Reporting on the slobbering greeting lavished on the president by the Conservative Political Action Convention last week, NPR Washington Desk and Religion correspondent Ron Elving giggled that it was “as if [Trump] were Moses and all the prophets.” Perfectly apt analogy, right? Not to the appropriately paranoid Jewish ear and mind, conditioned to, but always offended by, the subtle but deeply ingrained anti-Semitism that persists in America.
2017 belonged to #MeToo, as systemic racism dominated discourse the previous year. H.L. proposes that in 2018 we begin to confront the pervasive anti-Semitism that has become less overt but still is as American as apple pie. It differs in many important ways from systemic racism but is similar in ubiquity and the dominant culture’s refusal to recognize its significance.
In reporting about a president and organization that most NPR listeners despise, why did Elving, a very good reporter, mechanically default to Mo and the Pros? St. Peter (or even the big guy) and the apostles were a much better fit for Trump, who professes to be a Christian as convincingly as possible for a man who proclaimed, “I don’t stand by anything.” When Reverend Billy Graham died last week, Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters recounted how young Donald watched Graham’s televised crusades along with his father, Frederick Christ Trump. Dad was once arrested at a Klan rally in Queens and the reverend is heard on Watergate tapes agreeing with President Nixon’s rant against Jews, who he said controlled the New York Times and Washington Post. Graham: “This stranglehold has to be broken or the country is going down the drain” and will become “a synagogue of Satan.”
Trump was being greeted by CPAC members that are overwhelmingly but not exclusively Christians, who after all elected Trump. He received 58% of the Protestant, 52% of the Roman Catholic and 61% of the Mormon vote. Jews? – 24%, presumably including Ivanka and Jared.
Such subtle anti-Semitic choices, allusions and references, like Elving’s, emanate from the collective Christian unconscious. Different than the overt anti-Muslim prejudice exhibited by many Christians and Jews and the overt and weaponized prejudice of radical Islam. Such overt prejudice is easier to spot and often easier to combat. Not long ago, American anti-Semitism was anything but subtle.
As a kid, H.L. walked and sometimes fought his way to public school in Queens past two parochial schools, one predominantly Irish Catholic and the other Italian. In the former we were “Christ Killers” and running past the latter – were called “Morta Cristo.”
In the early 1960s a cross was burned on the lawn of my Jewish schoolmate because his and other Jewish families organized the successful Engle v. Vitale challenge in SCOTUS to state authored and mandated prayer in public schools. As a young legal services lawyer with a funny and ambiguous name, I heard a client register his disappointment that he had not been assigned “one of them smart Jewish lawyers.” Years later a new Fortune 100 client told me that our adversary was represented by a “slick Jewish lawyer.” I told him “just like yours” and to the legal services client I said, “you’ve got one.”
Even a much-loved young friend asked me to “admit that Jews are cheap” in the midst of years of residence in our homes. She confessed that she had learned that in the Catholic schools she had attended.
In contemporary America overt anti-Semitism of that sort is relatively rare, except in Fred Trump’s Klan and in many other white supremacist groups trying to figure out exactly who “will not replace them.” Blacks, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans? Generally, these days anti-Semitism is just or well below the surface, but still as deeply ingrained as the microorganisms that live in the gut, and with as little self-awareness by the host.
It comes at Jews from every direction. From the sweet and intelligent friend who analogizes disfavored skeptics to Pharisees – an updated version of Christ Killers. It comes from the faculty in sociology and women’s and gender studies who cannot address any topic without gratuitously expressing outrage over the plight of Palestinians. They have even developed the concept of “intersectionality” to make these leaps seem less awkward. Such rants never mention the Muslim on Muslim carnage in Syria, how Egypt is starving Palestinians in Gaza nor their and other Arab nations’ emerging alliance with Israel and consensus about the contours of a future Palestinian state. They will and do tell you that their anti-Israel obsession has absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish faith or Jews as a people. They even say that as they ban the Star of David from their identity pride marches.
What should be done about this? Christians, start by recognizing it and Jews confronting and calling it out each and every time it occurs. Just as you are bound by ethical teachings to confront and combat racism and prejudice in all its ugly forms. African-Americans are right to ask the dominant white culture and power structure in America to recognize and begin the work of dismantling systemic racism. The dominant Christian culture, assisted by American Jews, has work to do as well.