At a press conference in mid-February, Donald Trump said something that was, even for him, astonishing. He predicted that when authorities discovered the perpetrators of the anti-Semitic attacks that had broken out since his election, “It won’t be my people,” who had committed them. “It will be the people on the other side.” He repeated the thought later that month, reportedly telling state attorneys general that the bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers across the country may be “the reverse” of what they appear and may have been committed “to make others look bad.”
Democrats and officials of Jewish organizations officials were appalled. Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, declared: “We are astonished by what the President reportedly said.” Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center, which combats bigotry, asked, “Mr. President, have you no decency? To cast doubt on the authenticity of Anti-Semitic hate crimes in America constitutes Anti-Semitism in itself.” When the Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci repeated Trump’s claims, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called them “absurd and obscene.”
But it now appears that Trump may have been, partially, right. On Thursday, Israeli police arrested a Jewish Israeli American teenager for leveling some of the bomb threats. Earlier this month, prosecutors charged Juan Thompson, an African American who had previously worked at a left-leaning publication, with some of the others. There’s no evidence that either suspect tried to frame Trump supporters or white supremacists. And it’s still possible that right-wingers called in other bomb threats, or committed some of the other anti-Semitic incidents that have erupted since Trump’s election. Still, if two of the primary perpetrators of the JCC bomb scares turn out to be a Jewish Israeli and a left-leaning African American, that will, indeed, turn out to be “the reverse” of what Trump’s critics expected.
Trump’s critics—and I’m one of them—should learn from that.
Many critics have a narrative in their heads: That Trump and his supporters think and do bigoted things. It did not come out of nowhere. Trump really did say that “Islam hates us” and that a judge could not be impartial because he was Mexican American. He really did run a closing campaign ad that featured three Jews alongside language about “special interests” and a “global power structure” that has “trillions of dollars at stake in this election.” Most of his supporters really do dislike Muslims, according to polls. And some of them assaulted African Americans who protested Trump’s rallies.
Still, narratives can explain too much. Trump is like the kid in class who perpetually misbehaves. Liberals—especially Jewish liberals—risk becoming the teacher who sees graffiti written on a locker and sends him to the principal without carefully checking the handwriting.
It’s not just the JCC bomb scares. It’s become commonplace to hear Jewish liberals claim that, in the words of former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Trump has given “license and permission to anti-Semites” and thus “opened the floodgates” for anti-Semitic attacks.
But have the floodgates really opened? According to the FBI, anti-Semitic incidents did rise 9 percent between 2014 and 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy. And New York City has announced that there were substantially more anti-Semitic incidents during the first two months of 2017 than during the equivalent period in 2016. But neither the FBI nor the Anti-Defamation League has yet reported national data for 2016. And defining what constitutes an anti-Semitic incident is tricky. If the JCC bomb threats—many of which appear to have been carried out by an Israeli Jew—boost the numbers, does that really show that anti-Semitism is rising in Trump’s America?
If data on rising anti-Semitism is thin, data on rising anti-Semitism by Trump supporters is even thinner. The ADL did find last year that many of the anti-Semitic tweets directed at Jewish journalists came from pro-Trump accounts. Still, there’s no evidence that Trump supporters are behind the recent spike in anti-Semitic incidents, if there even is a real spike. And a February Pew Research Center poll found that Republicans and evangelical Christians—two core Trump constituencies—feel even more favorably towards Jews than Democrats do. Since Trump’s takeover of the GOP, Republican fondness for Jews has actually increased.
If liberals have been too quick to blame Trump supporters for anti-Semitism, they’ve also been too quick to blame Trump’s advisors. Liberals frequently hurl the charge at Steve Bannon or his old publication, Breitbart. But the two Breitbart articles critics most commonly call anti-Semitic—an attack on the Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol that called him a “renegade Jew” and an attack on the Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum that called her “a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned”—were both written by Jews. And even the former Breitbart columnist Ben Shapiro, who calls Bannon “one of the most vicious people in politics,” doesn’t think he’s an anti-Semite. Jewish liberals often accuse Sebastian Gorka of anti-Semitism too because of his associations with far-right groups in Hungary. Yet they’ve never produced a single anti-Semitic thing he’s said.
The problem is this. Trump really is fomenting hate against certain groups. He’s called Islam America’s enemy. Gorka won’t even acknowledge that Islam is a religion. Bannon has proposed closing “seditious” mosques. Breitbart hypes every act of violence by a Muslim or an undocumented Mexican against a white person. What’s happening to Jews, by contrast, is far less severe. Yes, Trump was slow to condemn anti-Semitic attacks. Yes, his presidency pleases alt-right white nationalists like Richard Spencer. But unlike Muslims and immigrant Mexicans, Jews wield influence in the Trump White House. They’re mostly white. They’re highly assimilated. And Republicans like them. There’s a reason that, according to Pew, Republicans are almost thirty points more likely to feel warmly towards Jews than towards Muslims. Republicans consider Jews part of the West.
For Jews, this is strange. When they see their government foment hyper-nationalist bigotry, their historical memory inclines them to see themselves as its target. But for the most part, they’re not. As opportunists usually do, Trump and his advisors are going after weaker prey: less assimilated minorities who Fox News has already been demonizing for a decade or more. Anti-Semitism isn’t central to this spasm of American nativism in the way it was a century ago. There’s nothing wrong with being vigilant about anti-Semitism so long as it doesn’t blind you to reality. Strange though Jews may find it, this time they aren’t the main show.