The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jewish congressional candidates put a focus on anti-Semitism in the final days before the midterms

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh carries a Torah. (Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer/AP)
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Anti-Semitism hadn’t occupied a large share of headlines in the campaign before Saturday’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left 11 Jewish people dead. But in the week ahead of the midterms, some of the nearly 60 Jewish congressional candidates — believed to be among the largest number in history — are pivoting to discuss the topic that has drawn attention since the tragedy.

Of course, anti-Semitism isn’t new, but something has recently changed, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D.-Calif.) told The Fix:

“It has always been there, but I think what happened and changed in the last year and a half has allowed some of the most disturbed elements to take it to the next level and to step up, and that’s kind of frightening.

“And the present administration has certainly not helped by polarizing us and putting us into camps,” he added. The Trump administration "just has unleashed some of these forces that were there all the time. It’s not the cause of it, but we certainly need a much less toxic environment now.”

This is not the first time anti-Semitism has entered the national conversation since the last election.

After white supremacists defending Confederate memorials marched in Charlottesville in August 2017, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” President Trump appeared to minimize their words and actions by calling them “very fine people.” But the Pittsburgh shooting is believed to be the most deadly act of anti-Semitism on U.S. soil in history.

Post-Holocaust prejudice against the Jews still remains — and it's just one aspect of religious and racial tensions in modern America. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

As concerns grow about rising anti-Semitism, and what critics see as Trump’s role in the problem, some Jewish lawmakers appeared willing to generally call out hateful acts without addressing the harmful rhetoric, especially among those on their political team, that may have spurred it. This was the case even among those conservatives running for seats that they are certainly sure to win — and thus a reminder that avoiding an attack on Trump, no matter what, is seen as the wisest political strategy for some Republicans.

After Trump blamed “both sides” — white nationalists and counterprotesting activists — for the deadly violence during the 2017 protest in Charlottesville, many Jewish lawmakers condemned Trump’s comments. But Rep. Lee Zeldin (R.-N.Y.), a Trump supporter, defended the president’s response. He told the Times of Israel:

“I would add, though, that it is not right to suggest that President Trump is wrong for acknowledging the fact that criminals on both sides showed up for the purpose of being violent. That particular observation is completely true.”

Jewish lawmakers have been among both Trump’s biggest critics and supporters — with those on the left being critical and Republicans generally supporting him. While some, like Zeldin, have aligned themselves closely with the president due to his stances on Israel and illegal immigration, others such as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) have frequently appeared on cable television to challenge the president’s rhetoric toward minority groups along with his relationship with leaders of Russia, North Korea and other countries.

But if the pushback against Trump in this cultural moment seems particularly hard, perhaps it is because so many lawmakers on the left seem more willing to tie Trump’s rhetoric to the actions of the massacre suspect, Robert Bowers. This is not all that surprising considering how Jewish Americans historically vote, especially in the most recent election, when more than 7 in 10 Jewish voters chose Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The president’s doubling down on his rhetoric in the days following the tragedy may put the Jewish lawmakers who consistently support him on the defensive as they try to explain their support for Trump.

Responses from Republican Jewish lawmakers and candidates steered away from attacking Trump and more generally spoke out against hate.

But many of those on the left did not shy away from addressing the culture that they say the president has stoked — and that anti-Semitic groups were drawn to — since the earliest days of his campaign.

The Jewish vote could be crucial in some races in the midterm elections. According to the Jewish Electorate Institute, nearly 3 in 4 Jewish Americans plan to vote for Democrats next week. The impact this will ultimately have on the midterms, and perhaps more importantly, the new Congress’s approach to anti-Semitism and the hate crimes that accompany it, could be important.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told The Fix that we could see some Americans frustrated with Trump’s response vote for Democrats this fall as a protest against Trump. He said:

“The president is supposed to be the symbol of a united grieving nation. That’s not Donald Trump’s strong suit, and political experts will tell you that anything that diminishes the president’s job approval ratings diminishes his party’s election results,” he said. “Being the consoler in chief, being the person that rises above our divisions — that’s not an area where Donald Trump gets a lot of high approval ratings.”

But until then, what seems to be clear is that Jewish lawmakers are moving America’s growing problem with anti-Semitism to the center as the culture wars continue beyond next week’s election.