How Alarmed Should American Jews Be Right Now? Two Jews Kibitz

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Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

In some ways, this has been an unsettling election for American Jews. During the campaign, numerous Jewish journalists who were critical of Trump received barrages of anti-Semitic harassment.

Once elected, Trump didn’t help matters by swiftly appointing Steve Bannon to a top advisory role in his White House. Bannon was previously the head of Breitbart News, which is widely viewed as a site that coddles white-nationalists and that has repeatedly crept up to the line of anti-Semitism. Bannon has been accused by his ex-wife, in a sworn declaration, of personally exhibiting dislike for Jews.

On the other hand, Trump hasn’t made any explicitly anti-Semitic comments, has Jews in his family, and seems to be much more fixated on other, more marginalized minority groups. It’s true that explicitly anti-Semitic groups like the KKK have supported Trump, but Trumpianism itself, as an ideology, doesn’t seem to have anti-Semitism at its forefront. And the online trolls, while always obnoxious and sometimes scary, are far fewer in number than most people realize.

In light of these somewhat mixed signals, just how alarmed should American Jews be right now? Two of New York Magazine’s Jewish staffers, Jonathan Chait and Jesse Singal, decided to discuss the question. The following chat log has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jesse Singal: Hey, Jon. Maybe the easiest way to start this would be to simply state how worried we are for American Jews at the moment in light of everything that’s happened since November 8. Let’s use a scale of one to 10: 1 is we live in a world of perfect equality where no minority group is threatened; 10 is you are panicking because you need to get your family to Canada immediately. Where are you at?

Jonathan Chait: I’m at a 2. Maybe 3. If you’re only asking about Jews, that is. Other minority groups face far more trouble.

Singal: Yeah, just Jews — we’ll definitely get to the other groups. It’s a 4 for me. What’s your overall reasoning, before we get into some specific questions?

Chait: Just compare the world we’re facing with the one my parents grew up in. They faced a lot of bullying and violence from Gentile kids growing up — that was very normal. There were Jewish quotas at elite universities until the 1960s. Many firms or even entire professions were off limits. And school prayer was common until 1962 — my mother had to say the Lord’s Prayer every day in her public school. I’d say, with the exception of some of the bullying in schools, and I’m sure there’s far less than even when I was a kid, none of those things is likely to return.

The changes we’re seeing are confined to the political realm. But I’ll let you respond before I go on.

Singal: I’m with you on most of that, because I think Jews have been able to carve out a level of success in the U.S. that certainly feels stable. But a lot of that security has to do with social norms. For the most part, you can’t get away with bashing Jews publicly, with explicit anti-Semitism, in polite society. Are you worried those norms have been shaken a little bit? How much attention should we be paying to the swastikas and other similar incidents?

Chait: I think Trump has emboldened a hard core of Nazis. He’s done this by bringing into his coalition a category of conservative that is closer to the Nazis, but is not actual Nazis. So these are related trends — Nazis are excited by Trump’s natonalism and bigotry, and that he has allies who are allies of Nazis, like Steve Bannon. But Bannon is not himself a Nazi. So I see two things happening: a change in the parameters of what is acceptable in Republican politics, and an activation of a very tiny, loud fringe that is mostly powerless.

Singal: Speaking of that fringe, and the attention folks have been paying to Bannon (myself included), to me part of the confusion stems from the fact that while anti-Semites are drawn to a lot of the Breitbart worldview, there are important differences between that worldview and explicit anti-Semitism.

But as Jews, for painfully understandable historical reasons, we’re trained to be so vigilant of anything that comes close to anti-Semitism (and, to be clear, there is fairly solid evidence Bannon himself has explicitly anti-Semitic beliefs, setting aside the website he ran). It’s just hard to tell other Jews to calm down or to not overreact — I really was raised with a narrative something like, We are safe in America, we are as American as anyone, but we always need to have one eye on the nearest exit. That will never change. Is that in line with what you’ve taught your kids, or has the narrative (to overgeneralize) gotten more optimistic since then? And have you talked to your kids about anti-Semitism specifically since the election?

Chait: I haven’t spoken with them about anti-Semitism, and it’s pretty far down my list of concerns related to Trump. There is much, much less anti-Semitism in American political debate than in Europe.

Singal: Right. And in terms of what damage the government itself can do to people, I’m assuming you’re more worried about Latinos and Muslims, as you alluded to above?

Chait: Absolutely. And African-Americans.

Can I say something unpopular about the trolls?

Singal: Yes, because I think we’re on the same page here.

Chait: I think their power is overrated. I don’t get harassed as much as some journalists do, but I get some regular anti-Semitic trolling. When this came out, I received a lot of concern and sympathy from friends — which was nice! But the truth is, who cares? They’re not going to do anything. They’re just trying to scare people. Now, with some people, like Julia Ioffe, it’s a different scale. But for the most part, just trolls.

Singal: Yeah. I’ve written a couple of pieces to this effect. The alt-right, by being so hyperactive online, has completely funhouse-mirrored people’s attempts to accurately gauge the risks posed to various groups. I understand why some Jewish journalists have written about the harassment they’ve faced — it’s nightmarish, and I can’t imagine how it would feel to get thousands of horrifically threatening image, rather than the merely annoying trickle I’ve received — but unless you have a somewhat nuanced understanding of troll and chan culture, it’s easy to overestimate the danger posed by these idiots, to freak out whenever they, for example, put parentheses around Jewish names online.

None of which is to say there haven’t been some horrific stories, but it’s important to understand the context — there’s a difference between the 1,500th Pepe-Nazi meme slung by an anonymous account with 30 followers and actual, credible death threats. Do you think all the attention paid to the alt-right and its Holocaust obsession has played into the panic some Jews are feeling since Trump was elected?

Chait: Oh, I absolutely believe it’s a major part of the concern Jews have.

Singal: So the alt-right effectively won, by convincing Jews and others there’s more dangerous anti-Semitism in the U.S. than there actually is?

Chait: Yes. But Trump does also represent a style of politics that is historically very, very bad for the Jews — nationalist populism, with emphasis on attacks on banking and media cabals. Trump’s last campaign ad was like an anti-Semitic ad that was edited to remove the anti-Semitism.

Singal: Yeah … there are many warning signs there, for sure. It was discomfiting how it crept right up to the line. Why doesn’t that nudge you up over a 2 or a 3, though?

Chait: Because I don’t see where it goes. If you draw a straight line projection, where the next Republican is even more nationalistic than Trump, then, yes, we’ll get to a scary place. But I don’t see that as the future. As I wrote, I see the party as growing more authoritarian, but not more anti-Semitic.

Also, nothing Trump has ever said or done is as overtly anti-Semitic as this ad for Mitch McConnell:

Singal: I like at 0:20 where the creator apparently said, “Fuck it, let’s go all-in and do an actual money-grubbing Jewish caricature.” They also seem to have been confused about Jewish versus Italian-American dialects, but that’s perhaps a less salient point.

Chait: I worry that Chuck Schumer’s status as the most powerful Democrat (and Trump antagonist) will trigger more of this, actually. But, fundamentally, I don’t see major changes for Jews in American political life. I don’t think Jews will have to go back to proving their American loyalty to participate in politics.

Singal: So if you’re a nervous Jew, where should you be channeling your anger and energy? How would you triage the threats currently facing various other groups?

Chait: I think nervous Jews should mostly work on conventional, non-Jewish-specific issues.

Singal: Without getting too deep into the weeds, what do you think is the most realistic short-term damage a Trump White House and GOP Congress could do to other, more vulnerable groups?

Chait: Mass deportation, overly broad harrassment of Muslims, reversal of police reforms (leading to more violence toward African-Americans). With Muslims, the risk extends to fomenting fear among Americans — remember, Bush did the opposite after 9/11 — and, secondarily, mishandling terrorism in a way that increases the threat and then cycles back into more social panic domestically.

Singal: Right. There’s now a bit of confusion about whether anti-Muslim zealot Frank Gaffney is advising Trump, with the Times and Wall Street Journal both reporting he is, but Gaffney himself denying it — but it’s astounding to think about.

Anything else you wanted to mention?

Chait: Well, I don’t want to minimize the feelings people have about anti-Semitic vandalism. There seems to have been a small upsurge in celebratory anti-Semitism after the election. A school my close friends’ children attend has swastikas drawn in a bathroom. I was disconcerted to hear it. But I don’t think there’s a real threat behind these gestures. Just an attempt to scare people, and we shouldn’t cooperate with it.

Of course, I was just followed by some alt-right creep with a frog avatar in the middle of this discussion. As if on cue — “his guard’s down, let’s move.”

Singal: I’ve found if you earnestly ask them to explain things like Pepe, it can be entertaining for a few minutes: “@heilpepe Sorry, do you mind explaining that frog? Is that Kermit? What does it mean?”

Chait: I just thought of a kind of summarizing idea: Historically, anti-Semitism tends to go along with illiberal ideas. Its presence is almost a warning sign that the rest of the package is unhealthy. Trumpism has many of the elements of politics that traditionally accompany anti-Semitism — which is to say, it smells like anti-Semitism to Jews who understand history. I don’t think it has much actual anti-Semitism, but the instinct that it contains dangerous ideas in general is the right one. That’s why Jews have been disproportionately represented among the conservative intellectuals who refuse to support Trump.

Singal: Right. And I think if you combat the other forms of illiberalism — the anti-Muslim and -black and -immigrant garbage — you’re also draining the swamp, to borrow a phrase, in which anti-Semitism can fester. It’s an ancillary benefit of fighting for the right thing on those other fronts.

Chait: Obviously, narrowing the definition of Americanness is a threatening thing for Jews. And being told the narrower definition won’t exclude us is hardly reassuring.

Singal: Maybe that’s the most important takeaway.