When it comes to Jews, President Trump presents a puzzle.
That penchant for anti-Semitic utterances goes back to well before his presidency. He has repeatedly suggested that Jews are greedy or money-grubbing and use their wealth to control politics. In a 1991 book, the former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino wrote that Trump had told him: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump praised RJC members as great “negotiators” and openly declared that Jewish donors wanted a candidate they could buy: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he said. “That’s okay, you want to control your own politician.” Yet because he was speaking to rooms full of friends, he probably didn’t mean these words disparagingly.
So is Trump a philo-Semite or an anti-Semite? The answer is both. The principle that explains his seemingly contradictory outlook toward Jews is simple: Trump believes all the anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews. But he sees those traits as admirable.
To Trump, the belief that Jews are foreign interlopers who use their wealth to serve their own clannish interests is not a negative — as it is for traditional anti-Semites — but rather a positive. He wants Jews to be his attorneys and manage his money, so that he, too, can be rich. He wants them in his political corner, so that he, too, can be powerful. He wants to buy politicians, just like he thinks they do. As a man who has always stood solely for his own naked self-interest, Trump does not see the anti-Semitic conception of the self-interested Jew as a complaint, but rather a compliment. He prioritizes his needs ahead of the national interest, and so he sees the idea that Jews might do the same with themselves or with Israel as entirely natural. He is the human embodiment of the Onion article “Affable anti-Semite Thinks The Jews Are Doing Super Job With The Media.”
This understanding also helps explain the most confusing aspect of Trump’s most recent anti-Semitic outburst. The president claimed that Democratic Jews are “disloyal” to Israel. But this is an inversion of the traditional dual loyalty trope, which charges that Jews are more loyal to their fellow Jews or Israel than to their home countries. Trump, by contrast, was arguing that Democratic Jews were insufficiently devoted to other Jews or to Israel — that they were not strong enough dual loyalists. In other words, he criticized American Jews for not conforming to the anti-Semitic stereotype.
This form of positive anti-Semitism is not as uncommon as you might think. As a reporter who has covered anti-Semitism for years, I’ve seen it abroad in countries with few Jews, where admiring stereotypes proliferate without much familiarity with actual Jews. The Talmud Hotel in Taiwan — which boasts rooms named after wealthy people and has a “Talmud-Business Success Bible” by every bedside — is a classic example. There’s even an old ironic Jewish adage about this phenomenon: “A philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who likes Jews.”
But while this form of “positive” anti-Semitism is better than the negative kind, it is still deeply dangerous — even when it’s not being wielded as a political cudgel against Jews in the way Trump has been doing this week. At best, expression of such stereotypes by the most powerful man in the world affirms and reinforces the beliefs of bigots who see those anti-Semitic ideas as reasons to hate Jews. At worst, given the right impetus, the coin of philo-Semitic anti-Semitism can easily be flipped, and all those formerly positive stereotypes can be weaponized against Jews.
Something like this recently occurred in South Korea. A country where translated Talmudic extracts have long been bestsellers and boarding schools with no Jews offer a “Jewish education” to pupils, South Korea is known for its philo-Semitism. The country’s ambassador to Israel once told a television program that “each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud,” because “Korean mothers want to know how so many Jewish people became geniuses.” As one Korean student explained to a Jewish reporter, “Despite all the time and money we spend on education, only one Korean has ever won a Nobel award. That irks many Koreans. It makes us want to learn Jews’ secrets.”
And yet, in 2015, anti-Jewish bigotry swept the country. An international controversy over a merger within Samsung, the largest South Korean business conglomerate, quickly devolved into an anti-Semitic free-for-all against one of the parties involved, Jewish investor Paul Singer. South Korea’s powerful Lee family, the controlling shareholders within Samsung, backed an internal merger between Samsung C&T and another Samsung affiliate. Singer, who owned 7 percent of C&T, opposed the move, arguing that it was a corrupt ploy to enrich the Lee family at the expense of other shareholders. (Years later, he was proved correct.)
The dispute quickly turned ugly. Anti-Semitic cartoons depicting Singer as a hooknosed vulture exploiting innocents appeared on the official Samsung C&T website. An article by an ex-diplomat in the South Korean weekly Sisa Journal declared, “It is the Jews who hold the financial power of the world,” adding, “These words, which were merely conspiracy theories or thoughts of other countries, are becoming a real danger to the nation’s economy.” (For good measure, the piece included a picture of George Soros.) “Jewish money has long been known to be ruthless and merciless,” another columnist wrote. Tabloids repeatedly invoked Singer’s Jewish identity and insinuated that he could not be trusted.
Onlookers were flabbergasted to see this transpire in such an ostensibly philo-Semitic country. But they should not have been. All that had happened was that Samsung and its allies had taken the latent Jewish stereotypes in South Korea — that Jews are wealthy, cunning and powerful — and activated them for an overtly anti-Semitic campaign. The philo-Semitic coin had been flipped.
Now it’s clear that the United States has a president who is openly toying with that same coin, carelessly tossing it on national television. We can only hope it doesn’t land on the wrong side.