BOSTON – After weathering arguably the most openly anti-Semitic American election season in recent memory, some American Jews are nervously asking what the new political reality of a President Donald Trump might mean for them as Jews.
It’s the kind of question most thought they no longer had to ask in this country.
“I think it’s the first election for anyone who is not a senior citizen that you are straight up scared as a Jew,” said Hadar Susskind, 43, a longtime professional in Jewish organizations in Washington, DC. He said he was among a group of publicly identified Jews who has been receiving anti-Semitic phone messages in recent months.
“This is not usually how things go in our democracy, but you don’t usually have the person literally endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan elected president. From children to adults, people are feeling very uncomfortable,” said Susskind.
In a Trump campaign punctuated by hateful rhetoric and fear of Muslims, Latinos and blacks, notes of what some called out as dog-whistle anti-Semitism were also sounded. Among them were allegedly old-school anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about power and money Trump floated in comments, via Twitter and in the final campaign ad. There was also the barrage of online harassment by self-identified Trump supporters of several Jewish journalists who wrote critically of Trump, including Holocaust-themed memes depicting them in striped concentration camp uniforms.
“All of a sudden it seemed [anti-Semitism] crawled out from under the rock and we are still trying to come to grips with that,” said Laurel Leff, a professor of journalism and Jewish studies at Northeastern University.
“I think it puts us on more alert as Jews. I think in previous elections, I’ve always voted Democratic, but after a loss I felt terrible. But I felt terrible because I felt as if other persecuted groups and poor people would not get the opportunities they wanted. But I never felt personally my life would be affected directly,” she said.
Jews, of course, know something about how badly the game of scapegoating and normalizing of racism can end. Like others who supported Hillary Clinton, they too are fearful for the future of civil liberties, freedom of the press and progress for women and minorities.
In the immediate aftermath of the election results, some Jews looked to the past, openly pondering on social media whether the shock and disorientation they felt in learning of a Trump victory is how Jews in Europe felt when the Nazis rose to power. A 1933 editorial from a German-Jewish newspaper advising Jews not to panic over Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, was posted on Facebook by a professor of Jewish history and widely shared.
Rabbis and communal leaders sent out missives acknowledging peoples’ fears, but also seeking to soothe and inspire.
“It’s important for us to remember that however unsettling this current state of affairs, unexpected events are hardly unprecedented in American, or Jewish, history. As the Psalmist reminds us (24:2), God ‘founded the world on waters; atop rivers God established it.’ In other words, existence is inherently unstable. But we forget this during quieter times. We forget that the circumstances of our lives are constantly shifting, regularly requiring that we readjust to new realities,” Rabbi Ethan Seidel wrote to his congregants at Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Washington, DC.
“We live in a place in which we still have a certain sphere of influence, an opportunity to serve. Thus, though on one level this new era is full of uncertainty, on another level, we are called just as we have always been, to look out for others — in our community, and also farther afield,” he added.
Deborah Lipstadt (Emory University)
The day before the election, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University posted to Facebook: “Any Jew who votes for Donald Trump should do so in the full knowledge that they are supporting the most virulent public expression of antisemitism in the United States in many years. Period.”
Howard Schnitz, 59, from Columbus, Ohio said the noise around Trump did not dissuade him, a longtime Republican, from voting for him.
“I think people are overreacting. In the end he will prove to be a decent human being, a very bright businessman in the White House, who will surround himself with the best possible advice,” said Schnitz, who runs a bookkeeping business. His main motivation in voting for Trump, he said, was to help ensure a conservative Supreme Court.
Jonathan Sarna at Brandeis University, his undergraduate alma mater and where he has taught for more than 25 years, May 10, 2016 (Uriel Heilman/via JTA)
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University noted Jewish Republicans were heavily represented in the “Never Trump” camp and he wonders where they will align themselves in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, he said, even though many in the Jewish community were unhappy that American billionaire Sheldon Adelson was supporting Trump, some in communal leadership positions will now be relieved he will have the new president’s ear.
But the uneasiness lingers, Sarna said.
“Many of us are deeply worried that the forces of darkness — the alt-right, the KKK, and David Duke — have been unleashed. And the question is will they become an important factor on the ground on advancing new presidential policies and will some even move into government?” Sarna asked.
“Will Trump desert some of the extremist forces who put him into power or feel beholden to them? That is one of the great questions and we will only find out as time moves on,” he said.