Colorado teen kills self as sign of Nazi allegiance: “I have crippling depression but I shall cure it by killing Jews”

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

The suicide of a Colorado teenager has been linked to a Nazi-themed Facebook group that the young man apparently led.

The teenager apparently believed that killing himself would “show his allegiance to the Nazi Party and the killing of Jewish people,” according to local law enforcement officials. The theory stems from a message he wrote shortly before his death, proclaiming, “I have crippling depression but I shall cure it by killing Jews.”f

The Facebook group itself was called “4th Reich’s Official Group Chat” and engaged indiscussions ranging from plans for “executing n***ers” to poems like “You can hang Jews on trees, shoot them right in the knees. Gas as many as you please.”

Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been heavily criticized forinspiring an increase in the number of hate groups throughout the country. Ideologically, Trump seems to draw heavily from an offshoot of modern conservatism, the alt-right, whose adherents believe that their “white identity” is under attack from the forces of political correctness — something that Trump often attacks.

Trump’s candidacy has also had an observable impact on America’s youth, with an increase in racial or religious bullying as well as normalizing racist ideas that were formerly considered unacceptable.

Jews must speak out against Islamophobia: Standing with our Muslim brothers and sisters is critical

Published: Salon (September 14, 2016)

When news first broke earlier this week that a mosque in Orlando had been set on fire, presumably because it had been attended by Omar Mateen, the man who in June shot 49 people to death at the nightclub Pulse, I immediately thought of Alaa Basatneh. Three weeks earlier I’d interviewed the Syrian-American journalist and activist and had been struck by her optimism.

“I do have faith that, down the road, just like the Jews faced a lot of negativity in the past in the U.S. — and the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, you know the entire list— things are going to be the same for Muslims,” she had told me. “It’s going to take a lot of time and effort from the Muslim-American community.”

But the arson at the Orlando mosque served as a reminder to me that the Muslim-American community shouldn’t have to go through this alone. More than ever, Jews and other marginalized groups have a moral responsibility to stand with our nation’s Muslims as they continue to face bigotry and persecution.

The good news is that over the past year many Jews have taken steps to do precisely that. In December Jewish activists held demonstrations on each day of Hanukkah  in 15 U.S. cities to protest anti-Muslim hate speech and public policies. In May, nine Jewish groups joined more than 30 other organizations to support a bill that wouldforbid the government to turn away immigrants based on religion, a clear response to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Around the same time, the American Jewish Community called for The Citadel to let Muslim students wear hijabs, while in New Jersey the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists lent their support to Muslims who are trying to build a mosque in the town of Basking Ridge.

And in recent years some Muslims have clearly demonstrated their rejection of anti-Semitism. In 2013 11 prominent imams, sheiks and religious teachers traveled to Auschwitz from nine nations to counter Holocaust denial. Also that year President Barack Obama personally congratulated a young Swedish Muslim activist, Siavosh Derakhti, for having founded Young People Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia to combat prejudice in his country. In November 2015 hundreds of Norwegian Muslimsformed a human shield around a synagogue in Oslo to express solidarity with the Jewish community there after an attack on a synagogue in Denmark. And in the March Democratic primary in Dearborn, Michigan, a city with many Muslims and Arab-Americans, a majority of voters voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who happens to be the country’s first major Jewish presidential candidate.

Although both sides have laid the groundwork for building Jewish-Muslim solidarity piece by piece, those efforts must be redoubled whenever one group yet again experiences mistreatment.

With the poisonous influence of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, millions of individuals can be held accountable for the actions of another who happens to share their faith.

As Basatneh said when I asked for her reaction to the Orlando mosque attack, “What’s upsetting is that one person’s actions are taken out [and superimposed over] an entire religion. Had I been at that mosque, I would have been hurt, even though I stand firmly against terrorism.”

I think this holds true not just for other Muslims who have been attacked because of the actions of a violent few but when Jews are collectively blamed for Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians (as happened in 2014  during anti-Semitic riots in Paris).

Whether we like it or not, the spotlight is on both communities because Jews and Palestinians of Muslim and Christian faith as well as others are embroiled in a bloody, decades-long conflict in Israel. As a result, many have grown to expect that Jews and Muslims everywhere will inevitably become foes, and it behooves individuals in both groups to defy those assumptions. When we don’t speak out against hateful words and deeds directed against the other, our silence can (unfairly or otherwise) be read as indifference or even implicit approval.

Perhaps the key to avoiding this can be found in a theory Basatneh shared with me why Muslims supported Sanders. “They understood what he was talking about and what he was preaching in terms of rights for all,” she suggested, recalling when he took the hand of a Muslim student asking a question about Islamophobia at a Virginia town hall and hugged her, noting that his father’s family had died in concentration camps and adding that he will everything he can to rid the country of the ugly stain of racism.

That moment touched many Muslims because he simply showed that he was “a human being that understood the struggle of the Muslim-American,” Basatneh said.

When Jews tell Muslims that we, too, identify with their pain, and when they do likewise, our society is taking small but meaningful strides toward overcoming the hostilities groups express toward one another.

These individual steps may not seem like much, but they add up and ultimately do make a difference.

That’s why I call on my fellow Jews to be at the forefront of the call to condemn the arson attack against the Orlando mosque. Those of us who don’t do the right thing now may, I suspect, regret their silence in later years.

Jews have a special responsibility to fight Donald Trump

United against hate. (Reuters/Jonathan Drake)

Published: Quartz (July 9, 2016)

Donald Trump’s anti-Semitic tweet—I’m sorry, his allegedly anti-Semitic tweet—is still in the news in the US, and with good reason. The presumptive Republican nominee has repeatedly refused to apologize for linking Hillary Clinton, corruption and Judaism all in one ill-advised meme. Meanwhile, his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner is being publicly pressured by one of his employees at the New York Observer (which he owns) to denounce Trump’s actions.

Which brings us to one of the most popular defenses of Trump–namely, that he can’t possibly be anti-Semitic because of his Jewish family. Trump does indeed have a Jewish son-in-law, a Jewish daughter (Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism upon marrying Kushner), and a Jewish grandchild. And it’s totally irrelevant. This argument is not only specious, it elides the great moral question presented by this election: Will America’s legacy be one of peaceful diversity or hate?

“How can the guy hate Jews when he has Jews in his own family?”

Before answering that question, we need to dispatch with one of Trump’s most popular defenses, particularly among his Jewish supporters. As a friend of mine told me when I mentioned I was writing this article: “How can the guy hate Jews when he has Jews in his own family? Do you think he’d be okay with Nazis supporting him when they’d send his own flesh-and-blood to concentration camps?”

But it is very possible to make generalizations about an entire group of people while believing certain individuals within that group are “exceptions.” If this is starting to sound familiar, it’s because racists often use similar reasoning—I’m not racist, I have black friends. Similarly, one can support Israel’s sovereignty for reasons that have nothing to do with respecting Jews as a whole. As Trump has accurately pointed out, Israel has been America’s sole staunch ally in a region that is overwhelmingly hostile to the West. But considering Trump’s well-known animus toward Muslims, such sentiments could just as easily be a Trumpian version of realpolitik. Or, in light of the controversy over US president Barack Obama’s Iran deal, simply a calculated attempt to sway Jewish voters.

Even if Trump’s periodic dabbling in anti-Jewish iconography and stereotypes (which I’ve discussed before) is purely coincidental, Jews and other members of persecuted groups have to make an important decision. Will we only call out prejudice when it’s directed against our own community? Or will we recognize that this type of collectivist thinking is immoral, regardless of its target?

Jews have to make an important decision. Will we only call out prejudice when it’s directed against our own?

More than any other single theme, Trump’s presidential campaign has been defined by his prejudiced thinking. He refers to minorities in monolithic terms (“the Hispanics,” “the blacks,” “the Muslims”), issues policy proposals based on bigoted assumptions (banning all Muslim travel to the United States, deporting all undocumented Mexican immigrants en masse), and drops sexist comments on a regular basis (a comprehensive compilation can be found here). Along the way, he has unsurprisingly garnered praise from the white supremacist community. Such sentiments have become a central aspect of his campaign, and will send a very clear message if he is elected in November.
Today, I am ostensibly addressing my fellow Jews. But I am also writing to anyone who has faced discrimination because of their race, religion, or gender. As I’ve discussed in the past, I was myself the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime when I was 12. The attack nearly cost me my life. No matter what your ideology, we need to stand united as Americans first, partisans second.

When a candidate tries to dehumanize an entire group of people, every human being has a moral responsibility to fight back.

Even political conservatives don’t have an excuse for pulling the Trump lever. Looking for a non-racist alternative? Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is at least as conservative as Trump (if not more so, at least on economic issues).
The lesson that Jews must take from this election is that, when a political candidate tries to dehumanize an entire group of people, every single human being has a moral responsibility to fight back. When Trump attacks Mexican immigrants, he attacks Jews; when he threatens Muslims with persecution, he threatens Jews with persecution (a point many right-wing Israelis have lamentably failed to grasp). Jews have faced persecution ourselves, and thus should be particularly empathetic to the suffering of others.
Because I am a Jew, this issue is a particularly poignant one for me. But the stakes in this election would impact me even if I was a Buddhist or an atheist. That said, because I am incapable of distancing myself from my Jewish vantage point, I’d like to conclude with my favorite quote from one of my favorite artists. Diego Rivera was, appropriately enough, both Mexican and Jewish, and he spoke openly about the way his background affected his life. As he once put it: “My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.”

Right-wing media is just this gross: Donald Trump has unleashed forces more destructive than Fox News

Published: Salon (May 18, 2016)

It’s hardly surprising, that Breitbart recently referred to William Kristol as a “renegade Jew” in one of its headlines. The conservative website has been shilling pretty hard for Donald Trump over the past year, so it makes sense that the less savory aspects of Trump’s political style would eventually rub off on them.

What is that style, though? Outlets from The Washington Post to The Atlantic have spilled plenty of ink describing The Donald as un-politically correct, but Trump’s rhetoric does more than simply transgress the boundaries of polite conversation. From the moment he launched his presidential campaign until the present, Trump has repeatedly used ethnic labels and stereotypes to both define his opponents and discuss major policy issues. In the process, the Trump movement has trafficked a distinct brand of racial and religious tribalism into American life, one that is entirely comfortable with forgetting about who a person is and instead collectively defining individuals based on what they are.

Take the article about William Kristol. Written by conservative columnist David Horowitz, it attacked Kristol for leading a movement among establishment Republicans to run a third-party candidate, who could then thwart Trump by denying him a majority in the Electoral College. Given how no reference is made to Kristol’s Jewish background until the last paragraph (which feels shoehorned in), one wonders if Horowitz was actually involved in putting “Renegade Jew” in the title. Certainly it can be safely said that Kristol’s background was irrelevant to the article’s main argument. Unfortunately a large segment of Breitbart’s pro-Trump readers is drawn to this kind of inflammatory language…  and by referencing how Kristol is Jewish, Breitbart was pandering right to it. As former editor-at-large Ben Shapiro recently wrote, “They’ve become a site that openly panders to alt-right anti-Semitism and soft white supremacism… This began in the pro-Trump comment section at Breitbart while I was there; now, it’s filtered up.”

When Shapiro writes about the “alt right,” he’s referring to the modern white supremacist movement, one that Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed described as “perfectly tailored for our times: 4chan-esque racist rhetoric combined with a tinge of Silicon Valley–flavored philosophizing, all riding on the coattails of the Trump boom.” Although white supremacy has existed for as long as the country itself, white supremacist movements experienced a boom after America elected Barack Obama as its first black president in 2008. Even when this hasn’t led to literal violent extremism (which has also increased in the Obama era), it has still managed to normalize a strain of rhetorically violent racism that had been taboo for quite some time. To the rest of the country, uttering slurs and playing on stereotypes are boorish and should be deplored as hateful; to white supremacists, these actions are courageous and should be celebrated as salvos for racial liberation.

Not surprisingly, this movement overwhelmingly agrees with Trump when he perpetuates long-debunked racist canards, from his support of the birther conspiracy theories (the basis of his 2012 campaign) to his claim that undocumented Mexican immigrants are more likely to be criminals and rapists (a line from his announcement speech for the 2016 campaign). It isn’t just that his wild assertions play right into America’s paranoid political tradition; by blending that with sweeping generalizations about non-whites and non-Christians, he validates underlying prejudices against these minority groups. Indeed, as The Huffington Post pointed out, “virtually every time Trump mentions a minority group, he uses the definite article the, as in ‘the Hispanics,’ ‘the Muslims’ and ‘the blacks.’”

This also explains why so many of Trump’s racist policy proposals are bound by their collectivist assumptions, treating large and diverse groups of people as if they are a single entity. When Trump insists that America build a wall on our Mexican border, it’s to keep out the aforementioned bogeyman of the dangerous illegal alien; when he says he would implement a national database to register Muslims, it’s because he lumps America’s three million Muslims with the handful of violent terrorists; and when he openly opposes the Black Lives Matter movement, it is because he has a history of generalizing black people as having “anger” and being “lazy.” The people supporting these aspects of Trump’s political agenda do so because they share this fundamentally racist worldview – and, presumably, will actively work to help him implement it if he becomes president.

Hence Breitbart’s cheap shot against Kristol. Anti-Semitism – like Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism – is a popular prejudice among the alt right because it views all the individuals within a non-white group (so to speak) as a monolith. While hatred of Jews hasn’t played a major role in Trump’s campaign (although he has dabbled in it), it still factors heavily into the thinking of his white supremacist supporters. Consequently, when a pro-Trump site decides to attack a leading Republican intellectual who dares oppose their champion, it makes perfect sense that they would dredge his Jewishness into the conversation. It’s a perfect way of signaling others in the alt right that, yes, they truly are one of them. Not only will they support your kind of candidate, but they will do using your kind of language.

While Breitbart’s anti-Semitic headline against Kristol will likely be forgotten, it is an ominous foreshadowing of what is to come. Even if Trump loses this election, he has opened floodgates that it will not be easy to close. The stigma associated with overt bigotry was a powerful disincentive, averting not only offensive language but the real violence that often follows it. Now that that has been weakened, it is quite likely that our divisions will get worse long before they can get better, regardless of whether Trump is still on the scene to stoke the flames.

Why Bernie Sanders lost the Jewish vote

Published: Quartz (April 20, 2016)

Senator Bernie Sanders is the most successful Jewish presidential candidate to date. But he did not prevail in the Apr. 19 Democratic primary in New York–despite the state’s massive Jewish community and his personal ties to Brooklyn. Even if Sanders does not end up the Democratic nominee, his efforts to push Americans politics to the left will be remembered for years to come. Among the most notable parts of his legacy may well be his attitudes toward Israel–which may also have cost him the support of his fellow Jews at the polls (who voted against him 58% to 42% in New York).

We can start with Sanders’ views on Israel. Although Sanders is unwavering in his support for Israel’s right to exist, he has also harshly criticized the Jewish state’s myriad human rights abuses against Palestinians. This was particularly apparent in the Apr. 15 debate. Sanders explained that although he is “100% pro-Israel in the long run,” he wants America “to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” and believes that listening to the Palestinian side “does not make me anti-Israel.” These are bold positions for any mainstream presidential candidate to take. And while the risk of anti-Semitism accusations may be somewhat mitigated for Sanders, his willingness to speak ill of Israel could result in him being accused of something arguably worse—being a self-hating Jew. Even if Sanders does not end up the Democratic nominee, his efforts to push Americans politics to the left will be remembered.

As a Jew who has been on the receiving end of this particular taunt, I can personally attest to how infuriating the insult is. Nevertheless, there are emotionally (if not logically) sound reasons why so many Jews feel intensely protective of Israel.

Chief among them is the existential terror that accompanies the reality of being “a Jew.” Anyone with a cursory familiarity of Jewish history knows that we have been brutally persecuted for millennia: the Roman diaspora, Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and German Holocaust are merely a few of the most conspicuous occasions in which powerful nations have not only discriminated against Jews, but actively worked to wipe out the Jewish community.

After 5,000 years of such treatment, it makes sense that many Jews are extremely sensitive about potential persecution. This sensitivity translates into the potential abandonment of any presidential candidate who speaks negatively about Israel, even one who is Jewish. After 5,000 years of such treatment, it makes sense that many Jews are extremely sensitive about potential persecution.

At the same time, however, Sanders’s positions on the issue are indicative of a growing liberalism within the American Jewish community. Indeed, numerous pollshave found that Israel ranks relatively low among Jewish voters’ priorities. And progressive humanism is just as integral to the Jewish tradition as support for Israel.
Jews have overwhelmingly voted Democratic since the 1920s—which, not coincidentally, was right around the time the Democratic party was becoming the more progressive of America’s two major political parties. Although assimilation and socioeconomic advancement have somewhat dampened these left-wing tendencies over the past 90 or so years, Jews remain a largely liberal lot.

This is in no small part because our centuries of persecution have left many of us with a keen sense of empathy. Our sympathy for the marginalized, persecuted, or suffering is also why Jews have been disproportionately active in fighting racial inequality, promoting gay rights, organizing and supporting labor unions, and backing left-wing third-party candidates. When it comes to Israel, this humanistic narrative is often at odds with historical fears of persecution. For Sanders, it’s clear which side has more influence. Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February, he said his cultural background teaches him “that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.” As millennial Jews like myself participate in the political process, we are beginning to feel less tied to Israel than ever before.

It also explains why, as millennial Jews like myself participate in the political process, we are beginning to feel less tied to Israel than ever before. “Younger Jews’ waning support for Israel in its dealings with Palestinians may not be so surprising,” explained Jason Horowitz recently in The New York Times.“Unlike their parents and grandparents, who grew up when Jews were still reeling from the Holocaust, they know Israel primarily as a powerful nation rather than an existential necessity.”

From this progressive vantage point, humanist Jews find their religion actually motivating them to criticize their motherland. After all, why would we support any powerful entity that treats others in the same way that Jews were once treated?

Ironically, Sanders’ progressive interpretation of American Jewishness may be hurting him among some segments of Jewish voters. Although Sanders is the most left-wing candidate in this election, the Clinton dynasty enjoys strong popularity within the Jewish community. When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, Jewish support for the Democratic ticket shot up by 16 points from the previous presidential election, giving him the best showing of any Democratic candidate in a quarter century. During his wife’s first presidential bid 16 years later,Jews preferred Clinton over then-senator Barack Obama by a wide margin.

Sanders’ progressive interpretation of American Jewishness may be hurting him among Jewish voters. This can be attributed in part to the Clintons’ warm personal relationships with individual Jews. Bill Clinton hired more Jews for powerful roles in his administration than any president before him, and the Clintons’ son-in-law is Jewish. But it also has to do with the Clintons’ hawkish commitment to Israel, which was best captured by Hillary’sunequivocally pro-Israel speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Of course, there is no way of knowing what’s primarily responsible for Sanders’ poor showing among Jewish voters–it could be his views on Israel, or the Jewish community’s longstanding loyalty to the Clintons. But for better or worse, the current trend shows that most Jewish voters aren’t going to play the identity politics game when it comes to their electoral decisions.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the way Sanders’ politics have brought a new phase in the identity of American Jewry to the mainstream. We are gradually becoming a culture that perceives its heritage through a distinctly American paradigm. When we assess what being Jewish means to our political values, we don’t think solely in terms of what would be superficially best for the Jewish community specifically. Rather, we use our experience as a historically persecuted minority to inform our advocacy. It’s the difference between memorializing our oppression and committing ourselves to rooting out prejudice and oppression—wherever that may occur.
We aren’t there yet, but we’re getting closer.

What it actually feels like to be targeted by Donald Trump’s neo-Nazi fan club

Published: Quartz (March 10, 2016)

With 458 delegates under his belt so far (and counting), Donald Trump is now more than one-third of the way toward receiving the Republican presidential nomination. Although millions of Americans both inside and out of the Grand Old Party are reacting to this prospect with justifiable disgust, millions more find nothing wrong with a frontrunner reluctant to condemn the Ku Klux Klan.

I don’t believe Trump is an American Hitler. At the same time, the experiences of the past few months have shown me just how dangerous he—and his supporters—already are. As I’ve discussed in the past, Trump has openly used racism to win political support, beginning with his ill-advised birther stance during the 2012 election cycle. Over the past few years, he has attracted white supremacists drawn to his bigoted rhetoric and appreciative of his hesitation to distance himself even from self-professed radicals.

What’s more, Trump has shown an open contempt for journalists and the protections of the First Amendment, as evidenced by his proclamation that he would “open up our libel laws so when [reporters] write purposefully negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Trump’s contempt for both free speech and minorities is an incredibly ominous combination. 

Trump’s contempt for both free speech and minorities is an incredibly ominous combination, as I can unfortunately personally attest to.

Although my articles have been attacked online by white supremacists in the past, my hate mail reached a new level once I began writing pieces critical of Trump. When I called him out for making anti-Semitic comments at a Republican Jewish Coalition event, Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer—one of the largest and most infamous white supremacist sites on the internet and an outspoken backer of Trump’s campaign–declared that “presently, Salon has a piece up by Jew parasite Matthew Rozsa, which they have reposted from the Jewish ‘Good Men Project,’ wherein a Jew condemns the Donald as an enemy of his evil tribe.”

Labeling me as “a Jewish ethnic activist so twisted he actually believes he can stump the Trump ,” Anglin characterized my ideological multiculturalism as part of a sinister plot, writing “they understand that if Whites are allowed to have an identity, they will be like ‘hey, who are these people with the beady eyes and hooked noses who are controlling all of our systems? I’m not sure who they are, but they’re definitely not us. Maybe we should remove them? Yeah, I’m really starting to think it would be a good idea to remove these people.’” “Salon has a piece up by Jew parasite Matthew Rozsa, wherein a Jew condemns the Donald as an enemy of his evil tribe.” 

The article circulated quickly between hate groups. One white supremacist promoted the piece by saying “this demonic kike is apparently upset that Trump made politically incorrect remarks about Jews,”while another showed a picture of me taken outside Lehigh University with the caption, “Look at this filthy Jew rat!” At the online forum Stormfront–which exploded in popularity following Barack Obama’s election in 2008, tripling its audience to more than 300,000 members–the piece was reposted with comments arguing that “this is exactly how the international Jewry declared war on Hitler and Germany and so started World War 2.”

Many of these Stormfronters wanted to make sure I read their remarks and so forwarded the links to my email address, which is how Anglin’s article found its way back to me.

At the time, I found this hyperbolic response rather amusing. As someone who was nearly murdered in an anti-Semitic hate crime when I was twelve, I’m adept at distinguishing between metaphorical sticks and stones and the real thing. I wrote as much in a follow-up piece for The Good Men Project, titled “Why We Should Laugh at Trump’s Nazis.” Anglin, not one for being laughed at, lashed out with a rambling article that meandered from further attacks on imagined Jewish conspiracies and “the Black communist agitator Martin Luther King” to a defensive rationalization of a botched Batman analogy. I read his response, chuckled, and then let the matter rest. Nearly murdered in a hate crime, I’m adept at distinguishing between metaphorical sticks and stones and the real thing. 

That is, until I began to really reflect on what Trump’s campaign is representing.

As I mentioned earlier, racist hate groups have proliferated in the aftermath of Obama’s presidency. Trump’s presidential campaign seems to be the ultimate manifestation of that reactionary backlash. Aside from the cult of personality surrounding his campaign, the only consistent theme behind Trump’s 2016 political brand has been his brazen race-baiting: Mexican-Americans, Muslims, and African-Americans have all been targeted, to say nothing of women.

Even if Trump never reaches the White House, his campaign’s rhetoric has gradually normalized the blatantly racist demagoguery of his supporters. This effect in itself is a very big deal. The last presidential candidate to win the Republican nomination without the support of the party establishment was Barry Goldwater in 1964. In the process, Goldwater wound up redefining the GOP according to the neoconservative principles that every subsequent candidate was required to adhere to for the next 50 years.

An America in which either Trump or one of his movement’s successors ascends to national power would be a country driven by hate. With Trump’s impending nomination,another realignment of historic magnitude seems to be taking place. Only this time, instead of forcing the party to adhere more consistently to a conservative ideology, Trump demands that it abandon ideology altogether in the name of racial tribalism. To the extent that Trump has expanded his appeal beyond the “angry white male/female” demographic, it is only to take advantage of the “strong man” persona he’s cultivated as a celebrity.

My experiences this winter are testament to an ugly reality. While Obama may still be our president, racist elements in our society are becoming bolder than ever before. Trump says that he’s going to “make America great again.” But an America in which either Trump or one of his movement’s successors ascends to national power would be a country driven by hate.

Although I have nothing but contempt for Trump and his racist supporters, I respect their right to free speech. I would rather live in a society that permits it that one that does not–even when some of the invective is directed at myself. It is clear that Trump and his backers do not share these values and would, if empowered, seek to squash the rights of non-whites (or anyone else, for that matter) who disagree. So I cannot afford to stay silent.

The stakes have become very high indeed. I don’t find Trump’s neo-Nazi fanboys particularly funny anymore.

Why Bernie Sanders’ Judaism is so important

Published: Salon (February 11, 2016)

With his New Hampshire primary victory now in the books, Bernie Sanders has done more than simply guarantee that Hillary Clinton won’t have a free ride to the Democratic nomination. Indeed, even if Clinton ultimately bests Sanders in the upcoming primaries, the Vermont senator has still achieved something of lasting significance:

He is the first Jewish American to win a presidential primary.

This isn’t to say that he is the first American of Jewish descent to win a presidential primary. That distinction belongs to Barry Goldwater, an arch-conservative Arizona senator who upset the GOP establishment by winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Although his father was ethnically Jewish, however, Goldwater himself had been raised as an Episcopalian by a devoutly religious mother. Despite never denying or apologizing for his Jewish background, Goldwater didn’t identify with it either during his politically active days, prompting one journalist to quip, “Somehow I always knew that our first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian.” Regardless of whether or not one considers Goldwater to have been a Jew, though, it is clear that Jewish voters did not embrace his values or want them implemented in the White House: Goldwater pulled in only 10 percent of the Jewish vote against President Lyndon Johnson that year, a historic shellacking within that demographic that no major party candidate has matched in more than 50 years since.

When it comes to mainstream Jewish presidential candidates, the roster doesn’t go on much further after Goldwater. There was Milton Shapp, a respectable two-term governor of Pennsylvania whose milquetoast personality doomed him early in the 1976 Democratic primaries; Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut senator and Al Gore’s vice-presidential running mate in 2000 (a first in Jewish history), whose relatively conservative views rendered his 2004 presidential bid a non-starter — and that’s about it, really. There a few footnotes on the list – Larry Agran, the Jewish mayor of Irvine, California, ran a nearly invisible presidential campaign in 1992 and got a handful of votes at the Democratic Convention that year as a result, while John Kerry(then a senator from Massachusetts) didn’t learn that he had a Jewish grandfather until the start of his ultimately successful campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2004. Aside from that, the record is pretty sparse. For all of their contributions to American life, Jews have barely made a ripple in the realm of presidential politics.

In many ways, Sanders seems like an unexpected figure to change that, and the fact that he openly identifies as secular is the least of the problems here. (After all, a majority of American Jews today are also secular.) On a deeper level, the issue is that he doesn’t seem to own up to his Jewishness except when prompted to do so. A rabbi at a temple in South Burlington, Vermont, complained that although Sanders “knows he’s Jewish” and “has a good heart,” the community would benefit from him openly embracing his heritage. “We need a Jewish hug from him every once in a while,” the rabbi said.

An Orthodox Jew named Richard Sugarman, a professor of philosophy and one of Sanders’ closest friends, noted while he isn’t embarrassed about his faith, “he continues to be a universalist; he doesn’t focus on those issues.” Even as Clinton has taken open and justifiable pride in the prospect of becoming America’s first female president, Sanders only mentions his Jewishness when someone else broaches the subject.

When he is asked, however, his response illuminates the distinct influence of his Jewishness on his political ideology. When Anderson Cooper pointed out to Sanders during a town hall event that “you’re Jewish, but you’ve said that you’re not actively involved with organized religion,” and asked how he could appeal to religious voters, Sanders offered a revealing reply: “I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings,” adding that his spirituality moves him to believe “that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.”

When Sanders uttered those words, he placed himself squarely in one of American Jewry’s oldest and proudest traditions — namely, disproportionately supporting left-wing causes. “In their voting behavior, political identity and attitudes, American Jews are disproportionately clustered on the liberal/Democratic side of the political spectrum,” explained political scientist Kenneth Wald in an interview with the Washington Post. “The pattern has held more or less steady since the late 1920s. But we expect most affluent people to favor the party of the right. As a group, even allowing for individual differences, American Jews rank at or near the top on most measures of social class — education, income, occupational prestige and such. That makes their commitment to the Democratic party and liberal values puzzling.”

As a result of these left-wing tendencies, Jews have been numerically conspicuous in forming and supporting labor unions, championing civil rights for racial minorities and other marginalized groups, and backing not only liberal Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson but also leftist third-party candidates like Socialist Eugene V. Debs (1920), Progressive Henry Wallace (1948), and Independent John Anderson (1980). As a long-oppressed minority with a strong sense of historical continuity, Jews have maintained their sympathy for the underdog even in a nation like America, where they have flourished.

If nothing else, this also makes Sanders an ideal foil to oppose the other winner in New Hampshire, the Republican Party’s reactionary racist Donald Trump. When it comes to narrative symmetry, the juxtaposition can hardly be beat: On the one side, you have an out-of-touch pampered billionaire who panders to simple-minded racism, misogyny and xenophobia; on the other, you have a wild-haired Jewish socialist from a lower-middle-class background who fought for civil rights as a youth before getting swept up in the countercultural politics of tiny, iconoclastic Vermont. The contrast practically writes itself — and in a Sanders-Trump election, the former’s Jewish identity would be an integral part of that narrative.

In the end, this is what makes Sanders such an ideal representative of the Jewish community in the presidential arena. Exactly one century after Louis Brandeis became America’s first Jewish Supreme Court judge (his confirmation was heatedly opposed due in equal parts to anti-Semitism and antipathy to his staunch left-wing views), Sanders has become America’s first viable Jewish presidential candidate, because, like his antecedents, he has distilled basic human compassion into a broader ideology. Given the chance to realize their potential in the land of opportunity, the majority of American Jews are like Sanders in feeling compassion for those who, like so many Jews in so many lands throughout the millennia, are oppressed or disadvantaged or suffering. Although Sanders’ ideology no doubt springs from many sources, his overwhelming sense of empathy for the downtrodden is as Jewish as the poem that graces the Statue of Liberty, written by the American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus. The final verses read:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”