On the surface, their presence at the signing at a White House Hanukkah party makes no sense. In fact, however, their presence highlights the actual purpose of this order, which appears to be expanding the definition of anti-Semitism to include any rhetoric deemed unfair to Israel. In Trump’s conception, shared by these pastors and others, such rhetoric constitutes the essence of anti-Semitism, while their own repeated recitation of classic anti-Semitic prejudice does not.
Anti-Jewish animosity is not a Trump administration invention — it dates to antiquity, of course. The church fathers attacked Jews for rejecting Christ and later blamed them for crucifying him. The Gospel of John accused Jews of literally being Satan’s children. Medieval Christians added other myths, such as the blood libel (the ritual murder of a Christian child for his blood), host desecration, inhuman biology and more.
In the 19th century, these myths were supplanted by the additional element of race — the argument that Jewish traits were immutable and could not be changed via conversion. Ethno-nationalists inspired by Johann Herder (1744-1803), Johann Fichte (1762-1814) and other thinkers began imagining the nation as an organic community in which Jews might be tolerated but could never truly belong.
One of the most important features of this modern anti-Semitic mythology was the belief that Jews constituted a single, ontological being organized for the purpose of conquering and destroying the world. The powerful “international Jew” (the title of Henry Ford’s infamous tract) led a global conspiracy with claws or tentacles strangling and destroying the nation and the world. A century ago, the villain was Edmond Rothschild, head of the most famous Jewish banking family of the 19th century and symbol of international Jewish wealth and power for anti-Semites at the time.
Today, it is typically George Soros, often portrayed (as on a recent episode of Glenn Beck’s television program) with images out of the 19th century of Soros as a puppet master secretly controlling all levers of government, economy and even foreign migration. This myth has animated killers throughout the past 200 years, from the Russian czar inciting pogroms to the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Modern anti-Semites ascribe a number of immutable negative traits to Jews, although two are particularly widespread. First, that Jews are ruthless misers who care more about their ill-gotten wealth than the interests of their countries or even their own values. This claim dates to the Middle Ages, when Jews were pushed into usury by West European powers. Second, that Jews’ loyalty to their countries is suspect since they constitute a foreign element.
Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the charge has morphed into Jews’ being disloyal because their primary loyalty is to Israel. Indeed, Israel’s very existence lends a veneer of logic to these accusations: If there is an explicitly Jewish nation, then anti-Semites assert, all Jews must be primarily loyal to it. American Jewry — aware of the potency of this charge, especially in light of their strong advocacy for Israel’s right to exist — has long carefully emphasized that American Jews constituted a “people” rather than a nation, a distinction ignored by ethno-nationalist anti-Semites.
This returns us to Trump’s executive order. The irony of Trump’s executive order — perhaps signaled by signing it with men like Hagee and Jeffress present — is that while the president pledges to combat anti-Semitism, he often indulges in these long-standing anti-Semitic tropes himself.
Just this month in Florida, he again accused American Jews of insufficient loyalty to Israel — a reflection of his sense that it is where their loyalty should lie. He also repeated the myth of Jewish bloodlust for money, describing local wealthy Jews as “brutal killers” whom he doesn’t like — and who don’t like him — but who will vote for him regardless because he’ll protect their money.
But perhaps more dangerous is Trump’s repeated classification of Jews as an ethno-national group, rather than as individual citizens. He often implies that Jews are tolerated (perhaps even welcome) foreigners, whose primary allegiance is owed to Israel but who are welcome here in America insofar as they support him. He seems to see their loyalty to him as transactional, based solely on his protection of their money and his devotion to right-wing Zionist goals, which he publicly assumes to be their principal interests. Jews who oppose him or his Israeli agenda are therefore “disloyal,” bad Jews and bad Americans. Like other anti-Semites both ancient and modern, he and his evangelical supporters take it upon themselves to determine which Jews are good and loyal to their people and which are worthy of damnation.
This worldview, along with his sense that evangelical Christians are critical to his political power, explains why Trump indulges in classic anti-Semitic tropes while also honoring a Christian pastor who espouses the belief that Jews must accept Christ to achieve salvation at a Hanukkah party — a holiday celebrating Jewish resistance to those who sought to convert them.
It also explains the executive order itself. Instead of focusing on the sorts of pernicious tropes the president himself voices, it targets “anti-Israel” rhetoric — which for Trump and his supporters includes any suggestion of Palestinian national rights or equal civil rights in the West Bank — which he and they equate with anti-Semitism. In contrast, men spouting open anti-Semitism, from ministers like Jeffress to world leaders like Viktor Orban and Trump himself, are rendered “kosher” as long as they support that Israeli agenda.
Evangelical Christians like Hagee and Jeffress are deeply invested in Israel — both attended the opening of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem, which had been a longtime goal of theirs. They see the country’s expansionist policies as part of their eschatological vision of Christ’s return, as well as their racist political vision of Israel as an outpost of Western (i.e., white) civilization against Muslims.
It is they, and not Jews, who constitute the real audience for this order. It caters far more to Trump’s powerful evangelical Christian base than to protecting American Jews from persecution.
By contrast, Trump is using Jews in dangerous ways. The order seeks to silence dissent on campuses against Israeli behavior to appease open Jew-haters, some of whom imply that the Jews’ proper place is not here but in Israel, where they will ultimately receive Christ or die. Its effect will silence not only dissent but even education as faculty and administrators turn away from teaching about Israel for fear of running afoul of the order’s definition of “anti-Semitism.” Even respected textbooks, such as Alan Dowty’s “Israel/Palestine,” could generate accusations of anti-Semitism for presenting Palestinian narratives that question Zionist claims in Israel.
In short, the executive order will not act to protect Jews — and it doesn’t aim to. On the contrary, its very promotion reinforces the most dangerous and hateful images of both modern and pre-modern anti-Semitism, framing worldwide Jewry as belonging to the secular state of Israel, responsible for the latter’s actions and less than fully equal here at home. Trump’s indulgence of anti-Semitism is especially dangerous, because it presents these insidious ideas as being good for Jews. They are not. Instead, he is advancing a politics of ethno-nationalism, which will not be easily reversed at the end of his term.