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Overt U.S. antisemitism returns with Trump, Kanye West: ‘Something is different’

‘It’s like we’re coming back from a 50-year vacation,’ one expert said

People embrace and pray at a memorial in front of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a gunman killed 11 people Oct. 27, 2018. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Longtime watchdogs of antisemitism say there is nothing new about the kinds of derogatory comments about Jews that the rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, former president Donald Trump, sundry far-right political candidates and others have made in recent weeks.

But what has struck some experts is how blatant the comments about Jews are at a time when incidents of harassment, vandalism and violence against them have been at their highest levels since at least the 1970s. Recent data already showed that a majority of American Jews fear violence against them.

Over the years, President Trump’s rhetoric about Jewish Americans has resembled the Jewish American rhetoric he has decried from other politicians. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“Empirically, something is different. The level of public animosity towards Jews is higher than it’s been in recent memory,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview.

Experts said the climate is the product of a stew of forces including a digital culture that spreads misinformation and hate and right-wing political forces focused on protecting White Christians’ status. Some said current antisemitism is also aggravated by more people downplaying it as merely an interreligious issue instead of a dangerous form of racism; in the past majorities from Germany to America made clear they saw Jews as a distinct and inferior race.

Trump’s long history of trafficking in antisemitic tropes

To survivors of even the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history — the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — the most urgent worry is that the event, which left 11 dead and at least six wounded, is already fading from public consciousness, crowded out by the dozens of mass shootings that followed.

Barton Schachter, a Tree of Life member and a former president of the synagogue, said: “This is what scares me, that in time [the shooting is] just another thing. I’m afraid this will drift into that direction. I don’t know how to save it."

He called West, who now goes by Ye, “an idiot ... but eventually he’ll be gone. Another person will take his place. The question is: How do we continue keeping the good stuff alive? That’s the hard part. The memory of these 11 [who were killed at Tree of Life] and the 6 million [Jews who died in the Holocaust], that’s the hard part.”

Some experts say the increasingly unconcealed antisemitism brings 2022 into line with most of Jewish history.

“To me, it’s like we’re coming back from a 50-year vacation,” said Mark Oppenheimer, co-host of the Jewish podcast “Unorthodox” and author of the 2021 book “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.” “We’re back to ‘Keep your head down; no one has your back.’ It’s not that we’re back to real estate bans; it’s more the old ‘It’s a little unseemly to be Jewish.’”

But current attitudes toward Jews are complex and can seem to run in different directions, say antisemitism watchers. Americans overall espouse less antisemitic views than they did 60 years ago. An ADL index in which people are asked if they agree with a series of negative stereotypes about Jews has measured antisemitism since the 1960s, when 29 percent of Americans were considered antisemitic. In 2019, ADL’s most recent year of measurement, the number was its lowest ever in the United States, 11 percent.

That same year, however, the ADL also tracked 2,107 incidents of vandalism, violence and harassment toward Jews in the United States, which at the time was the highest number since the group began gathering data in the 1970s. (That record was broken in 2021.)

“While at a generalized level, antisemitic attitudes have dropped, the incidents have risen because there is less shame. People feel they can say and do anything,” Greenblatt said.

Shapiro emphasizes Jewish faith as he warns of Mastriano’s extremism

Benjamin Lorber, a longtime researcher of antisemitism with Political Research Associates, said the latest rush of antisemitic rhetoric “fits into that broader political project,” and he is not surprised to see it in the lead-up to the midterms this year. “The right is trying to regain power it felt it lost in 2020, so it makes sense, in addition to virulent anti-LGBTQ bigotry, that antisemitism is in the mix again,” he said.

He and other experts noted that the 2018 Tree of Life massacre came just before the 2018 midterm elections and that the suspect had posted on the far-right social media site Gab that he was angry about “filthy” Jews who work to resettle refugees, especially Muslims.

“We’re in an era when the MAGA movement’s boundaries of who is considered a real, good, authentic American are mutating and the future is very unpredictable,” Lorber said.

Trump attacks American Jews, posting they must ‘get their act together’ on Israel

Trump earlier this month attacked American Jews in a post on his Truth Social platform, saying Jews in the United States must “get their act together” and show more appreciation for the state of Israel “before it is too late.” Trump has multiple times raised the old antisemitic trope that U.S. Jews hold, or should hold, a secret or dual loyalty to Israel rather than the United States. He said evangelicals are “far more appreciative” of actions on Israel than Jews.

Most Republicans said nothing about Trump’s Truth Social post. Trump also defended Ye in an Oct. 18 interview with Salem News Channel, and other conservatives also rallied to support Ye, most commonly by portraying him as a victim of supposed efforts by Democrats, in combination with the media and corporations, to suppress opposing viewpoints.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, in clips released by Vice News, didn’t challenge Ye during an interview when the performer repeated a belief held by some that today’s Jews aren’t the legitimate Jews of the Bible. This is part of the doctrine held by the movement known as the Black Hebrew Israelites: that African Americans are the true descendants of ancient Israelites, a belief that is often blended with accusations that mainstream Jews aren’t the legitimate Jews.

“When I say Jew, I mean … the people known as the race Black,” Ye told Carlson.

In the interview, Ye also said there is some “financial engineering” to being Jewish.

Antisemitism has also become a prominent issue in the Pennsylvania governor’s race between Republican Doug Mastriano, who promotes Christian nationalism, and Democrat Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish. Mastriano’s campaign has advertised on Gab. In a September campaign speech, Mastriano attacked Shapiro’s attendance of a private Jewish day school in Bryn Mawr, in remarks that were criticized as coded antisemitism. An adviser to Mastriano, former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, responded to the backlash by dismissing Shapiro as “at best a secular Jew."

The Kanye West Tucker Carlson didn’t want his audience to see

Lorber said that, in a period of rampant misinformation, economic insecurity and alienation, such comments fit into the narrative of a segment of Americans looking to identify internal enemies, groups they perceive to be not sufficiently American or, in the case of Jews, part of some invisible power structure keeping them from success or censoring them. When Adidas ended its partnership with Ye on Tuesday over his antisemitic remarks, some conservatives were quick to cast him as a victim of “woke capitalism.”

“They’re like: ‘Maybe Kanye is on to something,’” Lorber said.

Adidas acted in response to a public pressure campaign, and some observers said it was evidence that efforts to push back harder against antisemitism are working.

David Baddiel, a British comic and screenwriter, last year published a book called “Jews Don’t Count” about the ramifications of antisemitism not being seen as a form of racism equally dangerous to others.

“Since I wrote the book, I hear more and more people speaking out about antisemitism (even as I see it growing),” Baddiel wrote to The Washington Post. “I used to think the concept of allyship, very important to progressives, would never apply to us ... but I think that’s changing.”

Greenblatt, in a statement, praised Adidas’s move as a “very positive” one that “creates consequences,” because brands today “mediate so much of our lives.” Other brands, including Balenciaga and Gap, also cut business ties with Ye.

Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. State Department’s envoy on antisemitism, in a statement Wednesday emphasized the role of corporate accountability. She said that “social media and online spaces have been dominated by dangerous, inflammatory antisemitic rhetoric in recent weeks.”

“I commend the stand that various private companies and platforms have taken against antisemitism, ensuring their platforms are not used to spread hate, and cutting ties and ending lucrative business relationships with partners who engage in it. Corporations should continue to act responsibly and make it clear that touting hate is not profitable.”

But Oppenheimer said people shouldn’t leave it to corporate America to police prejudice.

"It’s nice when corporate leaders have a conscience,” he said, “but anyone who relies on the dictates of profit margins to enforce sane and moral norms is in trouble.”

Jeremy Merrill contributed to this report.