Being Jewish in America today can be a bewildering experience.
On the one hand, the president of the United States is highly supportive of Israel. On the other hand, a majority of American Jews sharply disagree with the policies of the Israeli administration that President Donald Trump supports.
Moreover, despite Trump’s support for Israel, and the fact some of his own family are Jewish, he has been accused of making anti-Semitic statements, at one point saying that American Jews who vote for Democrats show “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty” — raising the specter of dual loyalty, a standard anti-Semitic trope.
And at the back of all this, anti-Semitic sentiments and violence have been increasing around the world, a trend made plain by the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue last year that killed 11 people.
This rising global anti-Semitic trend has left some greater Cortland-area Jews concerned about the present and worried about the future.
But what is anti-Semitism, and how is it recognized? If Trump isn’t being anti- Semitic for his comments, then who is, and where is the line crossed?
Are anti-Zionist comments or beliefs anti-Semitic? If not, what distinguishes the two?
Anti-Zionism vs. anti-Semitism
Despite what Trump has said, many — but not all — Cortland-area Jews say criticism of Israel is not an attack on all Jews or on the existence of Israel.
Sanford Gutman of Ithaca, who taught modern Jewish history at SUNY Cortland for 37 years, said criticism of Israeli policies is perfectly legitimate.
“To be against the policies of the Jewish state is not anti-Semitism nor anti-Zionism,” said Gutman.
Gutman, as a progressive American Jew, is frequently critical of Israel, he said, and he said criticism regarding the treatment of Palestinians is justified.
But criticism is one thing, and criticism of the existence of Israel, or anti- Zionism, is another, said Henry Steck, a retired political science professor from SUNY Cortland.
Anti-Zionism is where things get blurry for Steck, because there are people “who are hostile to Israel, but who will say they are not against Jews,” he said.
Nevertheless, “there’s a sniff of anti- Semitism” he usually detects in comments made by many anti-Zionists, especially Western ones, he said.
In the Middle East, he said, the situation is different, and he doesn’t necessarily consider Palestinians, for instance, to be anti-Semitic if they are hostile to Israel, particularly if they live on occupied land and have definite political reasons for their grudges.
Westerners who are hostile to Israel, such as those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — a Palestinian-led effort to boycott Israel for its occupation of Palestianian territories — that Steck finds more troubling.
“It just makes me very nervous,” he said.
Crossing the line
Gutman said he thinks anti-Zionism is not necessarily connected to anti-Semitism, but it crosses the line when someone habitually employs Jewish stereotypes or tropes, or starts talking more about “Jews” instead of “Zionists” or “Israelis.” Some definite indicators are references to “rich Jews,” threats against Jews and attempts to deny or minimize the Holocaust.
Michael Weinstein, acting rabbi of Temple Brith Sholom at 117 Madison St. in Cortland, said he also thinks that criticism of Israeli policy is not necessarily anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist.
But like Steck, he thinks the BDS movement shades into anti-Semitism, especially when proponents of the movement talk about Israel as “a demon state, an apartheid state.”
He particularly objects to the term of “apartheid” in relation to Israel, because Israeli Arabs have full rights.
“Calling Israel an apartheid state is a blatant anti-Semitic statement,” he said.
However, Weinstein sees anti-Zionism as inherently anti- Semitic, because “Zionism is the core value on which Israel is founded.” So to deny Zionism is to deny a Jewish state, which he said sounds anti-Semitic to him.
But criticism of the policies of Israel, while not denying its right to exist, is perfectly legitimate, Weinstein said.
Not so, however, for Michael Pollak, a Homer businessman and co-founder of the Center for the Arts, who said he believes people who criticize the actions of Israel are holding Israel to a higher standard than other countries, including the U.S., and are thus treating Israeli Jews differently, which he said is anti-Semitic.
Pollak acknowledged most American Jews don’t share his view and by his definition, he would consider most American Jews to be anti-Semitic.
“They can’t accept the power thing,” he said of liberal American Jews. “They don’t understand — in my view — the value and the exercise of power. … Israel is a country that has amassed power, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of about that.”
Divergent views on Israeli policy
Pollak said he views Israel’s main problem as one of survival in a “whole area full of enemies.” He said he doesn’t think that people normally criticize a country for exercising its power to survive. But in Israel’s case, they do, even expecting Israel to give up land it acquired through wars it didn’t start.
“Now the Jews do it, and it’s a disgrace? That’s anti-Semitic,” he said.
Pollak said he thinks “something is bugging you basically” if you single out Israel for criticism over its foreign policy.
“There’s something anti- Semitic about that. Why do it? Why single them out as the worst? Jews are no different from anybody else,” he said.
But Sheila Cohen, co-owner of Local Food Market at 37 N. Main St. and a retired associate professor of literacy at SUNY Cortland, said she can understand why people might criticize Israel.
When she was younger, however, she considered herself very much a Zionist. But that was also a different time.
“There was a movement to support Israel and to even make aliyah, which is to go and live in Israel,” she said. “But I think that has changed with the younger generations.”
That’s not an accident, she said, and the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories is the main reason.
“That has really angered a lot of people,” Cohen said.
From Buchanan to Trump
In 1991, Patrick J. Buchanan, a former Nixon staffer and conservative columnist, launched an unsuccessful right-wing populist primary challenge to George H.W. Bush. That December, National Review devoted an entire issue to the subject of anti-Semitism. The reason was Buchanan, for expressing views that some considered either anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist or both.
William F. Buckley, the founder and editor of the conservative magazine National Review, took the accusations seriously enough that he wrote a 40,000-word essay on the subject.
While Buchanan’s populism did not translate into wide popularity in 1991, in 2016, a very similar ideology in the mouth of a more charismatic exponent upended the world order and catapulted us to where we are today.
There is another similarity between the ideologies of Buchanan and Trump — both were and are beclouded by accusations of anti-Semitism. Today, these concerns, particular for American Jews, are more urgent, because the alleged anti-Semitic words and actions come not from a McLaughlin Group panelist, but directly from the White House.
Gutman said the political situation with respect to American Jews is unlike anything he has seen in recent memory.
Earlier anti-Semitic waves peaked in the 1940s, he said, paradoxically during the height of a war in which the U.S. was fighting Nazis, and again in a smaller way during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when some alleged that “Jews were somehow responsible for this.” The current wave stands out for him because it has global reach.
“I think the difference between Buchanan and now is that there are signs that anti-Semitism is growing worldwide,” he said.
‘Stirring the pot’
But many American Jews have concerns about the statements and beliefs of Trump, much as they did with Buchanan, Gutman said.
“(Trump) certainly deals in anti-Semitic tropes,” he said. “He certainly shared certain stereotypes about Jews.”
A two-state solution — in which a future independent Israel and Palestine would exist side by side — is favored by a majority of American Jews, while it does not even seem to be a consideration for Trump, Gutman said. And Trump criticizes American Jews for not being loyal to Israel — thus setting up the classic anti-Semitic accusation of dual loyalty for American Jews, but suggesting not that this is bad thing, but how things ought to be.
“Trump is just stirring the pot and taking the low road,” Weinstein said. “All he’s doing is pointing to problems but offering no solutions. Trump is just creating more animosity through his comments.”
Cohen said Trump is suggesting “that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t support the Republicans because they support Israel.” The implication of this, she said, is “70 percent of (American Jews) are stupid, or something like that, because you’re liberal.”
But she said the president’s words and actions reach far beyond this single issue, and that disturbs her.
“I think he’s stirring up some feelings in people particularly on the right among white nationalists that could rouse up anti-Semitic feelings,” she said.
Pollak said he does not think Trump is an anti-Semite, and he is less concerned about some of his comments about Jews, which he thinks are just “stupid.”
“I do not see his actions as anti-Semitic in any way,” said Pollak, a Republican who said he is not a Trump supporter. “He’s a user of people who support his point of view. So I don’t think it’s based on race or religion.”
But he does acknowledge that because Trump is “very tribal, and he’s white” that “people can read into what he’s saying” and construe his remarks as dangerous.
Concern for the future
Pollak also said he is the son of Holocaust survivors, so he has spent his life thinking about “what turns neighbors against each other.” In his lifetime, he hasn’t noticed that in the U.S., and the Trump era hasn’t changed anything.
Steck said he is concerned about the rise of anti-Semitic movements around the world.
“It has been growing both here and in Europe,” said Steck, pointing to Poland and Hungary, but also to elements of the British Labor Party.
Gutman said in the U.S. this trend is leading to “the narrowing of the range of who is ‘a real American,’ which Trump seems to be doing,” he said, adding that worries many Jews.
“This is the first time in my lifetime that it is actually encouraged by the government and that is very troubling,” he said. “It does matter how the state acts, and what pronouncements it makes. And even with the most conservative president like (George W.) Bush you didn’t hear that. But with Trump, you do hear that … Jews are always alert, because they feel that even though the immediate sentiment isn’t against them, they might be next. And I think that’s true.”