Ill Winds Keep Blowing
by Nadine Epstein
When I left off writing in our last issue, anti-Semitism had made a startling comeback in the United States, and Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, was about to be installed as chief strategist to the new man in the White House. Sadly, the ill winds ushered in by the Trump presidency are still blowing. Nationwide, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents continues to lurch upward, as it has since the start of the 2016 presidential campaign. The unprecedented wave of bomb threats at Jewish community centers and schools, as well as vandalism, is disturbing evidence of this trend, as is the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.
Many American Jews are understandably alarmed by the unanticipated injection of the white nationalist right and its brand of anti-Semitism into mainstream discourse. I do not believe that President Donald Trump is an anti-Semite or that he is deliberately singling out Jews; he has other groups on his mind. It is clear, however, that the extreme right, which promotes such views, is a part of the populist coalition that helped him get elected and has his ear via Bannon and others. Whether that is because the president feels indebted to the far-right, is using prejudice to whip up his base, sees political advantage in distracting his opponents or simply enjoys roiling the norms of civilized behavior and thought, he has so far avoided making the kind of compelling, direct national address necessary to stem the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Benjamin Netanyahu-Trump press conference in the East Room of the White House and watched the president dance around the issue. This is a man made for TV, where he can dominate the screen, and for Twitter, where a few words can loom large. But in person and without a big, compliant audience before him, Trump seems smaller. With his loyal court seated in the first rows—including Bannon, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner—Trump’s response to an Israeli reporter’s question about the rise of anti-Semitism trivialized the issue: He reminded us that he had won the election with 306 electoral college votes (the official tally is 304) and that he had friends, a daughter, a son-in-law and three beautiful grandchildren who were Jews. He promised that the country would soon see “a lot of love.” The next day, at an impromptu press conference, his performance was similarly lackluster. Since then, Trump’s efforts to weigh in on the topic have been weak, ineffective and unconvincing. More recently, he has taken to twisting anti-Semitism into a partisan issue, suggesting that Jews are spreading it themselves to make him look bad.
Meanwhile, Steve Bannon remains comfortably ensconced in one of the offices closest to the president and is leading the charge to pull the country back from the global economy, “deconstruct” the “administrative state,” realign how Americans think and brand the press as the enemy. The combination of Bannon, a man with a burning mission, and Trump, a man with a fragile ego who holds deep grudges, could be dangerous. Their blithe appropriation of the term “fake news” (originally created to label click-bait hoax stories such as the one about a child sex-trafficking ring at my neighborhood pizzeria) is brilliant, in an insidious way. It has become the hammer they use to pound away at the legitimacy of media institutions whose coverage they don’t like. They’ve gone beyond favoritism, which is a presidential prerogative, to actively discrediting and banning outlets.
Of course, not everyone I meet is concerned about Bannon. I travel frequently and spend a lot of time listening to people in our very diverse Jewish world, most of them highly educated. A few of my Jewish friends, relatives and acquaintances who voted for Trump remain thrilled by his strongman style, by his efforts to dismantle policies put in place by past presidents and by the promise of what they believe is to come. Bannon, some of them explain, is a hero to those American workers who can no longer find good-paying jobs. Some, like an Israeli-American backer of the Republican Jewish Coalition I recently spoke to and an ultra-Orthodox reader who wrote me, couldn’t stand President Barack Obama and are confident that there is a deep well of secret American Jewish support for the Trump administration. They fault mainstream media and the liberal Jewish establishment for discouraging these Jews from stating their opinions publicly and for brainwashing the rest.
There is another group that I hear from a lot: American Jews who voted for Trump based purely on the belief that he would be better for Israel, or on their dislike, even hatred, of the Clintons. Many among this varied group have buyer’s remorse: They are discomfited by Trump’s trade or immigration policies and taken aback by the uptick in anti-Semitism. Some are willing to be patient; others have become backseat drivers. Over a recent lunch, a libertarian-leaning relative launched into the conciliatory inauguration speech he would have liked Trump to deliver, then gave an astute critique of the president’s actions so far. Among this group, there is also unease about Israel, given the president’s ill-informed remarks about a one-state solution and the mixed messages coming from his administration.
Still, the vast majority of Jews I talk with, including many traditional Republicans, are appalled at the president’s behavior. The fact that the majority of people I talk with feel this way is not because I live in a liberal bubble. It is a matter of numbers, which still stand as facts, whatever the spin: Seventy-five percent of American Jewish voters did not cast their ballots for Trump.
The Jewish majority is of no interest to Trump and Bannon: It is not part of their base or critical to the new America that the administration is hoping to shape. As a result, most American Jews are stranded in uncharted territory. And like American citizens of all kinds, they have been jolted politically awake and are asking questions that they have never asked before.
One of them is: Does the Trump presidency signal the decline of or even the possible end to democracy in the nation that pioneered modern democracy? We pose this critical question of huge historical and geographical sweep in our March/April symposium: “Is democracy broken, and if so, what should we do about it?” This is a very Jewish question, since Jews have historically fared well in democratic countries, especially in the United States, which has been, and hopefully will continue to be, a land where Jews and all minorities can feel secure and thrive. We talk to a wide range of thinkers—including Timothy Snyder, Azar Nafisi, Tracy Kidder, Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Gloria Steinem—and their thoughts are illuminating and sometimes surprising.
Which brings me to another question I am often asked: Does the current political situation warrant setting aside the rules of civility? Our story on the etymology of the word “normalization” and the role it has played in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides some much-needed perspective, as does our “Ask the Rabbis” section, in which our rabbis ponder the role of civility in polarized times. And in her column, Letty Cottin Pogrebin describes some of the necessary conditions for constructive conversation.
Perhaps the biggest question is: What can I do? Most important, all of us must break out of our bubbles to listen to people whose beliefs might differ from ours. It is critical that we do so. At Moment, we work incredibly hard to include a wide spectrum of perspectives, especially those we may personally disagree with. This is a rarer quality than you may think—both in individuals and in a magazine—and it is a task we take very seriously.
Passover, when we remember one of the many times the Jewish people were strangers in a foreign land, is almost upon us. Although we didn’t plan it this way, the theme of refugees runs throughout this issue, showing up in articles, columns, essays and even fiction, and leaving us much to consider as we prepare for the holiday. We wish you and all of our extended Moment family a good and meaningful Passover.