Mar 6th 2017

Trumpism And Anti-Semitism

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.


The United States is witnessing a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic acts, which are sweeping over the country in wave after wave. In St. Louis, more than a hundred tombstones were tipped over; similar hate crimes have taken place in Philadelphia and New York. Attacks are taking place not only in cities across the country, but also in small towns. In Scottsburg, Indiana (a community with less than ten thousand residents), the gravestones of a Jewish couple were defaced with spray paint. To date, there have been reports of bomb threats against Jewish institutions in thirty-three states, and across college campuses.

The rise in hate crimes has risen sharply since Trump’s election. As early as four days following President Trump’s electoral win, an Episcopal Church in a small town in southern Indiana was vandalized with “Heil Trump”. Last weekend, in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, residents and local law officials discovered spray-painted swastikas and vulgar graffiti on overpasses, a dozen vehicles, and on an elementary school playground. Ten Jewish community centers have been targeted with bomb threats for the fourth time in five weeks. And the list goes on.

While it is not only Jewish individuals and groups who have been increasingly subjected to bigotry and xenophobic outbursts, these latest acts are the escalation of overt anti-Semitism which re-appeared during the 2016 election. What began with tweeting and Internet trolling, is now manifesting itself in more brazen and threatening ways. Unless the underlying conditions are answered, there is every reason to expect that these attacks will persist and become more violent.

The growing anti-Semitism in the United States has been fed by a social-political atmosphere that is conducive to groups that thrive on racist ideology. White nationalist groups have been encouraged by the current administration's willingness to lend an ear and more to those on the far right.

The president of the United States does not have to be explicitly, or even implicitly, anti-Semitic in either words or deeds to create conditions in which anti-Semitic groups feel emboldened. By being ever ready to entertain conspiracy theories, by showing little regard whatsoever for facts when they are not to his liking, by "remembering" the Holocaust without any mention of the destruction of European Jewry, by failing to condemn these acts in a more timely manner, by empowering figures such as Steve Bannon, and by lending credence to the agenda of the alt-right, the president has helped to make these waves of anti-Semitism and bigotry possible.

Over the past year, the space of public discourse has deteriorated; what was once political spin has been replaced by palpable and shameless lying. It is clear that Trumpism – with its contempt for inconvenient truths, and glorification of authoritarian strongmen – is in part responsible for what is taking place. Racist ideology feeds off of illusions, beliefs which are held because they satisfy deep-seated wishes, without regard for evidence, justification, or warrant. Trumpism has provided the soil in which such illusions are free to grow unhampered by a sense of epistemic and moral responsibility.

The current rise of antisemitism was able to take root more easily when common manners and basic decency were shoved aside during an increasingly ugly election. Courtesy and manners are not insignificant things, but essential to ethical life (in the Hegelian sense), to our shared social substance, the ethical medium in which we dwell with others. The loss of the simple decency that we generally take for granted has wide ramifications and ultimately it creates a social environment where inhibitions against overtly racist acts are weakened, and hate crimes are more likely to occur.

Trump has shown himself ready to make brazen accusations without citing any evidentiary support; he has shown contempt for the rule of law and the freedom of the press, turning away the New York Times and CNN and referring to the media as "the Enemy of the American people" – language which is itself fraught with fascist undertones. Trumpism insists that we cannot be held morally responsible for the claims we make and the statements we endorse.

Indeed, what Trumpism represents is, to put it simply, the suicide of thought (to borrow a phrase from G. K. Chesterton). We are being reminded every day that the human intellect is free to destroy itself precisely by abdicating the responsibility and authority we have to think – we are becoming a society increasingly at war with reason and ‘the tower already reels.’ Trumpism is one of the great-thought destroying forces of our time in its contempt for things like objective knowledge and the disinterested pursuit of truth. The assault on epistemic values has moral consequences – to entertain ‘alternative facts’ and endorse theories on the basis of rumor or heresy is a moral failing, not only because it can lead to actual harm, but because in time it corrupts the mind itself.

To stem the rise of anti-Semitism, we need to restore the integrity of our public discourse, our commitment to intellectual honesty and self-scrutiny. Anti-Semitism has been allowed to grow because we as a country have created an environment that is conducive to race-minded reactionaries. Our country has grown meaner and more cynical. In the span of only a decade, comments that it would have been inconceivable to say in public are now becoming increasingly commonplace.

To properly address the deterioration of our nation’s ethical substance, we cannot underestimate the importance of trust. As the philosopher Jay Bernstein observed, “…trust relations provide the ethical substance of everyday living… Trust relations are relations of mutual recognition in which we acknowledge our mutual standing and vulnerability with respect to one another.” Trust is the “invisible substance of our moral lives” – we only notice it when it has been shattered.

These anti-Semitic and racist acts are attacks precisely on that trust which, under normal conditions, we take for granted. Restoring social trust is a long and difficult process. In this case it will involve, among other things, undoing the moral and epistemic harm caused by Trumpism, and Trump himself must begin this undertaking.




To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."
Nov 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "I imagined America as the land of the free that gave voice to the forgotten. Where race, color, and creed do not matter and human rights are guarded with zeal. Where the ingathering of all cultures and people made it richer and human resources and talent knew no limits or constraints. Where opportunity awaits the able and generosity is extended to the needy. Where everyone is equal before the law and political differences are valued to make America better. Where sacrifices are willingly made to right the wrong morals and fortitude guide its leaders. Where caring about friends and allies is the hallmark of the nation and opposing oppression near and far is the emblem that distinguished America. This is the character of America. This is the soul of America. This is what made America great. The America that gave me a home. The America that fulfilled my dreams."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."