David Frum wrote a thought-provoking and challenging piece in the Atlantic last week titled “What If They’re Not Coming for the Jews This Time?” in which he grapples with the paradox of President Trump’s targeting of nearly all minority groups save the Jews. Frum notes that the Trump White House has put Jews in a special category exempt from the attacks on other religious, ethnic, and racial minorities that have become so routine, and points out that this exemption “poses a moral quandary for communally concerned Jews quite unlike anything in our collective experience.” Because American Jewish communal life and institutions are built around fighting bigotry of all sorts on the theory that attacks on other minorities will always eventually spread to Jewish targets, a conviction that Trump is an unwavering ally of Jews and Israel creates a new type of dilemma.
American Judaism is startlingly non-parochial given the particularism inherent to Judaism. Part of that instinct to move beyond the confines of our own narrow interests is a conviction that Judaism stands for something larger and that Jews should be a light unto the nations in setting an example of ethics and morality. But part of that instinct is also about self-preservation and embedding ourselves in the larger fabric of American minorities because there is always greater safety in numbers and in having the support of allies. Frum sums up the Trumpian message to Jews as follows: “These attacks on the other are not aimed at you. You can be part of us. We’d like you to be part of us. All you have to do is stop worrying about them. And after all, they don’t worry about you!”
Frum’s observation is a smart one. This dynamic is indeed taking place, and Frum shrewdly anticipates the ways in which Trump’s tactics of separating Jews from the pack will also separate Jews from each other, as some will choose to revel in this new privileged status while others will sense a danger in upending the dynamic that has reigned for a century. But Frum’s analytical framework has one important flaw that throws the larger theory into question. In assessing the question that American Jews now face and calling attention to the challenges that Trump presents for the American Jewish community, Frum’s point of departure is that Trump’s ugly sectarianism has spared and will continue to spare American Jews. The flaw in this is not that Frum is necessarily wrong about Trump; as the title of his piece implies, Trump is not coming for us. But Trumpism certainly is, and that is why the response to the test that American Jews face should be crystal clear.
We can debate all day about whether Trump is an anti-Semite or not (I don’t think he is), the best friend Israel has ever had or someone who is leaving Israel in a dangerous geostrategic position (I think unquestionably the latter). But while there may be some who believe that Trump will at some point explicitly target Jews as a group, I find it difficult to envision. That he has a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren does not automatically render him free of anti-Semitism, but it does likely mean that he will tread more carefully about tarring Jews. And to be fair, while he absolutely has said unseemly things about Jews, both as individuals and as a group – recall the infamous December 2015 Republican Jewish Coalition meeting where Trump declared that the group wouldn’t support him because he didn’t want their money and they like to control their politicians – there is scant, if any, evidence that Trump harbors hatred toward Jews.
This is not, however, the same as evidence that Jews can or should relax in the face of Trump. What Trump represents is far bigger than the man himself, and on that front, Trumpism has already brought with it an ill wind that is beyond Trump’s direct control. When a xenophobic terrorist who has been stirred by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric kills eleven Jews sitting in shul on Shabbat morning because he associates Jews with pro-immigrant sentiment, Trump is not coming for the Jews but Trumpism is. When self declared Trump-supporting neo-Nazis and white supremacists feel bold enough to march through a college town holding torches and roaring, “Jews will not replace us,” Trump is not coming for the Jews but Trumpism is. When Trump’s political rise not coincidentally coincides with a rise in anti-Semitic vitriol targeting Jewish journalists and public figures on social media, Trump is not coming for the Jews but Trumpism is. What Trump says and does is critical to the evaluation, but without widening the aperture, the complete picture is obscured.
Frum correctly teases out Trump’s message to Jews. But the movement that Trump inspires and to which he provides succor has a different message, and it is not that Jews can be part of “us” if we stop worrying about everyone else. I believe that Trump wants Jews in his group, but his group feels differently. Viewed in this context, the choice for American Jews is less difficult than what Frum lays out. It isn’t weighing the value of feeling free of anti-Semitism in a Trumpian world against the value of fighting bigotry in every form irrespective of whether it is targeting Jews. It is weighing that universalism against an illusory safety, where both that safety and its inherent illusory nature share the same Trumpian roots.
None of this should be read to imply that it is only the right that may be coming for the Jews, or that equally dangerous anti-Semitism does not exist on the left as well. People who come for the Jews unfortunately tend to come from all directions, and while the variant that comes from one direction may be deadlier than the variant from another, they ultimately converge at the same point. What makes Trump such a unique figure is that he is pumping the bellows that are providing the oxygen to more anti-Semitism, yet many American Jews view him as a historically philo-Semitic president.
Trump has already left American Jews far more divided than when he took office. The question remaining is whether he will also leave us far less safe. Trump is not coming for us, but what he has stoked, inspired, encouraged, and enabled almost certainly will.