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Anti-Semitism In U.S. Politics


We have heard a lot out of the White House recently about who is and who isn't anti-Semitic. President Trump has called Democrats anti-Semites. He also referred to American Jews, the majority of whom vote for Democrats, as disloyal last week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you're being very disloyal to Jewish people, and you're being very disloyal to Israel.

GREENE: Now, scholars of Jewish history say that term - disloyal - is linked to the persecution of Jews. I spoke to Dove Kent about this. She has written a lot about anti-Semitism. She's also advised rabbis and leaders of national progressive Jewish organizations on this topic. I asked her why she thought President Trump was using an anti-Semitic trope to talk about his own administration's support for Israel.

DOVE KENT: So for many evangelicals, Jewish people are important because we hold a particular role in their theology. And Israel is important because it holds a particular role in their theology. And so when Trump is expressing through words and policy very strong support for Israel, that is much more a communication to evangelicals than it is to Jews.

The American Jewish community has a wide range of opinions on Israel. And for most American Jews, Israel is not the thing that they vote on. So much of what we've seen about Trump acting as the supporter of Israel, as the protector of Israel is not meant to be a message for Jews.

GREENE: Well, some are actually calling what we're seeing in our politics right now weaponized anti-Semitism. Is that the way you see it? Could you even define that for us?

KENT: I think it's important first to have a grounded understanding of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a systemic oppression, dating back thousands of years, that sets Jews up as scapegoats for a society's problems. On the one hand, certain politicians threaten the safety of Jewish people or enable the threatening of Jewish people to put us in a position of fear.

So sometimes this looks like blaming us for economic crisis or an increase in immigration or it's less obvious than that. It's tapping into those age-old stereotypes through coded language to indicate that we Jewish people should be suspect in some way. Then these politicians turn around and accuse their political opponents of anti-Semitism so that this fear that they've caused and the anger that follows from both Jewish and Christian communities gets directed at their opponents instead of them.

GREENE: Is this what we've seen with some members of Congress? I mean, the president has been so critical of members of Congress like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. It sounds like that's an example of what you're telling me.

KENT: That's definitely an example. I mean, in February of this year, Trump started his campaign against two Democratic congresswomen, blaming them for anti-Semitism on a weekly, if not daily, basis, capitalizing on the fear that he has stoked in American Jews, setting up the congresswomen and the Democratic Party as the targets for people's terror and anger.

GREENE: We should remember that Ilhan Omar, for her part, apologized and acknowledged that some of the things she wrote were anti-Semitic. There are some - and I include some voters who I've spoken to directly - who have said that they like the fact that this president has forced us to confront racism and difficult emotions in ways that we never have before as a country. Could this be an example of that?

KENT: With all due respect, I would imagine that anyone who is saying that President Trump has served us by bringing anti-Semitism and racism and xenophobia to the fore is not someone who is endangered by those oppressions.

GREENE: I know you've spoken to rabbis, to other Jewish leaders about how to deal with this moment and how to talk about all of this with their communities. What do you tell them?

KENT: For so many American Jews and rabbis and Jewish leaders, this is a moment where people are harkening back to other periods in Jewish history and saying, we were not served by being silent. We were not served by our neighbors being silent. So a lot of the conversations that I'm having with rabbis and other Jewish leaders is less about the fear and more about, what can we do to take action?

There is real terror happening in the Jewish community. And when rabbis are wondering of how to talk to their communities, we're really talking about how to have a place to hold the terror, to recognize and give space to that terror, but then to give people an opportunity to feel empowered.

GREENE: I just want to make sure - I mean, terror is such a strong word. Why do you feel like so many people in the Jewish community are experiencing what you would call terror right now?

KENT: I'm thinking about a low and constant rumbling. And that terror or that fear comes from a long history of anti-Semitism where a lot of Jews somewhere in their psyche carry around the feeling of, when is the other shoe going to drop? We're safe now, but tomorrow, everything could change because anti-Semitism doesn't function as a constant violent oppression. It ebbs and flows based on political conditions, economic conditions and, frankly, when politicians are or are not going to use the Jewish community for their political gains.

And so then when these episodes happen, like the anti-Semitism that's coming from politicians, like the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, that was stemmed from this anti-Semitic idea about Jews undermining the well-being of the country. That terror starts to build and build and build. That rumbling gets louder and louder because it's tapping into something deep and old.

KENT: Dove Kent, thank you so much for talking to us.

KENT: Thank you very much.

GREENE: Dove Kent is senior strategist at Bend the Arc, a Jewish partnership for justice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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