Troubling reports of a rise in overt anti-Semitism associated with a particularly noxious segment of Donald Trump supporters on the internet — the so-called “alt-right” — have been around since the start of the year. Stories of Jewish Trump critics being bombarded with hate messages containing Holocaust references and grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures have caused disgust and alarm.
In the wake of the election, the ugliness seemed to spill over from the internet into real life. A children’s playground in Brooklyn was defaced with swastikas and the words “Go Trump.” An alt-right group with an innocuous name, The National Policy Institute, held a gathering in Washington at which the call “Hail Trump!” was met with a Nazi salute by several audience members. The head of the group, Richard Spencer, wants a “white homeland” and a “peaceful” ethnic cleansing of minorities including Jews.
Many commentators — including some who, like myself, are Russian-born Jewish immigrants — have responded with disbelief. Is this what Trump’s America is like?
While there are reasons to be alarmed about Trump’s America — chief among them the growing evidence that the president-elect is no less erratic than candidate Trump — a new age of anti-Semitism is one of them.
For one, anti-Semitism seems to be one of the few faults one cannot pin on Trump. His daughter Ivanka Trump is a convert to Judaism, and he is close to his Jewish son-in-law. He also has a long record as a donor to Israeli and Jewish charities. In an interview with The New York Times last week, he twice disavowed and condemned the alt-right.
Yes, Trump’s chief strategist and adviser, Stephen Bannon, formerly the head of Breitbart News, flirted with the alt-right and gave it a platform, apparently as a strategy to attack anti-Trump conservatives in the Republican Party. That’s reprehensible. But for now, there is no evidence that Bannon will provide the alt-right with a sympathetic ear in the White House.
As for the playground swastikas, anti-Semitic vandalism was hardly nonexistent on these shores even before Trump’s victory or before his presidential run. In 2014, the FBI tracked more than 600 hate crimes targeting Jews — and that’s just the ones that were reported to law enforcement and then to the federal authorities.
The alarm over newly vocal white supremacists on the far right also ignores the fact that a good deal of visible modern anti-Semitism comes from certain segments of the left — and of communities that the left supports as disenfranchised minorities.
The anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement has targeted Jewish businesses and academics. At Oberlin, a hyper-progressive Ohio college, assistant professor Joy Karega, who specializes in “social justice writing,” caused a stir by posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the social media, including claims that Israelis and Jews were behind the Sept. 11 attacks and other Islamist terrorism. (Karega was terminated on grounds of unfitness earlier this month.)
There is also the long history of anti-Semitism in the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, routinely attacks Jews in his sermons and blames them for the plight of blacks in America. Some conservatives point out that while Bannon has been excoriated for his ties to the alt-right, Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the likely next chair of the Democratic National Committee, has largely gotten a pass on his association with Farrakhan in the 1990s.
Fortunately, for now, anti-Semitism in America remains a fringe phenomenon. We should condemn it when it shows itself — without inflating its scope or its menace, and without pretending that it’s worse when coming from white supremacists than from black radical Muslims.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.