When you consider that the five panelists hit upon so many of the topics that have been suggested as possible causes of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — immigration, anti-Semitism, the president’s penchant for making inflammatory statements — it’s hard to believe the discussion took place two days before the tragedy occurred.
Last Thursday Clyde Haberman, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Jeff Jacoby, Hailie Soifer, and Julian Zelizer appeared at the Center for Jewish History in New York City for a forum, “Jews, Politics, and the 2018 Midterm Elections.” Ostensibly the major discussion was to focus on whether the Jewish vote could tip the balance of the Nov. 6 contests, but it quickly shifted toward Donald Trump: Whether his rhetoric is a “dog whistle” cynically used to rally extremist groups, or even whether the president is, himself, anti-Semitic.
“Yes, he’s got a Jewish son-in-law and now a Jewish daughter, and he’s moved the embassy in Israel,” acknowledged longtime New York Times reporter and columnist Haberman, the moderator and, of course, father of the prolific Times’ White House reporter, Maggie. On the other hand, he continued, so much of what Trump has said and done, including “speaking before Republican Jews and basically saying ‘You guys are good with money, just like me’… and he’s going to every single stereotype of the Jew with the grasping hands.”
Jacoby, a politically conservative Boston Globe columnist, sees Trump as “an ignoramus” who does not actively dislike Jews the way a clear anti-Semite such as Louis Farrakhan does. Rather, Jacoby thinks the president is “sloppy” and “often strolls into repeating stereotypes because the person doesn’t know better.”
But Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, said Trump’s personal views are “irrelevant,” as he is intentionally stirring up extremist groups for the sake of securing their votes.
“Even if I give you the benefit of the doubt and he’s either being sloppy or he doesn’t even believe it, it doesn’t matter because once he’s done that, you can’t contain it,” said Zelizer. “So if there’s a pipe bomb sent to George Soros, he had something to do with the path that led us there.”
Jacobs was willing to go further.
“If he uses the word ‘Globalist,’ you would think that once somebody points out that actually that’s code for Jews, somebody who’s not an anti-Semite would say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know that, now I’m not going to use that again.’” Jacobs is executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Jacoby cautioned, however, against knee-jerk reactions to Trump’s policies. Some in the media, he said, favored certain policies, but “gradually moved against them” when the president voiced his support. “There are people who say moving the embassy must be a bad idea” because it was Trump’s.
Though the original subject matter of the forum was somewhat overshadowed by the debate about Trump and anti-Semitism, Soifer, the first executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and former Obama Administration staffer, discussed a recent survey commissioned by the Council and conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute. The poll found that despite Trump’s perceived friendliness toward Israel, 74 percent of Jews plan to vote for Democratic candidates in the midterms, largely because of their overwhelming disapproval — 75 percent — of the president.
“Ultimately, we believe that the races will come down to a very narrow margin,” said Soifer. “So while the Jewish population is only 2 percent of the population as a whole, we know that we do vote, we’re a very important part of the electorate, and areas where the concentration of the Jewish population is largest are also very clearly aligned with those races for both the house and the senate that matter in the 2018 elections.”
Support the New York Jewish Week
Our nonprofit newsroom depends on readers like you. Make a donation now to support independent Jewish journalism in New York.