When you consider that Clyde Haberman, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Jeff Jacoby, Hailie Soifer, and Julian Zelizer hit upon so many of the topics that have been suggested as possible causes of the shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 Jews dead and at least six others injured — immigration, anti-Semitism in the U.S., the president’s reluctance to call out the alt-right, and his penchant for making inflammatory statements — it’s hard to believe that the discussion took place two days before the tragedy.
Last Thursday the aforementioned panelists appeared at the Center for Jewish History in New York City for a forum, “Jews, Politics, and the 2018 Midterm Elections.” Ostensibly the major discussion was to focus on the changing nature of the Jewish vote and whether it could tip the balance for the Nov. 6 contests, but it quickly shifted toward President Donald Trump and whether his rhetoric is a “dog whistle” for extremist groups — and even if the president is, himself, anti-Semitic.
“Yes, he’s got a Jewish son-in-law and now a Jewish daughter, and he’s moved the embassy in Israel,” acknowledged longtime New York Times reporter and columnist Haberman, the moderator and, of course, father of the prolific Times’ White House reporter, Maggie. On the other hand, he continued, so much of what Trump has said and done, including “speaking before Republican Jews and basically saying, ‘You guys are good with money, just like me’ … and he’s going to every single stereotype of the Jew with the grasping hands.”
Jacoby, a columnist who stands out amongst his Boston Globe colleagues because he leans heavily to the right, said that he sees Trump as “an ignoramus” who does not actively dislike Jews the way a clear anti-Semite such as Louis Farrakhan does. Rather, Jacoby, who voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in 2016 — considers the president a “sloppy” individual who “often strolls into repeating stereotypes because the person doesn’t know better or doesn’t appear to know better.”
But while allowing that he cannot know how Trump truly feels about Jews, Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, said it is “irrelevant.” Regardless of the president’s personal views, he is intentionally stirring up extremist groups for the sake of securing their votes, Zelizer said.
“Even if I give you the benefit of the doubt and he’s either being sloppy or he doesn’t even believe it, it doesn’t matter because once he’s done that, you can’t contain it,” said Zelizer. “So if there’s a pipe bomb sent to George Soros, he had something to do with the path that led us there.”
Jacobs was willing to go further.
“If he uses the word ‘Globalist,’ you would think that once somebody points out that actually that’s code for Jews, somebody who’s not an anti-Semite would say ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know that, now I’m not going to use that again.’” Jacobs is executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Jacoby cautioned, however, against knee-jerk reactions to Trump’s policies, simply because they dislike the man. Some in the media, he said, favored certain policies, but when the president voiced support, “they gradually moved against them.” Regarding an issue such as moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, “there are people who say moving the embassy must be a bad idea” because it was Trump’s.
Though the original subject matter of the forum was somewhat overshadowed by the speculation about the president’s motivations (and a raucous crowd that was all-too-willing to let their own views be heard), Soifer, the first executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and former Obama administration staffer, discussed a recent survey founded by the Council and conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute. The poll found that despite Trump’s perceived friendliness toward Israel, 74 percent of Jews plan to vote for Democratic candidates in the midterms, largely because of their overwhelming disapproval — 75 percent — of the president. Can Jews make a difference in swaying the House or Senate?
“Ultimately, we believe that the races will come down to a very narrow margin,” said Soifer, former national security adviser to 2020 presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). “So while the Jewish population is only 2 percent of the population as a whole, we know that we do vote, we’re a very important part of the electorate, and areas where the concentration of the Jewish population is largest is also very clearly aligned with those races for both the House and the Senate that matter in the 2018 elections.”
Contact Gabe Kahn via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: