Has “The Jewish Question” returned in Donald Trump’s America?
The term “The Jewish Question” was widely used in Europe from the 1840s until the end of World War II. The “question” asked whether Jews should be accepted, and if so, on what terms. As anti-Semitism became more virulent, what had been a mere “problem” was perceived as an existential threat. After 1917 this threat was articulated in terms of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” which conceived of Jews as the spearhead of the greatest danger to the survival of the western world. For the Nazis as for many anti-Semites in other lands, the Jewish Question was the world’s most dire problem, and it called for the most extreme of solutions.
After World War II, did the “Jewish Question” disappear, or did it go into hiding? Do elements of it survive in the United States today?
On the one hand, anti-Semitism is not a widely-employed cultural code as it was in nineteenth-century Europe. Anti-Semitism was a kind of shorthand for anti-modernism as such, but today, most political reactionaries in the United States are not anti-Semitic. Nor is anti-Semitism accepted, let alone preached, by political and cultural elites.
It’s precisely the low levels of American anti-Semitism, and the sympathy that Jews receive when they are targeted, that infuriates the anti-Semitic fringe. After Vice-President Mike Pence toured the desecrated Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, an irked David Duke tweeted: “Showing up every time Jews get upset about anonymous threats only plays into their agenda.”
Trump is not an anti-Semite – that is, he does not fear or dislike Jews as a collective. He has no problem consorting with Jews so long as they are supportive of him. Examples include senior advisor Stephen Miller, staff aide Boris Epshteyn (who wrote the controversial statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which did not mention Jews), billionaire Stephen Feinberg, who will review the nation’s intelligence agencies as part of what many fear will be an attempt to curtail their independence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and, of course, Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner and Trump’s own daughter Ivanka, a convert to Orthodox Judaism.
Visiting Professor of History, CES Resident Faculty & Study Group Co-Chair
Derek Penslar is Visiting Professor of History at Harvard and the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto. He approaches modern Jewish history from a transnational and global ...