by Rafael Medoff
Melania Trump, the wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, says that a Jewish journalist “provoked” anti-Semitic harassment by writing an unflattering article about her. In doing so, Mrs. Trump has joined a small but notorious group of public figures who, instead of confronting anti-Semitism, have preferred to blame the victim.
Julia Ioffe’s recent article about Melania, in GQ Magazine, disclosed that Mrs. Trump has a half-brother whose existence their father has never acknowledged. As a result, Ioffe received numerous threats to her life from self-described Donald Trump supporters. Some of the harassing telephone calls included recordings of speeches by Adolf Hitler. Ioffe has filed a complaint with the police.
In an interview with Du Jour Magazine, the would-be First Lady was asked about the anti-Semitic harassment of Ms. Ioffe. Melania replied: “I don’t control my fans, but I don’t agree with what they’re doing…but there are people out there who maybe went too far. She provoked them.”
Donald Trump is well known for his reluctance to distance himself from his more extreme supporters, and for his tendency to blame others for “provoking” unruly behavior by his admirers. Some critics might say that Melania is following in her husband’s footsteps by depicting her more vicious “fans” as the ones who were unfairly “provoked” by Ms. Ioffe.
Mrs. Trump, however, is not the first public figure to blame Jewish behavior for the actions of anti-Semites.
One infamous outburst along these lines came from British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, in 1945. Annoyed by the growing pressure to admit Holocaust survivors to Mandatory Palestine, Bevin warned that if “the Jews” tried “to get too much to the head of the queue, you have the danger of another anti-Semitic reaction through it all.” Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann memorably responded that just a few months earlier, “the Jews had the highest priority in the queues which led to the crematoria of Auschwitz and Treblinka.”
The following summer, another prominent European public figure invoked the blame-the-Jews theme. After pogromists murdered 46 Jews in the Polish town of Kielce in 1946, the highest church official in Poland, Cardinal August Hlond, declared that the attackers were simply responding to the (alleged) presence of many Jewish officials in the country’s new Communist regime. These Jews were “attempting to impose forms of government completely rejected by the great majority of people,” the cardinal insisted; therefore, the responsibility for the violence in Kielce “is borne to a great extent by Jews.”
It is even more troubling that such sentiments have been privately voiced by several presidents.
Consider, for example, the February 21, 1973 telephone conversation between then-President Richard Nixon and evangelist Billy Graham. (The transcript was released by the Nixon Presidential Library in 2009.) Nixon told Graham that Jewish opposition to Christian evangelism would “stir up” anti-Semitism. “It happened in Spain, it happened in Germany, it’s happening–and now it’s going to happen in America if these people don’t start behaving,” the president asserted. “It may be they have a death wish,” Nixon added. “You know that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.” Even “a lot of reasonable people…are getting awfully sick of” Jewish behavior, he said.
Unfortunately, such attitudes sometimes can be found on both sides of the political aisle. In 1968, the U.S. government published a transcript of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s January 17, 1943 meeting with local officials in Casablanca. Discussing the status of Jews in Allied-liberated North Africa, FDR said that quotas should be used to ensure that Jews “would not overcrowd the professions.” The transcript continued: “The President stated that his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc, in Germany, were Jews.” (Those statistics were wild exaggerations, of course.)
While doing research at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem several years ago, I came across another Roosevelt statement in this vein. The document contained the notes of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent American Jewish leader of that era, from a meeting he had with President Roosevelt on January 22, 1938. When Wise referred to the mistreatment of Jews in Poland, FDR responded with an anecdote alleging that “the Jewish grain dealer and the Jewish shoe dealer and the Jewish shopkeeper” were dominating the Polish economy, and that was what provoked local Christians to start saying “the Jew should go.”
In the cases of Nixon and Roosevelt, their private sentiments about Jewish behavior did not become public knowledge until many years after they had passed away. In the case of Melania Trump, however, she has unabashedly made her views known; perhaps we should be thankful for that.