Something disturbing has been happening in the Orthodox world. White Nationalist language is infiltrating our public spaces. It’s happening in our shuls, in our communities, in our schools, and of course, online. And those of us who see it are looking on in increasing horror.
There was always some racism in our communities, of course; we’d begun to address it around the time Barack Obama was elected president, when calling black people “shvartze” — a derogatory term for a black person in Yiddish — finally started to become taboo.
But what we’re seeing now is new. It’s different. It’s not just plain racism, or hatred and judgment of a group of people because of their skin pigment. Rather, what I and others have been noticing in our communities is the emergence of a philosophy, one that the Trump era is increasingly bringing into stark relief.
It’s the philosophy of white nationalism that justifies racism, and it’s spreading like a virus among many Orthodox Jews.
Fifteen years ago, you might hear the word “schvartze” in shul. But you wouldn’t hear justifications for deporting black people to Africa. Today, you probably won’t hear a racial slur, at least, not without some sheepishness. But you will hear talking points that you could find on David Duke’s Twitter feed.
In other words, a significant group of Jews have moved from casual racism to an embrace of all-but-the-anti-Semitic aspects of modern white nationalist philosophy, with many of the assumptions and talking points that go with it.
A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump reportedly called Haiti and other countries in Africa “shithole” countries. The white nationalists crowed. “I must come to the defense of #Haiti!” tweeted Richard Spencer, a leader of the nativist “alt-right.” “It’s a potentially beautiful and productive country. The problem is that it’s filled with shithole people. If the French dominated, they could make it great again.” David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan was also thrilled. “Trump spoke Blunt, hard truth that makes PERFECT TRUTH!” he tweeted.
But they were far from alone. When I posted my dismay about Trump’s “shithole” comment on my Facebook page, I was amazed at how similar many of the pro-Trump Orthodox Jews I knew sounded compared to Spencer, Duke, and Trump himself.
As one argued, “Option A: El Salvador isn’t a ‘shithole,’ so they don’t need 17 years of Temporary Protected Status, and migrants from there should be sent home immediately. Option B: El Salvador is, in fact, a ‘shithole.’”
Another Orthodox friend, who had left South Africa for Israel, remarked, “I’m so glad I emigrated from a shithole.”
And another frum Jew wrote, “So, how many snowflakes would like to move to Haiti?”
When I facetiously wondered if that commenter also believed in “white genocide” (a term popular in the white nationalist community), the person responded: “I have no idea what you are talking about. I don’t know any white supremacists, so I don’t know what they ‘sound like’. By “genocide” do you mean blacks murdering white farmers in South Africa?”
And it wasn’t just in my own orbit, either. Soon I heard from friends, liberal Orthodox Jews like me, who listened in horror as online comments were repeated in synagogue on Shabbat.
And it always boiled down to the same rationalizations, those used by Spencer and Duke: Haiti and Africa are indeed shitholes, and Trump was right not to want people from those countries.
What I learned from Trump’s “shithole” comment was that the President’s dog whistles aren’t only being heard by the “alt-right” anymore. That countries dominated by blacks are shitholes was the broad consensus, it seemed to me that weekend. Despite the concerns about Trump’s “crass” wording, far too many Orthodox Jews agreed with the content.
Was it the majority of the Orthodox world? Doubtful. But was it a portion large enough to be concerned about? Absolutely.
And those who didn’t openly agree with the racist rhetoric remained silent, choosing to celebrate the naming of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or the release of Sholom Rubashkin, rather than call out the racism in their midst.
Similarly, our leaders maintained a stiff silence. While the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Reform movement spoke out stridently and bravely against Trump’s words, there has not been one word from the Orthodox Union or any Orthodox groups. They are no doubt afraid of the backlash of these extremists, as when Alex Rapoport’s Masbia, a soup kitchen run by an anti-Trump Hasidic Jew, lost donors when he protested the Muslim ban.
And this isn’t the first time. Since a majority of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump, they are the only group in the U.S. reporting growing approval ratings of Trump — up to 71%, according to the AJC. So approving are they that immediately following the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia and Trump’s subsequent defense of white supremacists with the claim that some neo-Nazis are “fine people”, there was the same deafening silence from Orthodox leadership, at least at first, the same defenses, and the same parroting of white nationalist talking points.
Remember the article entitled “I’m an Orthodox Jew in Israel but liberals have become so deranged with hypocrisy, I’m actually standing with the KKK on Charlottesville”?
While an outlier in its framing, this author put into words what many in his community were feeling: Ultimately, even the KKK may not be as bad as the liberal world.
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