Anti-semitism, visible compliance, and righteousness

[Donald Trump] told the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015 that “you want to control your politicians” and suggested the audience used money to exert control. In the White House, he said Jews who vote for Democrats are “very disloyal to Israel.”

Two years ago, the former president hosted two dinner guests at his Florida residence who were known to make virulent antisemitic comments.

And this week, Trump charged that Jewish Democrats were being disloyal to their faith and to Israel. That had many American Jews taking up positions behind now-familiar political lines. Trump opponents accused him of promoting antisemitic tropes while his defenders suggested he was making a fair political point in his own way. . . .

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the CEO of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, said Trump has no business dictating who’s a good Jew.

“By insinuating that good Jews will vote for the party that is best for Israel, Trump is evoking the age-old antisemitic trope of dual loyalty — an accusation that Jews are more loyal to their religion than to their country, and therefore can’t be trusted,” she said. “Historically, this accusation has fueled some of the worst antisemitic violence.”[1]

That trope is getting my attention right now because it reflects a larger conundrum involving identity, practice, and the attention these draw from the perspectives they are drawn from.

In the U.S., we normalize being white, vaguely Christian, heterosexual, and middle class. The wealthy seek to distinguish themselves with power and privilege and we seem to accept that. But when people distinguish themselves in other ways—any other ways—they invite disdain.

The loyalty trope casts non-normality as disloyalty and thus as a threat. But I draw a blank when I ask myself, disloyalty to what and threatening to what? This “white, vaguely Christian, heterosexual, and middle class” thing somehow isn’t even a thing to me precisely because I have normalized it to such a degree. It is like the air I breathe. I can’t really even imagine the vacuum of space and so it is that, yes, I do absolutely notice when I’m driving through Squirrel Hill and see people dressed in an orthodox style walking, often on their Sabbath, when they aren’t supposed to drive. As well, I notice when I see the words “Kosher” or, for that matter, “Halal” (both words mean approximately the same thing, differing mainly in Biblical interpretation).

On the one hand, distinction seems to be a means of proselytizing. If I dress in a particular fashion, I am not only complying with what I think is a religious mandate, but identifying myself with that religion. What do we think when we see a woman dressed in a Burka? And what do we think when we see two white men in suits with black name plates affixed to their jackets walking or bicycling down the street? Or when we see two or three people loitering with a stand of pamphlets anxious to proclaim “good news!” This isn’t just about the mandate but a certain claim to righteousness attached to compliance with that mandate.

The Latter Day Saints’ missionary work isn’t just about door-to-door evangelism. As with Jehovah’s Witnesses, even if they never come to my door, I see them. In this frame, they are righteous. And pointedly, especially because I reject this frame, I am not.

But there is something peculiar in the way we respond to the Jewish forms of distinction. And there is something peculiar in the way an allegation of anti-Semitism gets weaponized, particularly with regard to Israel, where to think of Palestinians as human beings with human rights has, by Zionist logic, become anti-Semitic.[2]

Donald Trump affirms Zionist logic by denigrating Palestinians. For some Jews, he is thus their hero.

That’s not just a problem because it’s about Trump.

  1. [1]Peter Smith and Tiffany Stanley, “US Jews upset with Trump’s latest rhetoric say he doesn’t get to tell them how to be Jewish,” Associated Press, March 21, 2024,
  2. [2]Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, “ADL Officially Admits It Counts Pro-Palestine Activism as Antisemitic,” New Republic, January 10, 2024,

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