Trump and anti-Semitism: A reply to Milton Shain

Joel Pollak says it is wrong to blame the US President for the Pittsburgh synagogue murders

My mentor and friend Dr. Milton Shain makes a regrettable mistake in assigning blame for last month's murder of eleven Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue to President Donald Trump and his rhetoric.

Though Dr. Shain is a highly accomplished historian, his analysis of recent events seems to rely heavily on "fake news." 

He begins with the sweeping, and inaccurate, statement: "Any cursory observer of US politics and the Trump phenomenon will know that the temperature of bigotry has spiked since the business tycoon took office in 2017."

Notably, Shain does not cite any evidence for that claim.

We have at least two reasonably good sources of data on the issue of "bigotry" in the U.S., broadly defined.

One is the annual survey of race relations by the highly respected Gallup polling firm. It shows that race relations were generally positive in the U.S. until 2013, when they declined sharply. They have remained relatively low ever since.

What happened in 2013? That was the year "white Hispanic" George Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 shooting death of the African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, a case that President Barack Obama deliberately turned into a test of racial justice -- and a way to motivate black voter turnout.

The following year, the Black Lives Matter movement was launched, in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Nothing the public was initially told about the latter shooting -- including by CNN -- was true; the shooting turned out to have been completely justified. But Obama and others backed the Black Lives Matter movement, setting police and black communities against each other. That rift has yet to heal.

Another data source pertains to Jews in particular: the Anti-Defamation League's annual report on antisemitic incidents. The 2017 report cites a sharp increase -- much of which is inflated by hoax bomb scares, almost all of which were carried out by a disturbed Israeli-American teenager and a black leftist. Moreover, while online harassment of Jews increased, actual physical assaults against Jews actually fell from 2016 to 2017 by nearly 50 percent.

While Jews are disproportionately represented among victims of hate crimes in the U.S. -- as we have been for years -- that has little, if anything, to do with the inauguration of President Trump -- a man with a partially Jewish family who is arguably the most pro-Israel, and pro-Jewish, president in American history. 

Those facts are often obscured by agenda-driven mainstream media coverage that creates myths such as the claim, cited by Shain, that "the President of the United States refers to neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville as ‘very fine people’." In fact, Trump condemned the neo-Nazis but referred to the fact that there were ordinary protesters on both sides of the issue in Charlottesville -- that issue being the question of the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. (Trump's full quote was that there were "very fine people on both sides.")

As the New York Times -- often a Trump antagonist -- later confirmed, some of those present were conservatives whose support for the statue's place in history was swamped by the violent extremists who hijacked their cause -- and the violent left-wing Antifa counter-demonstrators who attacked them (though there, too, the "very fine people" included peaceful protesters). 

Dr. Shain goes on to misquote Trump in another context, claiming: "Trump has persistently berated a free media and defined journalists who disagree with him as traitors - effectively un-American." In fact, Trump has consistently defended the "free media" in word and deed: there is no president in living memory who has been as accessible to the press.

What he has also done is attack the "fake news" media -- which he has usually been careful to distinguish from the media as a whole -- as the "enemy of the people." While that phrase has been, to say the least, controversial, it is little different in substance from Obama's earlier claims that Fox News -- the sole right-of-center network -- was "destructive."

The murderer in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, certainly seems to have "inhabited a cyber-like echo chamber of anti-Jewish hate and conspiracy," as Dr. Shain notes. But Dr. Shain errs when he goes on to say that Bowers took "oxygen and solace from the White House tone."

And what "tone" would that be? Trump's vehement denunciation of antisemitism in his first address to Congress, barely a month after taking office? Trump's deportation of a convicted Nazi, whom the Obama administration had inexplicably allowed to linger in the country? Trump's 2017 visit to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism -- the first such visit by a sitting U.S. president? Trump's relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem this past May -- keeping a promise made by every president since Bill Clinton but only honored by the first Jewish grandfather in the White House? 

What Dr. Shain fails to observe is that Bowers hated Trump precisely because Trump is so supportive of Israel and Jews more generally. "Pittsburgh Synagogue Suspect Robert Bowers Hated Trump—for Not Hating Jews," the Daily Beast, a generally anti-Trump news source, reported last month.

Where Dr. Shain really crosses the line is in lumping radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News together with Bowers and the "dark corners of the internet." Effectively, Dr. Shain has slandered at least half of the American public, accusing the nation's top radio personality and most widely viewed cable news network of having something in common with a murderous extremist. This sort of sweeping, unsupported judgment is the very definition of prejudice, and the only possible explanation can be that Dr. Shain has not actually listened to Limbaugh or watched enough of Fox News to know the difference. 

Dr. Shain goes on to speculate that "Bowers was a walking time bomb whose fuse might well have been ignited by Trump’s poisonous rhetoric." He adds: "Under Trump, the Republicans have employed language that builds upon well-worn tropes, known all too well by observers of Jew-hatred." His proof? That "Republicans targeted Janet Yellin, Lloyd Blankfein and George Soros in the build up to the mid-term elections."

Again, one can only guess at Dr. Shain's sources, since he provides no links, but Janet Yellin and Lloyd Blankfein were not Republican targets in the midterm elections. There were plenty of non-Jewish targets -- Nancy Pelosi, the long-serving Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, was the most frequent -- but the basic fact is that there was no Republican effort whatsoever to attack prominent Jews for their Jewishness. (Quite the opposite, in fact: many Republican campaigns emphasized Trump's support for Israel. The defeat of Democrat Andrew Gillum -- the African-American mayor of Tallahassee, who ran for governor of Florida -- came partly because his ties to radical anti-Israel organizations were exposed.)

Yes, George Soros is a frequent target -- not because he is Jewish, but because he funds some of the most radical left-wing groups on the American political scene. As the writer Jamie Kirchick -- no fan of Trump -- observed in the Jewish online magazine Tablet this week, the assertion by Republicans that "George Soros generously funds a variety of partisan Democratic and left-wing organizations" is not an antisemitic dog whistle but "a well-documented fact." Kirchick concludes: "Many American conservatives oppose Soros not because he’s Jewish. They oppose him because he’s liberal."

At the end of Dr. Shain's article we find the admission: "Of course, Trump is not an antisemite." And yet, Dr. Shain claims, Trump "has effectively endorsed bigotry." Again, he provides no explanation or evidence, though he takes issue with Trump's populism.

Populism has its defenders and detractors as a political phenomenon. Regardless, American populism is, if anything, philosemitic in nature. Among the loudest cheers at any Trump rally are those for Israel and Trump's embassy move, which many Americans interpret as an assertion of their own sovereignty in international affairs, a defiance of the tyrannical tin-pot bureaucrats who are the common foes of both Israel and the U.S. at the United Nations.

Perhaps what Dr. Shain really intends is to shame South African populists by comparison with Trump, whom they may have reason to dislike. But to blame Trump for the actions of an extremist in Pittsburgh is to commit the classic sin of scapegoating, so essential to the phenomenon of antisemitism itself.