that argument.)

Together with that worldview is a political ideology that is first and foremost about Jewish power, both in the United States and, more importantly, Israel. Since all the goyim are out to get us, we have to be as strong as we possibly can. Violence is all they understand—whether “they” are neo-Nazis or Arabs or whomever—and so the only non-suicidal approach is to get as tough as possible.

This has been the Israeli right’s guiding ideology for a hundred years—the movement known as “revisionist Zionism.” Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, wrote several influential books arguing that since “the Arabs” will never accept Israel, Israel must settle in for decades of long, grinding conflict with them, finally wearing them down. That is the Israeli right’s alternative to a two-state solution: a century of occupation and occasional war.

The same basic worldview animates the alliance between the American Jewish right—predominantly Orthodox—and the Republican Party. Bad people are out there, so get tough on crime, prop up traditional values, and carry as big a stick as possible on foreign affairs. And, of course, don’t trust Muslims.

Each time an anti-Semitic incident happens, this worldview is justified a little bit more. Obama-style coexistence with non-Jews seems like a pipe dream. Trump-style walls and cops and tough talk seem realistic. And the fact that Trump himself only condemns white nationalists when he absolutely has to (whether David Duke in 2016 or Unite the Right in 2017)—well, look, maybe it’s better not to antagonize them. On balance, Trump is still good for the Jews, this worldview believes.

At present, the large majority of American Jews disagree—most of us, quite strongly and viscerally. To us, a president failing to condemn bigotry (while never missing an opportunity to condemn media figures, celebrities, politicians, or anyone else who crosses the president’s mind) is never “good for the Jews.” It’s a betrayal of our deepest values, an emboldening of our worst enemies, and a terrifying shift in our relationship to our country.

It’s also tragically stupid. Rejecting the two-state solution doesn’t strengthen Israel; it undermines it, as we see every day. Propping up the “traditional” values of those who, merely a generation ago, kept us out of their golf clubs and preached against us from their pulpits, weakens the liberal, multicultural America that has enabled Jews to thrive here. And “getting tough” on those who find themselves marginalized today makes it that much more dangerous for all who have been, are, or will be marginalized.

But that’s for now. Thanks to assimilation and intermarriage among liberal Jews, and higher birthrates among Orthodox ones, the American Jewish community is rapidly becoming more conservative. There are also multimillion-dollar operations to promote Jewish conservatism, like the Jewish Review of Books and the Tikvah Fund, which has set up para-academic institutions to combat the supposedly left-wing bias of academia. Even the Anti-Defamation League has sometimes succumbed to such impulses; in response to Charlottesville, its director implied an equivalence between fascist white supremacists and anti-fascist demonstrators.

Each time a white supremacist chants “Jew will not replace us,” such nationalistic, ethnocentric Jews grow closer to replacing the liberal, tolerant ones who helped create American popular culture, advance the American dream, and, yes, promote civil rights for all. These are the Jews who back Trump and obstruct peace in the Middle East. They and the alt-right are perfect dance partners.