The Archangel Gabriel said to God. “There’s a man to see you. His name’s Epstein, claims to represent the Jewish people on earth.” “All right, show him in,” replied God. Epstein came through the Pearly Gates. “Lord, the Jews are wondering if you could answer one question.” “Certainly. Go on.” “Is it true that we are your Chosen People?” “Yes.” “We are definitely your Chosen People?” “Yes.” “Well, Lord, the Jews are wondering if you could choose somebody else and leave us alone.”
I was reminded of that joke as I read about the massacre of Jews at the at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The gunman is symptomatic of the hate speech being spewed by right-wing nationalists in this country and around the world. Jews are simultaneously portrayed as Communists and as Capitalists, the financiers who control the world economy, and the people who control the media (except for Fox News).
The proverb “the chickens have come home to roost” means you have to face the consequences of your past actions and speech. As The National Review’s David A. French wrote after the shooting, “Speech can inspire violence. It can. It’s one reason why civility and a sense of proportion in your speech aren’t just abstract, sanctimonious, or elitist concepts. They’re moral responsibilities for people with any kind of meaningful platform. Not all listening ears are sober-minded or entirely rational. And when they hear a public figure they admire thunder against his political opponents with extreme language, sometimes they’ll take extreme action in response.”
American University law professor and Harvard University faculty associate Susan Benesch has spent the past six years developing and testing a framework for identifying dangerous speech. To rise to that level, at least two of these five indicators must be present: a powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience; an audience that has grievances and fears that the speaker can cultivate; a speech that is clearly understood as a call to violence; a social or historical context that is propitious for violence for any of a variety of reasons, including long-standing competition between groups for resources; and a means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience – think Fox News. Benesch is careful not to draw parallels between Trump and the world leaders she has studied who incite mass violence. Still, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.
For example, as a candidate, Trump refused to condemn his supporters who used physical violence against protesters at his rallies. He hinted that he enjoys the brawls and said he would defend his supporters in court cases. When a protester interrupted his speech at a rally in Michigan, he encouraged his audience members to force the protester out: “Get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court.” He then asked the crowd, “Are Trump rallies the most fun? We’re having a good time.”
At other rallies, Trump said “Knock the crap out of him, would you? I promise you, I will pay your legal fees.” “Part of the problem is, no one wants to hurt each other anymore.” “I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.” As president, Trump said of a Republican lawmaker who body-slammed a reporter, ‘That’s my kind of guy.”
And when white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, they chanted, among other racist slogans, “Jews will not replace us.” Trump said of this group’s clash with counterdemonstrators that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
The viciously nationalist rhetoric Trump now uses at his rallies, his rants against “globalists”(the word itself, along with “cosmopolitan” has always been anti-Semitic code for “Jewish”) his demonizing of immigrants, of refugees, of asylum seekers, his accusation that George Soros is somehow behind the caravan of Hondurans and Guatemalans, this is red meat for anti-Semites.
Soros, of course, just happens to be a wealthy, liberal Jewish donor. In one fell swoop, Trump has managed to combine anti-Semitism, fear of immigrants, and the threat of powerful foreign agents controlling world events in pursuit of their hidden agenda.
Not one Congressional leader of either party agreed to accompany Trump when he went to Pittsburgh, A group of Jewish leaders told the president that he is no longer welcome in Pittsburgh until he denounces white nationalism. Members of the Pittsburgh affiliate of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice wrote a letter to Trump that reads in part, “Our Jewish community is not the only group you have targeted. … You have also deliberately undermined the safety of people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Yesterday’s massacre is not the first act of terror you incited against a minority group in our country.”
2017 – the first full year of Trump’s presidency – experienced the largest single increase of anti-Semitic incidents in recent times, a 60 percent increase over 2016.