The Boys Who Cried Anti-Semitism

It wasn’t exactly unexpected that President Trump’s son Eric, who often rebuts attacks on his father, would have spoken out against the new book by journalist Bob Woodward that presents a picture of the Trump White House as chaotic and of the president as causing alarm among his top aides.

But that the younger Trump’s comments would be seized upon as including an anti-Semitic “dog whistle” was not easily foreseen.

Calling the Woodward work a “sensational nonsense book,” Eric Trump, who serves as executive vice president at the Trump Organization but is not part of the administration, dismissed the CNN news network as happily featuring anti-Trump personalities “because they love to trash the president. It will mean you sell three extra books, you make three extra shekels.”

The use of “shekels” in Israel and in our deeply Israel-connected Orthodox community, of course, is unremarkable. It is Israel’s monetary standard, after all, and it is in that context that the word is usually employed. As pointed out by the critics, though, anti-Semites are known to use it in a disparaging way when referring to money owned by Jews.

But in the larger, non-Jewish English-speaking world, the word is also used as general slang for “money.” It has been employed over many years by many people, including novelists ranging from Mark Twain to Mickey Spillane, in entirely Jewish-absent contexts. Mr. Woodward, moreover, of Watergate fame, is not Jewish.

And so, writer Yair Rosenberg’s contention that “the only people who refer to being paid off as wanting ‘extra shekels’ are Israelis speaking Hebrew and anti-Semites speaking English outside Israel,” is simply mistaken. As is conservative pundit Bill Kristol, for asking: “Is Eric too stupid to know he’s being anti-Semitic?”

New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman tweeted that “If you want to see how the neo-Nazis use the term ‘shekels’ take a quick glance at [the rabidly anti-Semitic] The Daily Stormer.”

Yes, but the question isn’t how neo-Nazis may choose to use the word but how Eric Trump did.

The “boys who cried anti-Semitism” in the wake of the younger Trump’s ill-conceived but arguably innocent use of the word were just echoing similar cries of outrage over other episodes connected to President Trump, like his retweeting, during the presidential campaign, of an image of Hillary Clinton, a pile of cash and a six-pointed star, which could have been a law enforcement badge. Or his decrying of “globalists,” a term favored by far-right conspiracy theorists. Needless to say, whatever one’s opinion of that image or that word, whatever one’s opinion of President Trump and whatever the merits of Mr. Woodward’s portrayal of his White House, the president, in actions ranging from his commutation of Sholom Rubashkin’s unfair sentence to his no-nonsense approach to Palestinian intransigence, has demonstrated ongoing and keen concern for the Jewish community and Israel.

The outcry over his son’s words is clearly informed more by ill-will toward the president than any objective, dispositive evidence.

When asked about his use of the word, Eric Trump said, simply, “Oh, stop, it’s nonsense.”

It is, indeed.

False accusations of anti-Semitism, interestingly, also played a role in the recent primary elections in New York.

A campaign mailer, apparently created by a New York Democratic Party aide and sent out by the party shortly before Rosh Hashanah to some 7,000 homes, mostly in Orthodox neighborhoods, depicted gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon as harboring negative views of Israel, ignoring anti-Semitism and opposing funding for yeshivos. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who easily won re-election as the Democratic candidate for governor, denied knowing anything about the false attack on his primary opponent, and called it “inappropriate” and a “mistake.”

On one level, it is reassuring to know that, even with the Holocaust receding into history and with the existence of Jew-hatred and Israel-hatred on the extremes of the American political spectrum, anti-Semitism is still denigrated by society and that suspicions of harboring it can yield opprobrium.

But, at the same time, when accusations of anti-Jewish sentiment are made without due cause, when the careless but innocent use of an indeterminate word can raise all manner of red flags and ruckus, when baseless charges of anti-Semitism can be weaponized in a campaign, it reduces something evil to a mere political tool.

And when that happens, the power of the indignation that society reserves for true anti-Semitic sentiment is diminished. Hatred of Jews, a tragic reality over millennia, remains real today. To usurp outrage for it in the service of political points is a tragedy of its own.