The controversy around Donald Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh to honor the victims of Saturday’s horrific massacre in a synagogue is a stark reminder of our nation’s divided state. The president of the United States was shunned by many local officials and by at least one grieving family. Tragedies often unite a nation; this one has taken polarization to a new low.
Is it unfair to fault Trump for enabling the hate that led to this terror attack? Not entirely. The suspect, Robert Bowers, was no real Trump supporter; indeed, he viewed Trump as a faux nationalist and a tool of the Jews. Yet he was obsessed with the same nativist fears that helped propel Trump’s rise. He believed Jews were promoting Third World immigration to America and Europe to destroy white gentile culture; apparently, the final impetus for his killing spree was the fact that the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society helps Muslim refugees, whom Bowers regarded as “invaders.”
Trump’s rhetoric has stoked such hysteria from the start of his campaign. Most recently, he has flogged the issue of the Central American migrant caravan heading toward our border, making baseless claims that it included Islamic terrorist infiltrators. Some conservative Trump supporters, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), also have pushed the conspiracy theory that the caravan is financed by George Soros, the billionaire Democratic donor and Trump boogeyman. Soros is Jewish, and rhetoric that portrays him as a superpowerful puppet master often has anti-Semitic overtones.
There also are good reasons to criticize Trump for playing coy when it comes to disavowing Jew-haters. In a CNN interview in the 2016 campaign, he refused to condemn his far-right fans who sent anti-Semitic hate mail and threats to Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe after Ioffe published an insufficiently flattering profile of Melania Trump.
But some Trump detractors have gone far beyond criticism. On Twitter, Ioffe not only stated outright that “this president makes this possible,” but seemed to point the finger at Trump’s American Jewish supporters: “I hope the embassy move over there, where you don’t live was worth it,” she wrote, referring to the move of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Another writer on the left, Brooklyn-based David Klion, tweeted that all Republicans are Nazis.
Many media outlets publicized a letter from “Jewish leaders” in Pittsburgh telling Trump that he is unwelcome unless he renounces white nationalism — often downplaying the fact that the authors are members of a left-wing Jewish organization. Meanwhile, Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi of the synagogue where the attack took place, said he would welcome Trump — and apparently got death threats over it.
Some conservatives have sought to pin anti-Semitism on Democrats, pointing to Democratic National Committee deputy chair Keith Ellison’s past relationship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a longtime Jew-basher.
The resurgence of overt bigotry in America, including anti-Semitism, is terrifying. While murderous anti-Semitic attacks occurred before anyone could imagine a Trump presidency (such as the shooting at a Jewish community day care center in Los Angeles in 1999), Trump and Trumpism have clearly energized a contingent of bigots. But just as clearly, there is a tendency in some quarters of the left to condone anti-Semitism cloaked in criticism of Israeli policies and advocacy for Palestinians.
Right now, far-right extremism is by far the greater concern. But one need not see moral equivalency on both sides to see that each side must condemn its haters.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.