Donald Trump poses a challenge to all media, because he, well, loathes us and also can’t live without us. In everyday terms, his badgering media for attention and simultaneously calling it “scum” would earn him an order of protection for axiomatic stalker behavior—but he’s the president-elect. We have to climb into the burning bed.
The bed burns hotter for classes of readers he has impugned—Muslims, Latinos, women. Consider the physical ejection in August 2015 of Univision’s Jorge Ramos from a Trump press conference; Ramos took it, and wended his way back in for more. That’s a model reporters will have to learn to embrace.
Jewish journalists face a trickier challenge: How do we cover a politician who positions himself as staunchly pro-Israel and boasts deep personal Jewish ties, while also drawing accusations of riling up anti-Semites by trafficking in their tropes?
Trump has plenty of Jewish friends and associates, and pro-Israel credentials (you may have heard, he once served as the grand marshal of New York’s Israeli Independence Day Parade). None of this is surprising for a New York mover and shaker. What is noteworthy—and unprecedented for a president-elect—is that Trump has a Jewish daughter and son-in-law who serve as close confidants and advisers, not to mention three Jewish grandchildren. He has said that President Barack Obama was the worst thing ever that ever happened to Israel, and even warned, direly, that only his election could save Israel from being destroyed.
But his campaign was stocked with signifiers that have raised alarms among many Jews. And unlike the broadsides against Muslims and Mexicans, they tended to be more subtle and more deniable.
Those explications, that exegesis, is the challenge Trump poses for Jewish media. On the one hand, some of the Jewish communities we cover have hair triggers when it comes to seeing anti-Semitism where it may not exist. On the other hand, the Jewish media have a well-earned reputation for seeing threats, not only to the Jews, before they are apparent to the general public.
So we venture into the exegesis with extra care, reporting and writing our stories with a dedication to detail and historical awareness, and great caution in assessing motives or stamping folks with the anti-Semite label.
Speaking a year ago to Republican Jews, Trump made jokes about the skills he shared with them as a negotiator unafraid to throw his money around as a means of influence. Friendly banter or ethnic stereotyping? The jury was divided. At the height of the campaign, he tweeted images, like a six-pointed star lapping over piles of dollars and Hillary Clinton’s face, which originated among anti-Semites. An innocent mistake (he claimed it was a sheriff’s star), or a dog-whistle to the anti-Semitic alt-right, a white nationalist movement, that has attached itself to his campaign? An anti-Semite had originated the image; by the time it got to Trump, did he understand its significance?
Trump has embraced a term, “America First,” used once by a pre-World War II movement that, among other things, charged Jews with trying to manipulate America into the European war. His campaign dismissed the notion of any historical association and continued to use it, much to the chagrin of some Jewish organizations.
His anti-Semitic followers have barraged Jewish journalists with vile imagery—like dozens of others, I now have had the unpleasant experience of seeing my photoshopped self being gassed. Trump has on occasion asked the haters to stop, but he has also suggested the journalists he deems unfair deserve the attention. Few mainstream Jewish groups have accused him of anti-Semitism, but they have begged him to forcefully renounce the haters, including David Duke, who sing his praises.
During the campaign, attacking Hillary Clinton’s associations, Trump repeatedly mentioned Jews like George Soros and Sidney Blumenthal—hardly household names. That is, except among political insiders, Jewish journalists—and, yes, anti-Semites who plug both men into an imaginary conspiracy to assert Jewish control of the world. Should we presume Trump was winking at the anti-Semites or innocently playing to mainstream conservative activists? (Before answering, switch Sheldon Adelson for Soros and Blumenthal, and replace conservative with liberal.)
On October 13, speaking in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump transitioned into that very conspiracy theory. He started the speech with ad hominem attacks on the women who had accused him of sexual assault. But he soon pivoted into the kind of message that invoked the most virulent strain of recent anti-Semitism that imagines Jews as a malign nexus of global control.
Except, he didn’t use the word Jews. Or mention any Jews. But the themes and the codes cheered by anti-Semites were there, in language that could have been lifted from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious century-old Tsarist forgery used to inspire countless anti-Jewish pogroms.
“This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged,” he said.
“Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
While he was speaking, the campaign tweeted, “@HillaryClinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich” her donors.
It was all there—a secret cabal with unlimited powers and control of the media. But no explicit mention of Jews.
And then, three weeks later, four days before the election, in his final ad, Trump added images of Jews. Against excerpts of the West Palm Beach speech, he broadcast visuals of the usual villains (the Clintons, Barack Obama) and added three Jewish faces: Soros, the hedge funder and Clinton backer; Janet Yellen, the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, and Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, a bank that he had said during the campaign was in “total control” of Clinton.
Villains abound in the Trumpian universe; yet in his final message to voters, his campaign chose to focus on three Jews whose import would immediately be understood on the alt-right, a loose assemblage of anti-establishment far-rightists including within its ranks anti-Semites and white supremacists. Was that choice intentional? Did it matter?
What connection should be drawn to Trump’s hiring of Stephen Bannon as a top campaign adviser (and now as a top strategist for his presidency)? Bannon once boasted that Breitbart, the conservative news site he led until joining Trump’s team, was a platform for the alt-right. Of course, he also was and is fond of boasting that Breitbart is the most pro-Israel news site.
When it came to reporting on the speech and the ad, I debated whether the messages I perceived were intended. And if they weren’t, would analyzing them through an historical lens border on a smear or would ignoring them open the door to a mainstreaming of discredited (and potentially dangerous) rhetoric? I wrote a story comparing excerpts of the speech to passages from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion so that the reader could judge for herself.
Jewish journalists operate under a historical burden of responsibility. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), founded in 1917, is credited with some of the first revelations of the horrors of the Nazi genocide, and has had to explain what at first seems opaque and hard to grasp. In 1953, we reported that the significance of the arrest in the Soviet Union of nine prominent doctors on charges of “terrorism” was that most of them were Jewish—and that it might presage a purge by Stalin.
In recent years, we have had, in our coverage of the pro-Israel lobby, to differentiate between the very real and substantial influence it exerts on U.S. policy toward Israel from spurious malign accusations that it controls U.S. foreign policy in its entirety and was principally responsible for the Iraq War.
Daniel Schorr, the legendary correspondent for CBS, CNN and NPR, started his career at JTA, from 1934-1941; he wrote in his autobiography of his frustration that atrocities he was relaying as an editor at the wire service were not seeing print.
“At JTA we received chilling cable reports of anti-Semitic depredations in Europe from refugees, Jewish organizations and neutral travelers,” he wrote. “These reports occasioned screaming headlines in the Yiddish press, but were largely ignored by the general newspapers. Editors were being counseled by the State Department to be wary of Jewish propaganda.”
The responsibility of Jewish media has not changed: We have a duty to our readers to call it as we see it not just in the present moment, but against the backdrop of history.
But this same legacy can also tempt us to distort and exaggerate what we see. If everything that hints at anti-Semitism is Hitler and Stalin, then nothing is. We can’t live every moment as if it is 1938—that’s a distortion of history and the present moment. Think of the activists and politicians who attach the “Nazi” label to whatever they disagree with.
We need to tread lightly in assessing Trump’s rhetoric against the darker chapters of recent history; that’s also our role as observers of the Jewish reality. And with Trump, you never quite know if he means what he says, or says what he means (or, for that matter, knows the meaning of what he says). He appears to be rolling back his blanket proposal to register Muslims. After months spent vilifying Goldman Sachs, he is staffing the upper reaches of his economic team with its most prominent leader.
On January 20, his transition from reality TV boss to the most powerful executive in the world is complete. Unclear is whether we’re any closer to understanding how much of the rhetoric was real, how much was for show, and what any of it even meant.