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The Republicans’ Cynical Strategy to Win the Jewish Vote

They accuse Democrats of anti-Semitism while refusing to acknowledge a rise in white supremacist violence under Trump.


On Saturday, shortly after 10 a.m. on the West Coast, someone purporting to be John Earnest posted an anti-Semitic manifesto on the website 8chan, which defines itself as “the Darkest Reaches of the Internet.” In the six-page screed, the author celebrated Adolph Hitler and Robert Bowers, who murdered eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in October, and wrote that “Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race.” Less than an hour and a half later, police say, a 19-year-old by the name of John Earnest entered the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in a San Diego suburb and murdered one woman while injuring three others, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.

If, as suspected, the author and shooter were one and the same, the San Diego shooting is just the latest evidence that the singular source of violent anti-Semitism in North America is right-wing white supremacism. But the Republicans are loath to acknowledge as much. Instead, they have spent the past several months opportunistically attacking Democrats who criticize Israel. They’re doing this not only to distract from the GOP’s complicity in the rise of racist attacks, but to win over a key group of swing-state voters in the next election.

The American Jewish community has been embroiled in a debate—one fueled in no small part by cynical Republicans—over whether the Democratic Party is insufficiently opposed to anti-Semitism. The attention has focused on two new, outspoken Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives: Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib. Both politicians have made intemperate remarks about American Jewish support for the state of Israel, for which they have largely apologized. But it would be naïve to believe that Republicans have accused them of anti-Semitism simply out of concern for bigotry.

Omar, who is Muslim, and Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, are supporters of the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment, and sanctions to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud government to address the rights of Palestinians in territory occupied by Israel since 1967. The Anti-Defamation League, along with some other Jewish groups in the U.S., charge that the BDS movement effectively “rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” and “is the most prominent effort to undermine Israel’s existence.” Many Republicans agree, pushing legislation to hobble the movement.

And yet, for all their apparent concern for the Jewish people, Republicans largely are mute on the question of how to stem rising anti-Semitic violence in America. After the shooting in San Diego, President Donald Trump offered only a pro forma expression of sympathy: “Our entire nation mourns the loss of life, prays for the wounded and stands in solidarity with the Jewish community. We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate which must be defeated.” Weeks earlier, after the New Zealand mosque massacre, Trump was asked whether he sees white nationalism as a rising threat in the world. “I don’t really,” he said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”

On Sunday, in an interview with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, CNN’s Jake Tapper resurfaced that quote, asking her, “Does President Trump think white nationalism is a growing threat around the world?” She replied, “I think there are many growing threats. And that’s one of them.” But then she deftly pivoted. “I think there’s anti-Christianity. That’s why the Sri Lankans were gunned down.”

Why this misdirection? Perhaps because studies show a rise in hate-motivated violence amid Trump’s rise. The ADL found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents rose nearly 60 percent in 2017 over 2016, the second-highest total and biggest spike since the organization began tracking such incidents four decades ago. There were nearly as many incidents in 2018, a year in which domestic extremists killed 50 people. “Every one of the 50 murders,” the group reported, “was committed by a person or persons with ties to right-wing extremism,” and at least 39 were committed by white supremacists specifically.

Whether or not the president panders to white supremacists—and there’s a strong case that he does—it behooves him and his allies to deflect, change the subject, and, perhaps most effectively, to strike first. This explains, in part, why the GOP has focused on the rhetorical excesses of a handful of progressive Democrats. But there’s another reason, too: the 2020 election.

Jewish Republicans are pitching the idea of a “Jexodus,” as one new organization aimed at millennials calls itself. In a tweet in March, Trump quoted Jexodus’ founder Elizabeth Pipko: “Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party. We saw a lot of anti Israel policies start under the Obama Administration, and it got worsts & worse. There is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party. They don’t care about Israel or the Jewish people.” Politifact found no proof that Jewish voters are abandoning the Democratic Party: In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 71 percent of Jewish voters; in the 2018 midterms, Democrats won 79 percent of the Jewish vote.

Why such focus on Jewish voters when they represent only 2-3 percent of the national electoral mix, and are concentrated in overwhelmingly blue states (New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California)? These voters are a potentially deciding factor in swing states with often tiny margins of victory. In the Sunbelt, these include North Carolina, and in the Rust Belt, Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the real target is Florida, where the estimated 470,000 Jewish voters constitute 3.4 percent of the total. A slight shift in the Jewish vote here can determine the outcome of a presidential election or control of the U.S. Senate. So the stakes are high. If enough Jews in these states who traditionally vote Democratic can be peeled off, using the canard of left-wing anti-Semitism, the results can be decisive.

An apparent dry run for this strategy took place in Florida in 2018. Jewish Republicans charged that Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor, supported the BDS movement. Though the charges were demonstrably untrue, Republicans, led by State Representative Randy Fine, who is Jewish, repeated them through the election. Gillum lost the race by 30,000 votes, out of more than eight million cast. In the same election, Democrat Nikki Fried, who is Jewish, won her statewide race for agriculture commissioner by 6,000 votes, consistently outpolling Gillum in Jewish precincts, especially in South Florida.

So, how should Democrats’ convince otherwise discerning, sophisticated, Jewish voters that their party is not anti-Semitic? For starters, party leaders and other Democrats in Congress might get off the back foot and stop cowering every time one of their members is accused of being an anti-Semite. Democrats ought to attack Trump and the Republicans for hypocritical rhetoric and policies, such as the administration’s recent decision to disband Homeland Security’s domestic terrorism intelligence unit. The GOP must be held to account for their culpability in fanning the flames of intolerance, which outweighs anything Omar and Tlaib have said by orders of magnitude so great as to be incalculable.

Jewish leaders, meanwhile, should insist on keeping these politics in perspective. Should Jews be more concerned with remarks that hurt their feelings, or people who are trying to kill them?

“We have weathered acts of exclusion from certain segments of society, been accused of plotting behind the scenes and other caustic claims that are anti-Semitic,” Rabbi Steven Engel, of Orlando’s Congregation of Reform Judaism, told me this week. “But the death of Jews crosses a line. Here party does not matter. We should not be distracted by more subtle anti-Semitic overtones. White supremacy and neo-Nazism have now crossed over from words to murder, and this is a line we will not tolerate.”