President Donald Trump has brought the mental habits of anti-Semitism from the political fringe into the White House. And yet this is the same Trump who agreed to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and who withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, greatly pleasing Israel’s government. Trump’s broader political affinity with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is well known. At the United Nations, his first ambassador, Nikki Haley, gave impassioned speeches denouncing the UN’s obsessional attacks on Israel. Closer to home, Trump’s daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism before marrying Jared Kushner. How can we reconcile this seeming contradiction?
To do so, we must remind ourselves of how anti-Semitism in the Western tradition has really worked. Historically, anti-Semitism is the conviction that Jews, though few in numbers, are a uniquely powerful and evil people. Anti-Semites of the right and left have voiced this belief. It formed the core of Nazi anti-Semitism and was trumpeted daily in Nazi media.
Trump’s contribution to the injection of anti-Semitism into American politics lies in his appetite for conspiracy theories. He mostly peddles theories about non-Jews, including Muslims and Mexican and Central American immigrants. But he has played with fire in hinting at conspiracy theories about Jews as well—most memorably in the notorious closing commercial of his 2016 presidential campaign, which included dark insinuations about global forces along with photos of financier George Soros, then-Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and then-Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.
If Nazi propagandists had seen that 2016 commercial, they might well have embraced it as an update of some of their own posters, which depicted Jews in the Roosevelt administration who were supposedly the hidden “brain trust” driving American policy in World War II. Nazi propaganda aimed at the United States asserted that a powerful and stealthy Jewish minority was pushing the nation to intervention in the war in Europe, an intervention it claimed was not in the American interest. The “America First” slogans of the late 1930s were voiced by Nazi sympathizers in the United States who made identical arguments.
Through his shocking revival of the “America First” slogan, his support for conspiratorially minded right-wing media figures and his constant references to conspiracy theories about powerful foreign forces and nonexistent “invasions” by immigrants, Trump has lent legitimacy to a paranoid and dangerous mode of thinking that since the end of World War II had been limited to right-wing extremist organizations and the isolationist far-right wing of the Republican Party. Though the 2016 commercial was widely denounced, Trump never disavowed it, even echoing its themes in 2018 when he told reporters “a lot of people say” Soros was financing the migrant “caravan.”
Indeed, Trump’s attacks on a forlorn group of migrants as a dangerous caravan that constituted an “invasion” of the United States doubled down on the conspiratorial and paranoid aspects of the 2016 campaign. One common theme of such conspiracy theories is the false attribution of great power and malevolence to minorities, such as migrants from Central America, who are actually small in number and lacking in political influence. The effect of the 2018 campaign was yet again to bring the conspiracy theories of the fringe into the mainstream, a shift enabled by the leadership of the Republican Party, which Trump has remade in his own image.
That this shift coincides with the continued attacks on Israel’s legitimacy from the political left and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement makes this a particularly troubling period for Jews in the United States. Again, the key to understanding why lies in identifying the forms of classical anti-Semitism, particularly the Nazi fantasy of an all-powerful Jewish cabal. In the Nazis’ anti-Semitic imagination, the Jews became a political actor called “international Jewry,” which, they claimed, had seized power in the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union and then started World War II to exterminate the German people. Hitler’s declared intention to kill Jews through the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe” was thus presented as a vast act of self-defense, to crush the powerful and evil conspiracy supposedly threatening Germany.
The fall of Hitler did not squelch these ideas. Instead, they evolved. The establishment of the State of Israel, in which Jews could defend themselves if attacked, marked a significant shift: In the anti-Semitic imagination, the armed Jew who could retaliate if attacked appeared as the realization of the nightmare of the powerful and evil Jew, reincarnated as the Israeli aggressor. Variations of the theory lived on in the “anti-cosmopolitan” purges of Jews by the communist governments of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the early 1950s, which denounced the supposed conspiracy between Zionists and “American monopoly capitalists.” The same themes were heard in the New Left’s denunciation of a supposedly powerful Israel working as a tool of American imperialism in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, and also in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s lies (echoed today by BDS) that Israel was an apartheid state that practiced mass murder. And they lived on among the radical Islamists in Tehran, the authors of the Hamas Charter of 1988 and the Al Qaeda killers who attacked the “alliance of Jews and Crusaders” on September 11, 2001.
Every single one of these forms of anti-Semitism, though in different places on the political spectrum and inspired by different religious and political traditions, has a conspiratorial mindset at its core that leads to the use of violence to attack the supposedly powerful Jew, who is indistinguishable from the supposedly evil Zionist. Trump’s drift toward that mindset is deeply problematic—even when he doesn’t mention Jews at all.
Jeffrey Herf is distinguished university professor of History at the University of Maryland College Park