What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand About Anti-Semitism
The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” President Trump said Tuesday at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. He was referring, rather obliquely, to a spate of recent bomb scares and acts of vandalism, part of an uptick in hate crimes that has occurred since his arrival on the political scene. Trump’s sentiment, however forced, was welcome, given the obtuseness, ambivalence, and even denial that have characterized his past responses to the problem. As a candidate and a President, he has seemed oddly untroubled by the license that anti-Semites derive from the us-against-them motif of his rants. But now, Trump says, the bigotry “has to stop, and it’s going to stop.”
Would that it were that simple. Anti-Semitism is not a run-of-the-mill example of “hate and prejudice and evil,” which is why contempt for Jews keeps showing up as a symptom of social stress—even now, and even in the United States. One needn’t posit an “eternal anti-Semitism,” in Hannah Arendt’s warning phrase, to know that the imagination of the West has always defined itself positively against the negative other of Jewishness. That was blatantly the case in Germany in the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther characterized Jews as “vermin” within the German body politic, “a pest in the midst of our lands.” That belief ultimately came to flower, of course, in the exterminating anti-Semitism of Hitler, who saw the very existence of Jews as a mortal threat to the Thousand-Year Reich. But, as the Holocaust revealed, this fear infected both Nazi ideology and the broader Western consciousness. The crime of genocide may have been enacted by the Nazis, but Jews died as they did because the rest of Europe—and America, too—excluded them from moral concern.
Religious anti-Judaism, which became racial anti-Semitism, began long before Luther, stretching all the way back to the Gospels themselves. It is not just that Jews are labelled as Christ’s killers in the Passion narratives, but that Jesus is fully portrayed throughout the texts as fiercely opposed to his own Jewish people. (“He came unto His own and His own received him not,” John 1:11 says.) If Jesus was merciful, Jews were condemning; if Jesus was egalitarian, Jews were hierarchical; if Jesus was generous, Jews were greedy. Soon enough, Christians imagined that Jesus had never really been Jewish to begin with. Never mind that this was a terrible mistake of memory, that he was a faithful, law-observing, Shema-proclaiming Jew to the end, and that, John’s words notwithstanding, the only ones to receive Jesus in his lifetime were Jews. The imagined conflict persisted, and it informed the structure of Christian theology—church against synagogue, New Testament against Old, Christian god of mercy against Jewish god of judgment. Down through the centuries, this positive-negative bipolarity formed the twin pillars of European consciousness, and, whenever the social equilibrium shook, Jews were targeted. When the targeting reached its genocidal peak, in the twentieth century, the old hatred was exposed once and for all.
Well, not quite for all. The Holocaust was a world-historic epiphany, but not to the Trump Administration, which last month erased the Holocaust’s most salient feature by deliberately omitting any reference to Jews from the White House’s official statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trump’s generalizing in that statement—“the victims, survivors, heroes”—wholly ignored the fact that Hitler’s industrialized death machine was created expressly to eliminate one particular people. To neglect that purpose is to restrict responsibility for the broad civilizational crime, with roots in the religious anti-Judaism of the Christian Church, to a small gang of Nazi thugs, as if no one else were guilty. Both the neglecting and the restricting are forms of Holocaust denial.
If it is too much for Trump to grasp anti-Semitism as the bug in the software of the West, it is not likely that he will see how his own Islamophobia comes from the same malicious code. When Christendom launched the Crusades, the holy wars that shaped Europe, in the eleventh century, Jews were the paradigmatic enemy inside (the infidel near at hand), and Muslims became the defining enemy outside (the infidel far away). Little wonder, then, that the First Crusade coincided with some of the earliest German pogroms, known as the Rhineland massacres. Within a few hundred years, the Spanish Inquisition had instituted its blood-purity laws, which lumped Muslims and Jews together in a new category of biological inferiority. In 1492 and 1502, first Jews and then Muslims were declared personae non gratae in Spain, facing forced conversion, expulsion, or death. The invention of racism in Europe, in other words, aligned neatly with the discovery of the New World and the advent of colonialism. Genocide and slavery followed.
Islamophobia is thus, to use the phrase that Edward Said applied to Orientalism, “a strange secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism.” This hidden alignment was particularly discernible in the ease with which the Cold War, with its ubiquitous, if subliminal, anti-Semitism, morphed into the clash of civilizations, with jihadists replacing Reds as figments of the American nightmare. Trump no doubt regards himself as an American original, but he is only the latest ringmaster of this binary circus. In fact, our temperamental President is bigotry’s cliché. Even the cult of white supremacy on which his movement depends has its origins, too, in the positive-negative structure of the Western imagination, a structure erected in the first place to keep Jews in their place. It may offend Donald Trump to be linked to an ancient current, but while his arrival, with all its mayhem, is an unprecedented crime against democratic values, it is also evidence of the deeper disorder from which our culture has yet to recover.
The New Yorker / James Carroll / Feb. 23, 2017
James Carroll is the author of eleven novels, most recently “Warburg in Rome,” and eight works of nonfiction, most recently “Christ Actually: Reimagining Faith in the Modern Age.”