Donald Trump’s vigorous defense of an image widely regarded as anti-Semitic has alarmed many Jewish Americans, who are growing increasingly fearful that someone who could be the next president is willing to stoke the kinds of stereotypical attacks that have haunted Jews around the world for generations.
Rabbis and other Jewish community leaders point to a moment of reckoning following a Wednesday night appearance in which Trump, with his voice raised, defended the use of a six-pointed star, which resembled the Star of David, mounted over a pile of $100 bills as part of an attack against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The image previously appeared on a website popular with white supremacists.
“That was a turning point for many,” said Lisa Spies, a veteran Republican fundraising consultant and former staffer of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “It forced people to say, ‘I’m going to hold off right now’ or to say, ‘I just can’t vote for this guy.’ ”
Added Bethany Mandel, a conservative writer who has gained attention for past criticisms of the ties between some Trump supporters and hate groups: “This past week has been really scary as a Jew in America.”
The concern expressed by many Jews is that Trump, who earlier this year was slow to condemn former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and has on several occasions retweeted messages from white supremacists, is bringing into the mainstream a sentiment that has largely been relegated to the dark underworld of the Internet.
The latest controversy has been roiling since Saturday, when the image first appeared in Trump’s personal Twitter feed, along with his message, “Crooked Hillary – – Makes History!” Soon thereafter, amid criticisms from some Jewish groups, Trump’s campaign deleted the tweet and issued a new image featuring a red circle instead of the star.
But then Wednesday night, in a freewheeling speech to thousands of supporters in Cincinnati, Trump expressed regret that the image had been changed.
“I said: ‘Too bad. You should have left it up,’ ” Trump said. “I would have rather defended it — just leave it up and say: No, that’s not a Star of David. That’s just a star.”
Trump compared the image to stars his young son draws at school and accused the media of using racial profiling to interpret the image as anti-Semitic. Later in the evening, he tweeted a photograph of a book cover from the animated movie “Frozen” that features a six-pointed star. Trump asked, “Where is the outrage for this Disney book?”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
To some Jewish clergy, the disregard for their feelings demonstrated by a presumptive major- party presidential nominee, combined with online messages from hate groups cheering him on, was a shocking development.
“He was defending it with such passion. Shouting and screaming and regretting the fact that it was taken off and replaced,” said Philip Scheim, a Toronto rabbi who is president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the New York-based international association of rabbis from Judaism’s Conservative movement. “Before, there was this subtle tinge of anti-Semitism. Once it’s pointed out clearly — somebody took it off his account and replaced it — even then, to still stand up for it is kind of mind-boggling.”
The controversy has put the Republican Jewish Coalition, a prominent group of GOP donors and activists that endorsed Trump earlier this year, in a deeply uncomfortable position. While the episode has subsumed the candidate’s campaign, the RJC has remained largely quiet. The group did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump was criticized in December after he told an RJC meeting that he was a negotiator, “like you folks,” but that he thought that the group was not going to support him “because I don’t want your money.”
While one of the RJC’s most prominent board members, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, has expressed support in the past for Trump, other board members are now voicing dismay.
Brad D. Rose, a New York intellectual property lawyer and RJC board member, told The Washington Post that Trump’s tweet was indicative of a “reckless” campaign. Rose said he does not think Trump is anti-Semitic but that the candidate probably “blindly and ignorantly approved the tweet without being coached as to the connotations that could be derived from the imagery.”
“Donald Trump has made the bed in which he now lies, whether it be by design, negligence, outright stupidity or all of the above,” Rose said.
Some of Trump’s Republican supporters with ties to the Jewish community have come to his defense in recent days. Ronald Weiser, a top fundraiser for Trump and a former finance chair at the Republican National Committee who now sits on the RJC board, said the criticisms of Trump are politically motivated.
“The people who seem to be after it most are the people who are Hillary supporters, not Trump supporters,” Weiser said. “He seems to have taken a stronger position on Israel than Hillary is, and the Democrats and Hillary don’t want to lose any votes over it. So what are they going to do? They’re going to accuse him of being anti-Semitic.”
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is Jewish and a key adviser to the campaign, penned an op-ed this week titled, “The Donald Trump I Know,” which said Trump was being unfairly held accountable for “utterances of even the most fringe of his supporters.”
“My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite,” wrote Kushner, who is publisher of the New York Observer and is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
Trump has cited his Jewish family members — Ivanka converted to Judaism — as evidence of his warm feelings toward Jews. But Kushner’s piece revealed a rift in his family over his work on behalf of Trump. Some of Kushner’s relatives posted messages Thursday expressing dismay that his op-ed had invoked his grandparents’ experience as Holocaust survivors.
“I have a different take-away from my Grandparents’ experience in the war,” Marc Kushner, Jared Kushner’s cousin, wrote on Facebook on Thursday in comments first reported by Politico. “It is our responsibility as the next generation to speak up against hate. Anti-semitism or otherwise.”
Several Jewish community leaders said they saw parallels between Trump’s handling of white supremacists and his comments about Mexican immigrants and Muslims. Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, for instance, has been condemned by some Jewish groups as reminiscent of the religion-based discrimination that targeted Jews in Europe during World War II.
Rabbi David Teutsch, who leads the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, said there was “no doubt” Trump’s tweet was anti-Semitic. But he said Trump’s comments on other minority groups represented “one of the most dangerous trends in American politics in my lifetime, and I’ve been around a long time.”
Some Jews have also expressed concern over Trump’s past praise for authoritarian governments and dictators. In the same speech on Wednesday, Trump reiterated controversial comments he had made about Saddam Hussein, the brutal Iraqi dictator ousted by U.S. forces.
Trump said Hussein was a “bad guy” but did a good job killing terrorists.
“The tinge of anti-Semitism that seems to have entered this campaign clearly will keep some people awake at night,” Scheim said. “It really darkens the entire political landscape, where you have these kind of innuendos that remind us of darker times, times where we really did fear for our acceptance in society, our ability to achieve our goals.”
Chemi Shalev, the U.S. editor for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, criticized Trump in a fiery column Thursday, arguing that an apparent resurgence of anti-Semitism on the political right in the United States “will be disconcerting for many Israeli Jews, reminding them that support for Israel and animosity towards Jews are not mutually exclusive.”
Mandel, the conservative writer, tweeted about anti-Semitism among Trump’s supporters on the night he won the South Carolina primary in February, and she found herself deluged by hundreds of anti-Semitic tweets directed at her own account, she said. “Get back in the oven; the only good Jew is a dead Jew — it’s all Holocaust imagery,” Mandel said.
Since then, she has blocked tweets from a constant stream of people, some of whom seem to have researched her personal life, she said. The count as of Thursday: She has blocked 928 accounts.
Still, she grew more concerned than ever after Wednesday’s speech.
“I’ve been saying for the last year, I don’t think he’s anti-
Semitic. I think he has anti-Semites that maybe work for him, among his supporters,” Mandel said. “After this week, I’m like, maybe he is.”