A shooting in a Jersey City Jewish market. Memorials in remembrance of a massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Cries of “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville. College campus offices, dorms and walls slathered with swastikas. Navy cadets flashing a sign of white supremacy. Cars, offices, homes, synagogues, schools defaced with slogans and swastikas in cities and towns across America. Donald Trump Jr.’s Facebook post of a cup for liberals to cry into, covered in gold Stars of David. In France, graves desecrated in an old Jewish cemetery and a Holocaust survivor murdered. German warnings that Jews shouldn’t wear yarmulkes or the Star of David in public.
In 2018, anti-Semitic attacks killed more Jews around the world than in any year in decades. Last year saw startling new numbers and acts of violence as well. Anti-Semitism is spiking in alarming ways and in numerous places while calls rise for stronger security measures and government action — but not the kind that Donald Trump promulgated in an executive order just before the end of 2019.
Using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the president’s order withholds federal money from colleges and universities that fail to counter discrimination against Jews. It is at best a misguided gesture, and at worst a threat to First Amendment rights. Aimed at silencing opposition to Israel’s overt oppression, violence, and denial of Palestinian people’s human rights, the order is an attempt to put an end to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) movements.
The BDS movement was started by Palestinians, which accounts in part for why it is so abhorred by many Jews and Israeli sympathizers. But BDS has evolved into a global strategy that uses economic measures to help end tragic discrimination and injustice, as it did successfully in South Africa under the Apartheid government. Its most prominent funder is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund which has provided over $1 million to BDS-supporting groups since 2013.
This thinly veiled measure by the president may look like a gesture of concern, but realistically it doesn’t begin to address the real source of violent anti-Semitism in America. Stopping public debate on college campuses or threatening workers with dismissal if they openly support BDS does little to tackle the problem emanating from white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups, many of which find inspiration in the words and deeds of Adolf Hitler and his hideous henchmen.
Donald Trump has frequently demonstrated his own anti-Semitic tendencies, despite having a Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and three Jewish grandchildren. He has endorsed crude caricatures of Jews, especially when they include reference to money. He told the conservative Israeli American Council in a 2018 speech that a wealth tax would put Jews out of business. “A lot of you are in the real estate business,” he said. “I know you [and] you’re all brutal killers.” In a speech when the U.S. Embassy was moved, under his orders, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump told council members, “You have Jewish people … and they don’t love Israel enough.”
Now, to make his case against BDS movements, the president has gone so far as to posit that Judaism is a nationality as well as a religion. That’s deeply upsetting to me and many other Jews. It has serious possible ramifications, one of them being a set-up for further immigration discrimination and rejection.
Trump signed the “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism” in December at a White House Hanukah reception attended by evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, who famously said in 2010, “You can’t be saved being a Jew.” The order drew praise from some Jewish organizations and individuals like Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, as well as vociferous criticism from others. It also drew a vocal backlash from Palestinian activists who said it will chill legitimate free speech that criticizes the Israeli government, especially for its human rights abuses.
Some Jewish leaders worry about its implications for the Jewish community at large. Rabbi Hara Person, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, told The New York Times that the order feels dangerous. “I’ve heard people say this feels like the first step toward us wearing yellow stars.”
I was born a Jew, and I remain a secular Jew. That is my religion and my ethnic heritage. I feel deeply my connection to other Jewish people, and to our collective history and culture. At the same time, I am an American. That is my nationality by birth, although as Virginia Woolf said, “As a woman I have no nation. As a woman, I want no nation. As a woman the world is my nation.”
Judaism is neither a race nor a nationality. It is simply, and beautifully, one of the world’s great religions; nothing more, or less.
Everyone needs to understand and respect that, including the president of the United States. And everyone, most especially the president, needs to understand as well that the growing epidemic of global anti-Semitism, reinvigorated by the president’s words and actions, is a real and present danger that threatens the future for all of us.
“Never again?” I don’t think so. Here we are, and sadly, “again,” it seems, is now.