Moment editors look back at the 2016 presidential campaign season. There were an uncomfortable number of Jewish moments, some of which constituted outright anti-Semitism.
The 2016 American presidential election opened up a Pandora’s box of ugliness that made Moment’s editors deeply uncomfortable. The campaign season was marked by an unusual amount of angry rhetoric, with Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, immigrants and women among the groups singled out for insults or attacks. Jews, too, found themselves in the rhetorical crossfire.
This came as a surprise. For decades, politicians have diligently courted the Jewish vote, and anti-Jewish comments have generally been taboo. Initially, there seemed to be cause for celebration. Early coverage noted several milestones for America’s Jews. Senator Bernie Sanders was the first serious Jewish contender for the top spot on a major-party ticket in a presidential race. Both the Republican and Democratic nominees had Jewish sons-in-law, and one had a daughter who had converted to Orthodox Judaism. Even Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was Jewish.
Yet anti-Semitism, already regaining a foothold across Europe, found an unlikely home in mainstream American political discourse. Jewish stereotypes were resurrected by the alt-right, an amorphous subset of the right steeped in white ethno-nationalistic anger. In past national elections, these anti-establishment voices were largely confined to isolated corners of the Internet. This time, through adroit use of Internet memes (text, images or video that are planted and spread virally) on social media, the alt-right punched above its weight. Its propaganda was overt and covert, making use of so-called “dog whistles”—insults that slip by most people but are recognized by those in the know. One result: A shocking amount of hate speech and innuendo was about, and directed at, Jews.
Fringe views did not move into the mainstream only from the right. The rising popularity of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) placed many American Jews on the defensive as Israel was described in harsh terms, and the debate over what separates anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism was brought to the fore. While we are accustomed to discussions about U.S. policy toward Israel, criticism of Israel was more palpable—it included the burning of an Israeli flag by a protester outside the Democratic National Convention—and made many Jews uneasy.
On the following pages, we chronicle some of the more fraught “Jewish moments” of the 2016 presidential election season. Why? Would it not be wiser to let the controversies and headlines fade away? We don’t think so. There is no guarantee that hostility unleashed by the campaign will dissipate. These jarring moments demand our attention, and all Americans need to come together to address them.—The Editors
1 Jews are “Negotiators”
Donald Trump was still having trouble being taken seriously as a candidate for president when he formally introduced himself to the Republican Jewish Coalition last December. “I’m a negotiator like you folks,” Trump declared. “Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room?” he asked a laughing audience while blasting the Iran deal. “Perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to.” The presidential hopeful also noted that many in the room likely wouldn’t support him because he didn’t want their money. “You want to control your own politician,” he said. “That’s fine.” Many media outlets picked up on the anti-Semitic undertones. The Times of Israel headlined its story with “Trump courts Republican Jews with offensive stereotypes.” Not everyone was critical: It wasn’t Trump’s intention “to evoke anti-Semitic stereotypes” with his comments, said Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt at the time, “but we understand that they could be interpreted that way.”
2 The Reemergence of David Duke
BuzzFeed was the first to report that neo-Nazi and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke had called on listeners of his radio show to vote for Trump, deeming support for other candidates “treason to your heritage.” “I’m not saying I endorse everything about Trump,” he said. “But I do support his candidacy, and I support voting for him as a strategic action.” Trump initially declined to comment on Duke and other demonstrations of white nationalist support. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists,” Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper on February 28. “So I don’t know. I don’t know—did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.” Facing a mountain of criticism, Trump disavowed Duke, who in July would announce his Senate run in Louisiana—a candidacy that Duke insisted Trump voters would favor. As a senator, Duke told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in August, “nobody will be more supportive of [Trump’s] legislative agenda, his Supreme Court agenda, than I will. I’m 100 percent behind it.” In September, Duke told The New York Times, “After four decades, the issues that I’ve spearheaded and fought for are now mainstream.”
3 Jewish Journalists Are Harassed
When reporter Julia Ioffe’s in-depth profile of Melania Trump went live on GQ’s website on April 27, the Republican candidate’s wife took to her Facebook page to condemn it, calling Ioffe—whose family fled anti-Semitism in Russia—“a journalist who is looking to make a name for herself” who “clearly had an agenda when going after my family.” While there was nothing anti-Semitic in the Facebook post, Ioffe was promptly besieged. She received anonymous phone calls playing recordings of Hitler speeches, and calls from casket vendors and homicide cleanup services apparently set up by her tormentors. She was also bombarded with frightening images via email and social media, including one where her face was Photoshopped onto a body of a concentration camp inmate. Ioffe filed a report with District of Columbia police over some of the more violent threats. “I don’t control my fans,” Melania Trump told a journalist who asked about the abuse, adding that while some people “maybe went too far,” Ioffe had “provoked them.” Though Ioffe’s case was among the most prominent, she was hardly alone. According to an October report compiled by the ADL, some 19,000 anti-Semitic tweets were directed at 800 journalists, ten of whom bore the brunt of the harassment, between August 2015 and July 2016. “The best analogy I can give is that the campaign turned over a rock and a lot of stuff began crawling out from under it,” Commentary editor John Podhoretz told The New York Times. “There were these code words and dog whistles that let it appear that people who had been doing things in the shadows could now start marching forward.”
4 Conservative Jewish Journalists Are Targeted
Some of the most vicious attacks were reserved for Jewish journalists on the right. Following the South Carolina primary on February 20, conservative writer Bethany Mandel tweeted about Trump’s anti-Semitic followers and soon earned their wrath. The harassment and threats were so bad that the Orthodox mother of two young children—who is married to New York Post op-ed editor Seth Mandel—purchased a .22 revolver and urged other anti-Trump Jews to follow suit. In a separate incident, Breitbart News Network reporter Michelle Fields alleged that Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager at the time, had forcefully grabbed her at a March 8 news conference in Florida. When the news site accepted the campaign’s denial that the incident (which was recorded on video) had not even occurred, Fields’ Breitbart colleague, editor-at-large Ben Shapiro, quit his job in solidarity. Shapiro was promptly bombarded with anti-Semitic tweets suggesting that he and his family be sent to “the ovens.” Breitbart, a stalwart of alt-right media, then ran a story that dismissed the notion that anti-Semitism exists and slammed Shapiro for “throwing around allegations of anti-Semitism and racism, just like the people he used to mock.”
5 Digital “Yellow Star”
On June 1, the website Mic reported that some members of the alt-right were placing a triple set of parentheses around Jewish names. The symbol ((( ))) was used to identify Jews, particularly those in the media, so that others would know to harass them. Mic found that the symbol, known as an “echo,” originated on a right-wing podcast called “The Daily Shoah,” in which Jewish names were accompanied by an echo sound. As the blog responsible for the podcast explains, “All Jewish surnames echo throughout history.” The blog’s editors wrote to Mic in an email: “The inner parenthesis represent the Jews’ subversion of the home [and] destruction of the family through mass-media degeneracy. The next [parenthesis] represents the destruction of the nation through mass immigration, and the outer [parenthesis] represents international Jewry and world Zionism.” As media coverage exposed the subtext of the echo, Twitter users—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—began to add the parentheses around their own names in a show of pride, protest or solidarity.
6 A Star of David for Corruption?
On the morning of July 2, soon after news broke of a private meeting between Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former president Bill Clinton, Trump tweeted a tweaked version of Hillary Clinton’s own “History Made” campaign graphic, replacing the blank background of her black-and-white portrait with a cascade of hundred-dollar bills and superimposing a red six-pointed star, inside which were the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” As criticism of the apparent anti-Semitic connotations poured in, Trump deleted the tweet and posted a new version in which a red circle replaced the star, though a closer look showed the star’s points still peeking out. Reporters discovered that the image was originally created and circulated by members of the alt-right, and The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out that this was at least the fifth time Trump had shared an alt-right meme. It took two days for Trump to respond, tweeting, “Dishonest media is trying their absolute best to depict a star in a tweet as the Star of David rather than a Sheriff’s Star, or plain star!” (Twitter users noted that sheriff’s stars have circles at the end of each point.) Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew and the New York Observer’s publisher, defended his father-in-law in a statement: “I know that Donald does not at all subscribe to any racist or anti-Semitic thinking.” Still, the ADL called the use of a Jewish star “outrageous.”
7 The Movement for Black Lives Turns its Attention to Israel
Following the party conventions, dozens of organizations supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement released a policy platform under the Movement for Black Lives umbrella—the first of its kind. Among its comprehensive recommendations concerning criminal justice, economic justice and education, the platform included a section in its “Invest-Divest” plank that called to end federal aid to Israel, which it called “an apartheid state.” “The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” the platform states. Military aid to Israel, it continues, “diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs” and “makes U.S. citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government.” Several prominent Jewish organizations issued condemnations, while grassroots anti-occupation groups such as IfNotNow, comprised largely of young Jews, called on establishment organizations to stay firm in their historical support of racial justice. Other groups expressed support for Black Lives Matter broadly but dismay at the usage of the terms “genocide” and “apartheid.”
8 White Nationalists Frognap Pepe
During the campaign season, white nationalists appropriated a goofy comic book character named Pepe the Frog that had gone viral in order to disseminate racist propaganda. In a crusade that started on an alt-right message board and was spread via Twitter, they dressed Pepe in a Nazi uniform, gave him a Hitler mustache and placed him in front of the Twin Towers, watching them burn while wearing a kippah and a smirk. Pepe was also widely depicted as Trump—including an image Trump himself retweeted late last year. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and former Trump adviser Roger Stone also shared Trump-as-Pepe memes on social media. “It sucks,” Pepe creator Matt Furie told Esquire in September. “I blame Trump for all of this, because he kind of looks like this smug Pepe meme. Now it’s just this runaway train. But the people who are driving this train are these anonymous Internet trolls who don’t stand for anything except for nihilism and getting a rise out of whatever racist or sexist or disgusting thing they can do.” The ADL added this use of Pepe the Frog to its list of hate symbols on September 27, and has been working with Furie to reclaim Pepe.
9 An Alt-Right Leader Heads Trump’s Campaign
On August 17, Trump chose Steve Bannon to be his campaign CEO. Bannon, who began his career as an investment banker, turned to right-wing documentary filmmaking in the early 2000s. By 2012, he was the chairman of Breitbart—and a powerful mover and shaker in conservative media. When Trump announced Bannon’s appointment, The New York Times called it “a merger between the most strident elements of the conservative news media and Mr. Trump’s campaign, which was incubated and fostered in their boisterous coverage of his rise.” Bannon’s ascent legitimized the Breitbart News Network and made it easier for its anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, ethno-nationalistic voices to get picked up by mainstream media outlets. Shortly after Bannon was hired, reporters dug up 2007 court papers in which his ex-wife accused him of making anti-Semitic comments. “He said that he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats’ and that he didn’t want the girls to go to school with Jews,” she claimed, among other things. He denied the accusation. “Mr. Bannon said he never said anything like that,” Bannon’s spokesperson told BuzzFeed.
10 Jewish Conspiracy Theories Go Mainstream
As Hillary Clinton appeared to pull ahead in the last weeks of the race, Trump doubled down on conspiracy theories. Beginning with a speech in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump described a universe seemingly out of the pages of that infamous anti-Semitic canard, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He warned of “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” While never mentioning Jews, Trump trafficked in buzzwords and concepts that echoed classical anti-Semitic tropes, claiming that “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty.” Following the speech, ADL’s Greenblatt tweeted: “@TeamTrump should avoid rhetoric and tropes that historically have been used against Jews and still spur #antisemitism. Let’s keep hate out of campaign.” Meanwhile, Trump’s surrogates—self-appointed and otherwise—kept apace. Austin-based radio host Alex Jones, for one, ranted about “the Jewish mafia” that controls the United States. Jones often hosted Trump on his show and told listeners in August that it has been “surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later. It’s amazing.”