Donald Trump’s victory has emboldened a wave of anti-Semitism not seen in the United States for decades. But Trump’s defenders often distance him from the rise in anti-Jewish rhetoric and say the president-elect cannot possibly share the views many of his followers proclaim for this simple reason: He has Jewish family.
His daughter Ivanka Trump underwent an Orthodox conversion before her 2009 marriage to Jared Kushner, who was raised observant. Their three children — Trump’s grandchildren — are full Jews according to Jewish law. See? Could an anti-Semite have a Jewish daughter?
In short, Yes.
The idea that having a child who converts precludes distrust or even hatred toward the child’s chosen faith is as facile as the idea that you cannot be anti-Semitic because you do business with Jews, have Jewish friends, or are Jewish yourself.
As someone who spent the last year researching a book on religious conversion — and as a convert to Judaism myself — I can tell you it’s far more complicated. When a child converts, family members often feel deeply ambivalent — about the perceived personal rejection, about the child’s religious stance in an increasingly secular world, and about the child’s chosen faith specifically.
In my research, I have interviewed dozens of converts to faiths as diverse as Quakerism, Evangelical Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And I have read extensively on the history and psychology of religious conversion.
This generation’s converts have benefited in many ways from the increased tolerance of modern society. None of my interviewees was disowned, a practice that was common in the past. Instead, the religious intolerance they experienced more often took the form of cynical comments or concerns about how the change will be perceived by others.
Parents often said they felt hurt by their child’s choice. One nominally Catholic mother asked her adult daughter who converted to Mormonism why the faith she was raised with was no longer “good enough.” The convert’s younger sister, who insisted she was accepting, often resorted to jokes about coffee and beer, which practicing Mormons do not drink.
Many parents made it clear that while they embrace their children’s conversion in private, they are hesitant for them to live openly religious lives. Some parents worried that their child might not be able to navigate the dominant society (i.e. “Won’t it be hard to find a job if you wear a hijab or have to leave work early on Fridays, etc.?”). One recent interviewee, a convert from Islam to Christianity, said his parents told him they accepted his new religion, but they would prefer that he hide it from the neighbors.
Of course, an alternate reading of these reactions is that parents do harbor negative feelings toward their child’s chosen faith, and they try to cover up those biases.
We live in a world — for the moment, at least — that discourages overtly intolerant viewpoints. Psychologists and researchers agree that since the Civil Rights era, many Americans have learned to soften their negative feelings toward certain groups so as to not be perceived as bigoted. But those feelings have not disappeared.
So Kushner, despite his insistence that his father-in-law has “embraced” his family and their Judaism, can never know exactly how Trump truly feels.
Indeed, it should be well-established by now that even being Jewish oneself doesn’t necessarily ensure that an individual is immune to what many call the longest or oldest hatred. History has given us many examples of Jews who loathed their identity. For an extreme case of Jewish anti-Semitism, we can look to Daniel Burros, a bookish Jewish boy from Queens who hid his true identity as he rose through the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan.
There is more than a whiff of retrograde paternalism in Trump’s defenders, who imply that Ivanka Trump’s conversion depended somehow on her father’s acquiescence.
People seem intent upon making her conversion about the will and preferences of the important male figures in her life. Many articles say she converted to marry Kushner, though conversion for the sake of marriage is technically forbidden by Jewish law.
We can actually deduce nothing from her decision except that it was her personal decision.
Like Ivanka Trump, I am a convert to Orthodox Judaism. My parents were broadly supportive of my decision. But ultimately, I was 31 when I finished my conversion process — not much older than Ivanka Trump was when she finished hers — and it would be false to assume I was making decisions based on their love or approval of Judaism.
As an adult, I was acting on my guiding spiritual truth, as I have to assume Ivanka Trump was acting on hers.
Because we can’t see into Trump’s heart, we can only judge his words and actions. He has a history of trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as when he said he preferred “short guys who wear yarmulkes every day” to count his money. He used an obvious Jewish symbol to attack his opponent during his presidential campaign. And he appointed Stephen K. Bannon as his chief strategist, a hero of the “alt-right,” a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state and is known for spreading anti-Semitic views.
His actions give us little comfort, and that renders whatever mystery might be in his heart irrelevant. Trump has fertilized the environment for a new wave of anti-Semites, and no Jewish family member can rectify that.
Kelsey Osgood is a Lond0n-based author working on a book about contemporary religious conversion. She is also the author of “How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia.”