Trump is not solely to blame for racist attacks

After a wave of xenophobic attacks against Muslim and Jewish targets in the United States, Joseph Dana considers whether it is the right time for a new chapter of solidarity between the two groups

While Donald Trump has embraced Israel, he has a questionable record on anti-semitism. Saul Loeb / AFP Photo

There has been a spate of xenophobic attacks across America since Donald Trump became president. Xenophobia, of course, is nothing new, but the number and intensity of recent attacks pose difficult questions about the direction the country is heading.

In Kansas last month, for example, a white man named Adam Purinton began screaming “get out of my country” at Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer living in the US. Believing Kuchibhotla to be “Middle Eastern”, Purinton shot and killed him.

A rash of attacks on Muslim and Jewish targets have shaken the country. From Florida to Oregon, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalised and community centres have been evacuated because of bomb threats. In one incident, gunshots were fired into a synagogue in Indiana. While a former journalist has been arrested in connection with some of these attacks, they have continued.

Is this explosion of racist violence connected to Mr Trump's extreme rhetoric and a resurgences in white nationalism in pockets of American society? Perhaps, but the increase in violence is more reflective of deeper trends in American history.

Mr Trump's inflammatory rhetoric is certainly not helping to calm the public down. As a presidential candidate, Mr Trump called for a full and total ban on Muslims entering the US until authorities “could figure things out” after ISIL militants attacked civilians in Paris in November 2015. As president, Mr Trump has tried to deliver on that promise with an executive order banning the citizens of six majority-Muslim countries from travelling to the US and a total ban on refugees.

The ban is a statement of intent. It is designed to send a message that Mr Trump is ready to follow through with his most outlandish, racist and aggressive campaign pledges.

A spike in nationalist rhetoric in America's immigration policy does little to explain the explosion in anti-Semitic attacks across the US. Many Jewish Americans can't seem to reconcile Mr Trump's tepid response to these attacks and his warm embrace of Israel.

As candidate and president, Mr Trump has called for the American embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has chosen a supporter of violent Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be the US ambassador to Israel and he uses rhetoric that borders on racism to describe Islam. These positions have won him the label of being “pro-Israel” among Israel’s vocal supporters in Washington but they don’t hide the fact that his record on anti-Semitism is questionable at best. Just look at his closest advisers.

Steve Bannon, a senior White House adviser credited with many of the administration's controversial positions, has been accused of being an anti-Semite by several major Jewish organisations. The Anti-Defamation League noted that as editor of Breitbart News, Bannon ran several anti-Semitic articles and that his connection with a network of white nationalists and anti-Semites known as the Alt-Right is impossible to dismiss.

Let's be clear. The violence against Jews in America since Mr Trump has entered the White House is not extreme. There are no pogroms engulfing small towns. But the fact of the matter is that America has a long and uneasy relationship with the Jewish community that is not nearly as positive as many in the community are willing to admit.

Given the arc of Jewish history, it is easy to see how small outbursts of violence such as the desecration of a Jewish cemetery can spiral into something larger and more aggressive. With Mr Trump’s affinity for scapegoating, Jews in America are correctly becoming worried that they might be the next target. Whether or not Mr Trump harbours any personal resentment towards Muslims or Jews is irrelevant to this calculation. The president is merely giving voice to deep-seated prejudice that has plagued the US for centuries.

Over the past 50 years, the American Jewish community has been lulled into a false sense of security. Believing that Israel would help them if anti-Semitism reared its head, American Jews forgot that they are minorities in the US. The recent wave of violence and Mr Trump's limp response to it is changing the equation. Partnerships between Jews and other minority communities are taking shape. American Jews are also beginning to seriously question their blind allegiance to Israel.

An unlikely new generation of Muslim and Jewish solidarity has burst on to the political scene. Linda Sarsour, a leading Arab-American community organiser, has been at the forefront of this wave of solidarity. She has helped raise thousands of dollars for clean-up efforts for vandalised cemeteries and has argued that the time for partnership is now. Prominent Los Angeles Rabbi Sharon Brous told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “This is a time for serious coalition-building, for standing beside other minority populations that are targeted. It is time for people to stand for and with each other. There will be in the mix a number of different perspectives. I don’t feel at all uncomfortable about that.”

The American experiment in democracy as embodied by the constitution was thought to be antithetical to the type of anti-Semitism that shaped Europe. With a president who has openly targeted minorities and religious groups and takes an adversarial view of the constitution, this notion is now being put to the ultimate test.

jdana@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @ibnezra