Like many Jewish families in America, the Reizes household has been deliberating in recent months what Donald Trump really thinks of them.
As they celebrate the Jewish New Year this weekend in their suburban Cleveland home, the topic of discussion will once again be anti-Semitism, and whether it's surging in the United States thanks to the Trump campaign. Like others representing America's aging Jewish Gen-X'ers and boomers, Joelle Reizes, 48, remembers experiencing some anti-Semitism as a girl—occasional sideways glances and untoward comments. But millennial Jews and their juniors are another matter. Joelle's children—ages 19, 14, and 12—have grown up during an unprecedented era of prosperity and assimilation for Jews in America, one in which the struggles endured by an earlier generation is understood as something closer to historical lore than present fact.
"They've been protected," says the Reizes' mother, "to help them to not feel like being Jewish isn't different."
For younger Jews in the United States, that era has suddenly passed. The early months of 2016 brought in a strange tide of online hate speech aimed largely at Jewish journalists who had published articles critical of Trump or his campaign, with all the old ugly epithets on display. Then in July Trump's Twitter account posted an image of a six-pointed star next to a picture of Hillary Clinton, with a pile of money in the background. Though he deleted the tweet, afterward Trump walked up to a brightly lit podium and defended the image, bellowing that the Jewish star was not a Jewish star. A dim reality descended on American Jews. Yes: Trump had broadcast the message of a neo-Nazi without apology.
Then: Weeks of quiet, lasting into August. But the issue roared back into view in September, when the ex-wife of Trump's campaign manager, Steve Bannon, said that Bannon had kept his daughters out of a school because he there were too many "whiny" Jewish brats there; the candidate's son, Donald Trump, Jr., retweeted someone described as the neo-Nazis' "favorite academic"; and a Trump advisor was accused of discriminating against Jewish employees (and denying the Holocaust). Then Don Trump, Jr., with unblinking casualness, stumbled on an odious analogy. "The media has been [Clinton's] number one surrogate," Donald, Jr. complained, not unlike a whiny brat, during a radio interview in Philadelphia. "If Republicans were doing that, they'd be warming up the gas chamber."
Trump himself, of course, has denied any hint of anti-Semitism, pointing out that his daughter Ivanka is married to an Orthodox Jew, Jared Kushner, who is also a close campaign advisor. Even so, the Reizes family of Cleveland has been deliberating how to process such events—and the return of an age-old enmity that the Trump campaign has somehow reawakened. How soon is too soon to brush the cobwebs away from an ancient alarm bell? The father, Ofer Reizes, a soft-spoken man of Israeli heritage, wants to discern the source before issuing labels. "My reservation with how anti-Semitic Mr. Trump really is that he's playing a game, a very effective game," he says. His wife prods back: "I don't care if he's playing a game or not." "It's just part of his campaign, is my point," Mr. Reizes retorts in plaintive, be-understanding tone. "It's the people he's riling up." There's a pause, as his wife quietly considers this. "When David Duke thinks he's the best thing ever," she intones slowly, "it doesn't matter what he feels in his heart."
But while his parents deliberate, it's 19-year-old Zach Reizes who is most firm in his views. "What Trump has brought to the surface is, in many ways, the first blatant anti-Semitic experience for the vast majority of American millennials," says Zach, an angular and handsome sophomore at Ohio University. On campus, he's active both with AIPAC, the right-of-center bulwark of Jewish politics, and J-Street, it's younger and left-leaning rival. "My little sister," he adds, thinks that Trump "is the Haman of the Purim story."
Zach has launched more than words. Last March, when AIPAC invited Trump to its annual conference, Reizes wrote an open letter to AIPAC, cautioning that the organization risked countenancing bigotry by inviting Trump to speak,. "Your organization has...taught me to speak up for myself and for my values," Reizes wrote. "My fellow students and I must sit quietly in tacit support of a man who speaks against every value I hold close." The letter became well circulated in Jewish media; a representative from AIPAC contacted Reizes to make amends.
Reizes' AIPAC letter was an illuminating moment in the tangled world of Jewish politics, where anti-Semitism is a topic traditionally lectured from right to left, from older to younger. But Trump's success—and a white nationalist subculture blooming like algae in the Internet's unlighted depths—has turned millennial Jews into the new expositors of anti-Semitism at the dinner table: Quietly explaining Pepe the Frog, opaque Twitter memes and dyspeptic forums like Stormfront to frozen audiences of parents and grandparents. It's thrust young Jews into long-buried questions of assimilation and political position, whiteness and privilege. And it's heightened a divide between young and old, left and right: Progressive young Jews learning to form the words "anti-Semitism," often for the first time—even while they take umbrage at their right-leaning scolds who, now into October, have kept up a deafening silence on the topic of Trump.
This year, Reizes and his peers have watched the situation deteriorate: Headshots of journalists superimposed in concentration camps; calls to Jewish reporters in the middle of the night playing Hitler's voice; white supremacists who appended parentheses around the names of Jews online. Recently, a feature by POLITICO on white America won its author fresh opprobrium as a "Marxist kike." The anonymous stalker's Twitter avatar, Pepe the Frog, has become a symbol of the white nationalist alt-right—named this week by the Anti-Defamation League as an official hate symbol—and an image that Donald Trump himself once broadcast, amplifying the dog whistles of a more innocent era into something akin to a trombone blast.
To some young Jews, this election season has felt like a cold shower. "Whether you experienced no anti-Semitism growing up, or a watered-down version of it, I think most young people felt like anti-Semitism was dying," says Debbie Rabbinovich, 19, a sophomore and Hillel member at the University of Pennsylvania. Other young activists were reconsidering what they had heard for years from an older generation. "For a long time we were told that anti-Semitism was everywhere, and we rolled our eyes at that," says Morriah Kaplan, 24, a leader in the left-leaning activist group If Not Now. But, she acknowledged, "This feels like the closest thing to the type of anti-Semitism that my grandparents talk about experiencing in Poland."
When I spoke with Zach Reizes not long ago, his fears since the AIPAC letter had amplified—as well as a sense among young Jews that America's right-leaning Jewish elite was losing credibility. "Most college students are handling this type of anti-Semitism for the first time," Reizes said. There's a sense that "it delegitimizes the position of far right wing activists [in Jewish politics] who support a candidate who is, at least in some ways, tacitly anti-Semitic."
It's impossible, as American Jewish families go, to gauge how widespread these dinner table conversations are—but the scope and scale was hinted at when the discord touched the family of Haman himself. When Donald Trump's star tweet sufficiently embarrassed Jared Kushner, Trump's Orthodox son-in-law, Kushner published an op-ed in his paper, the New York Observer, defending Trump and invoking the plight of his ancestors in the Holocaust. Immediately, Kushner's extended family fired back, launching an internecine war of words: "Please don't invoke our grandparents in vain just so you can sleep better at night," seethed one Kushner cousin. "It is self-serving and disgusting."
Kushner was also blasted by a young member of his staff at the New York Observer, 23-year-old writer Dana Schwartz, who is Jewish. Her provocation was an open letter, and like Zach's, it was scathing. "When you stand silent and smiling in the background, his Jewish son-in-law," she wrote to her boss, "you're giving his most hateful supporters tacit approval."
"Donald Trump," Reizes says, "has put the Jewish community in a turmoil that I don't really think we've experienced in a long time."
In another election, Americans would be studying this problem at the movies, not in the news. A new film out this month, Denial, with Rachel Weisz and Tom Wilkinson, depicts the lawsuit in the late nineteen-nineties between historian Deborah Lipstadt and pseudo-academic David Irving, a figurehead of Holocaust denial who asserted, as just one example, that Auschwitz did not contain gas chambers. For five years, the Holocaust was essentially put on trial. Lipstadt won. One imagines that watching Denial from the perch of 2016 will evoke the grim sense of peering into more innocent times, when the world of anti-Semitic conspiracy felt compelled to present itself in tweed jackets and book bindings.
The Internet harassers of Jewish journalist have no compunctions. Like so much of civic life that has evaporated to the Internet, it's no longer the kind of thing that can be hauled into court.
Denial is a reminder of something else: If America's millennial Jews have grown up quickly this election, it's because their adversaries have grown younger, too. In Denial, our antagonists are well over 60; even into Obama's first term, the wrinkled faces of the anti-Semitic underground were accurately captured by James von Brunn, the 89-year-old man who attacked the Holocaust Museum with a rifle in 2010. But the bloodbath by 21-year-old racist Dylann Roof (a white nationalist whose final manifesto also professed a desire to "turn every Jew blue") ushered us into a new era, a nightmarish prelude to the youthful portraits of this election's white supremacists. They include 31-year-old Andrew Aglin, founder of the Daily Stormer—a bigot and racist who refers to his presidential candidate by nom de guerre, "Glorious Leader." College undergraduates from California, leisurely attending white nationalist conferences, have also shown up; and 25-year-old Matthew Heimbach, dubbed the "next David Duke." ("Hail, Emperor Trump and hail victory.") Trump has opted to wink and nod at such "deplorables" (as Hillary Clinton has called them) when given the chance.
Presidential politics has never been entirely immune from this disease, a history for which Irving and contemporaries were present, but the millennial class under 35 was not. In 1935, FDR spoke of "dirty Jewish tricks" to describe a tax maneuver by the New York Times, and ribbed a sitting senator about the lack of "Jewish blood in our veins." Harry Truman's diary revealed not dissimilar sentiments. Rumors of Richard Nixon's tirades chased his campaigns long before becoming president. After he won in 1968, White House tapes reveal a president speaking freely of Jewish cabals controlling the media and the IRS. He also included fairly straightforward instructions about his judicial nominees: "No Jews. Is that clear?" (It was.)
Nixon's became the last tenure of semi-public, anti-Semitic overtures—a political milestone that also demarked a moment of assimilation for American Jewry. By 1970, says Marjorie Feld, a professor who teaches Jewish American history, "American Jews obtained tremendous amounts of power, and they largely assimilated to mainstream American identities," a development sped along by Jews considerable involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. But just as the political identities of Americans and Jews were knit together, says Feld, Jewish politics itself underwent an unraveling. The catalyst for both trends was the Six Day War in 1967, an event that simultaneously unleashed a rush of Jewish pride and birthed modern American Zionism—while cleaving a rift in Jewish sensibilities about privilege and existential risk that has never relented.
"Sixty-seven was a watershed year, because American Zionism became much more strident," says Feld, who also referenced Torn at the Roots, a history of American Jewish politics by Michael Straub. It was, Feld says, a "conservative turn...that came at a high price": A divide by the late sixties, one in which younger, socially progressive Jews, whose spiritual antecedent was the Civil Rights Movement, increasingly found themselves at odds with an older and right-leaning American Jewry politically moored to Israel. Central to the dichotomy were differing notions of which horizon to watch for the arrival of anti-Semitism: The left, like the American college campus, or the right—like the Trump campaign.
This is the warring dichotomy that white, assimilated Jewish children of the 1990s (including this author) have been dropped into as young adults. As a historic debate unfolds about privilege and race, largely on campus, progressive Jews play the role of allies, not the marginalized. Complicating matters is Israel itself: The burgeoning growth of the Boycott Divest Sanctions movement, and a diminishing generational attachment to the Jewish state. A recent Pew survey finds the number of millennials sympathetic to Palestine has grown from 9 percent to 27 since 2006; support for Israel fell from 51 percent to 43.
Such numbers have fed the encompassing fear of the Jewish right, whose worry over college campuses is boiling near the edge of panic—the culmination of a decades-long narrative that college campuses represent the main spigot of anti-Israel programming. In 2002, Campus Watch was formed, a website that polices the political opinions of college professors and class offerings, ever alert for perceived anti-Israel leanings. A new project funded by Trump-supporter Sheldon Adelson, the Maccabee Task Force, is now writing grants to intervene on behalf of hapless students, ostensibly blind to the crisis around them. "Our goal is to change the younger generation from neutral, if not opposed to Israel, to support of Israel," says Task Force director David Brog. According to the LA Times, one grantee, "Stop the Jew Hatred on Campus," is a campaign of campus provocateur David Horowitz. Horowitz's campaign this year independently papered papered the campus of UCLA with posters that read "Jew Hater," under the headshots of UCLA undergraduates.
While Adelon's Maccabee Task Force funds the hunt for anti-Semites, the pro-Israel pillars of the American right have remained silent on the gargantuan problem of Donald Trump. Young people have not overlooked the irony—a skepticism felt acutely by young people interviewed for this story. "What's most shocking is...how silent the Jewish establishment has been in calling out Trump's behavior," Kaplan said. She later added, "The same people who told me that anti-Semitism was everywhere are now conspicuously silent on Trump. In some cases, they're supporting Trump."
Those organizations include the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and plausibly a litany of others in the constellation of Jewish advocacy. They have yet to distance, denounce, or in some cases meaningfully comment on Trump's anti-Semitic rhetoric, even as the indecencies by the campaign pile up with deadening normalcy. (An AIPAC spokesman respectfully declined twice to comment; the RJC did not return the request.) Some have sought to strike a posture of concern: The AJC has condemned Trump's calls for "riots," but declined to mention Trump by name, and later offered a mushy response about as unhelpful as Trump's non-denials and Kushner's op-ed.
Jewish voters, who consistently vote Democratic, support Trump in numbers of around 19 percent, according to one poll, and 21 percent in Florida (compared to something closer to zero for African American respondents). Not since William Jennings Bryan in 1896 has a candidate united a coalition of American Zionists and a larger anti-Semitic constituency under the same umbrella, according to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. (Bryan interweaved his cross-of-gold populism with homilies of Jewish financial control—simultaneously supporting a Jewish homeland for biblical reasons.)
The double standard has not escaped the Jewish left. In an open letter published in Haaretz last month, public intellectual and journalism professor Peter Beinart accused the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations of dodging the question of Trump. "Donald Trump is not a distraction. He is the thing our tradition teaches us to resist," Beinart wrote. "In this season of national decision and Jewish self-reflection, please reflect on your silence."
"The deafening silence [on Trump] is in proportion to how high they feel the stakes are," says Feld. For one, Trump could become president—and the candidate has made it abundantly clear that his beliefs are dictated entirely by the identities of those who says nice things to him. But the other clear factor is Iran; as the New Yorker reports, Trump is planning to annihilate the Obama administration's Iran Deal in the first days of office. "The fact that they are silent speaks to how desperate things have become. BDS is gaining momentum, and Sanders, even, is invoking some criticism of Israel," says Feld. "They're very anxious of what the Democratic party might offer them."
Meanwhile, in Jewish politics, cats are for the moment chasing dogs as left-leaning groups chide their right-wing counterparts for failing to denounce anti-Semitism. This summer, a statement from 28 Jewish action groups, mostly on the left, called on Republican Jewish Coalition leader Matthew Brooks to denounce Donald Trump. In June, a protest organized in New York by the progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc saw young activists chanting "We've Seen This Before," and hoisted signs that bore the slogan "Jews Reject Trump," a tactic that shared more in common with Horowitz than the Jewish left. The group has since revamped the protest: Last week, Bend the Arc hosted protests across the country, and launched a new website, "We've Seen This Before," featuring a video with harsh, if playful, warnings from a cast of grandparents.
"It's a really important phenomenon," says the New York protest's organizer, Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, which signed the petition. "This is a time when we would expect more of the Jewish right to be speaking out against anti-Semitism...and now we're seeing the progressive side doing it." Says Logan Bayroff, spokesman for J Street: "The continued silence of much of the institutional Jewish community on Trump's candidacy only stands to substantiate claims that they don't speak for the younger generation of Jews."
The left has not missed a chance to radiate schadenfreude, a move that does not sit well with Alan Dershowtiz, the longtime expositor of American Jewish politics and famous gadfly of the campus left. "Jewish leaders are failing the shoe-on-the-other-foot test," he told me over the summer, acknowledging the Jewish right had missed an opportunity. But he offered a more circumspect warning, one of a coming stalemate in which both the Jewish left and right "see anti-Semitism when it's not there against their enemies, and they don't see it when it is there, from their friends." Dershowtiz added, "The issue of anti-Semitism is too important to be politicized—whether it's a Democrat or Republican."
But in this moment, the silence on anti-Semitism—at a juncture of world-historical importance, on an international stage—is a problem that afflicts only one side, not two. Millennial Jews have noticed. "A lot of Jews nailed Trump from the beginning," says Feld, the historian. "If student don't hear from the Jewish right on Trump, and soon, she adds, "there may be a be a price to pay in terms of their own longevity."
"It's definitely surprising for us to be the ones calling it out," says Rabbinovich, the Penn sophomore. "Jewish organizations who are calling out other organizations [on] Trump for his anti-Semitism? Yes, I agree with them."
Of the Jewish establishment groups silent on Trump, Rabbinovich didn't hesitate. "Not making a statement makes a statement itself."
Young American Jews have identified a problem. But it's with trepidation. As the establishment clashes, millennial Jews may still be deliberating if, and how, to take sides. It's a delicate balancing act. To be a center-left Jew in American politics is often to internalize two suspicions simultaneously: Insufficiently moved by the plight of the marginalized on campus; and insufficiently moved for the plight of Israel at the family reunion.
"What I always heard from my grandparents and my mom were very stereotypical examples of anti-Semitism," says Reizes. "I always said, this is dying out. Maybe in Europe." The election has caused enough students to ask aloud—were the grandparents right? "It's a moment when both you and your grandma get to be right about this," Harpo Jaeger, 25, tells me, an experienced campus activist in Jewish politics and a faith-based organizer. "She gets to be right that anti-Semitism is alive and well, and Jews should be worried about it," he adds. "And the left gets to be correct, in that the anti-Israel or anti-Zionist left doesn't have a monopoly on anti-Semitism. These people really are everywhere."
Then there is the dilemma on campus. Even as they might march with Black Lives Matter or once lobbied for marriage equality, on campus, says Rabbinovich, "Anti-Semitism isn't viewed as an important or valid form of prejudice." Partly for this reason, Reizes suspects more Jewish students are leery of bringing up anti-Semitism, whether in class, on Twitter or in person. "Many of us don't know how to tackle it," says Reizes. "The inability to... to fight back against it comes from a few places," he adds. "But I also think it comes from a hesitancy to maybe support Judaism because of Israel."
It would be a mistake to blame BDS for this condition. More likely, efforts like Horowitz's "Jew Haters" have done much to raise the political price of speaking out. "A lot of young Jews don't have the vocabulary to talk about anti-Semitism, because most of the time the label is levelled against us and those we would align with—like those who called for acknowledging human rights of Palestinians," says Kaplan. "That's language we've separated ourselves from." One Brown University senior told me "there's no question" that Trump is peddling anti-Semitism. But there won't be a "Jews Against Trump" rally at Brown any time soon. The charge of anti-Semitism, the senior said, would just "get caught in their throat, because there's so much psychological baggage about grandma, and psychological baggage about being gas-lighted" by the far right.
The Jewish right has long pushed the message that we can't talk of Israel without talking of anti-Semitism. Not without irony, then, have they gotten their wish: A generation of left-leaning Jews ready to speak publically against anti-Semitism, yet frozen by fear that it appears disingenuous to do so, convinced it's viewed as code for Israel. Trump's rhetoric may be unprecedented. But no one wants to join an inquisition that marks their hall mates as Jew Haters.
The dilemma on campus offers a metaphor for the 2016 campaign, one that has enlarged a dilemma occupying the minds of American Jews, not just young ones. Empowered majority or embattled minority? Ally or victim? At the heart of this tumult is a sensitive question, one millennials haven't had much reason to engage until now: How white are the Jews?
Like other European ethnicities, the United States fashioned an immigration quota system during the interwar years that painted immigrant Jews as non-white, writes UCLA professor Karen Brodkin in her book, "How Jews Became White Folks." Such notions endured up to the war, when nearly a thousand Jews fleeing Nazi Germany aboard the St. Louis were turned away, and a proposal to allow Jewish children to emigrate was swiftly quashed. But a different story developed in the post-war era—Jews "certainly took on whiteness by the sixties and seventies," says Feld, the historian, a process as traceable in history texts as it is on Mad Men, where Jews slowly gain entry into the office setting. It was an assimilation so famously swift that Jewish American culture would soon be presented with the opposite moral dilemma—tested by the darker impulses of full assimilation. Even as Syrian refugees seek sanctuary aboard their own St. Louis, it is not purely coincidence that the chief architect of Donald Trump's scheme to bar them—as well as banning Muslims and deporting Mexicans—is Stephen Miller, who is Jewish.
The question of Jewish whiteness is a theoretical dispute, not a real debate in this country. Nevertheless, it presents a thicket of social politics precarious enough to give even Ta-Nahesi Coates pause, and the disagreement among Jews runs deep. The debate owes a new twist to Trump. When two Jewish writers recently sparred over Jewish whiteness, Trump supporter David Duke rejoiced—proof that Jews were coming out as non-white. This election season has highlighted a grim paradox, one that underpins the confusion of millennials: An elder generation of Jews—old enough to remember the St. Louis—now shares something in common with David Duke and his white nationalists, two groups invested in prodding a younger generation to reconsider how white they really are. And an incipient alignment between Black Lives Matter and BDS on campus reflects, in part, the same principle that animates Stephen Miller—a modern assumption that Jews are entitled to the trappings of American white supremacy.
This divide between two Judaisms—splitscreen worlds of historical memory, privilege and whiteness—may never be bridged. If it can, millennials may be the ones who bridge it. In July, Jewish activist Carly Pildis penned an essay in Tablet Magazine, "I am Woke," urging activists of the left to accept the reality of anti-Semitism into their sensibility of social justice, without Jews apologizing for Israel. "We are facing a wave of anger and violence against people of color not seen in my lifetime," write Pildis. "The Jewish people are facing that, too, the anger, the violent rhetoric, the Trump supporters demanding Jewish reporters' heads."
That message resonates with Rabbinovich, the Penn sophomore, who wants to see anti-Semitism reconsidered as the kind of structural oppression taught on campuses. "I think for that to happen, young people on the center-left have to be calling it out," she says. "I think it's kind of a brave step for people on the center-left to take, because it's so unfamiliar. But it's also the right step." But she also sees Trump as a moral imperative for Jews to find common cause with the social justice activism of the moment, not just that of Israel.
These conversations—difficult, tangled—may soon bear out, when the Reizes and other families convene over the High Holy Days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah. Millennials are in a good position to lead these conversations; explainers of a strange new world, much of it online, and ambassadors of a campus generation more attuned to the politics of social justice than in recent memory. But each generation will have much to share.
"Why the Jews? I don't know," says Zach Reizes. "It's a very scary thought, that maybe all those horror stories we've been told about Jewish persecution are right." The nineteen-year-old adds, "Maybe they're still foreshadowing a future that we thought had died."
"I haven't gotten to sit down for a real talk with my parents," Dana Schwartz, the author of the open letter that pricked Kushner to action, told me over the summer. "I'm actually going home to Chicago this weekend. That's where the conversation will happen."
Correction: An earlier version stated that a poster campaign by the group, "Stop the Jew Haters on Campus," was funded by the Maccabee Task Force. In fact, while the group itself received a grant from the MTF, the poster campaign in question did not.