Julia Ioffe, Melania Trump, and How “The Jew” Is a Precarious Symbol in Trumpist America

The reaction to Melania Trump's comments on her 'GQ' profile shows the curious contradictions at the heart of the American Right.

Last Thursday, a GQ profile of Melania Trump ran. Soon after, Melania expressed dissatisfaction with the piece’s representation of her. And soon after that, the writer, Julia Ioffe, started receiving Tweets of Jews in ovens.

The criticism of Julia Ioffe’s article on Melania Trump’s part was relatively vague — saying that the piece is “yet another example of the dishonest media and their disingenuous reporting” and that “Ioffe, a journalist who is looking to make a name for herself, clearly had an agenda when going after my family.” (The only exception to the vagueness is when Trump takes particular issue with the negative representation of her line of skin cream). That’s to say, Melania herself did not say anything along the lines of, “the author seemed too foully semitic to be profiling me.”

And yet in Melania’s not-wildly-vitriolic dissatisfaction, a gaggle of Trump supporters saw a call to arms, and employed the weapon they’ve consistently had at their disposal: a curiously indiscriminate knack for discrimination. Suddenly the author, who explained on Twitter that she moved to the U.S. with her family from Russia as a child to escape antisemitism, was receiving a downpour of dizzyingly hateful Tweets, getting calls from a sender that was just a recording of Hitler speaking, and then eventually getting a call from a company called “Overnight Caskets” and being told they’d heard she’d be needing one. In brief:

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The sudden surge of antisemitism on Ioffe’s wall underscores the odd state of the American Jew as a religious minority and set of ethnic minorities — many of whom are conveniently seen as white until it’s just as convenient to use violently racialized, eugenics-recollective stereotypes against them. It also serves as yet another revelation about the generalized minority hate employed by supporters of Trump’s “authoritarian populism,” as The Washington Post described it.

The American Jew lives, to an extent, on the precipice of the bigoted deep end of white supremacist American perception. Many American Jews (myself included) get the benefit of physically embodying white privilege, while simultaneously existing as a minority group who either escaped genocide or the conditions that predated it — and seeing residual sentiment from those times when a last name, a piece of biographical information on Wikipedia, or the close-scrutiny of a facial feature leads the bigoted mind to decide we are something “other.” On occasion, this manifests in actual hate crimes.

I have not personally experienced any memorable forms of discrimination whatsoever since middle school, and because of that, it’s always felt — and to an extent, still feels — trivial to decry antisemitism within my experiences in NY and LA when more fervent, systemically oppressive -isms affect people in this country in the 2010s. But Jews can exist within white supremacist favor to such an extent that it’s easy to forget the potentially oscillatory nature of their status — accepted by bigots solely a symbol that they see acting in opposition to their greater fear of an Islamic threat. (Israel’s own militaristic extremism of late is complicit in attracting European and American white supremacists, as is the country’s own knack for marginalization of different groups of Jews along racial lines.)

Michelle Goldberg writes in The Daily Beast, in regards to right-wing Europe’s turn toward Zionism, and to Norway mass murderer Anders Brehvik’s own surprisingly Zionist ideals:

While Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s ultraright Front National, is a Holocaust denier, his daughter and successor, Marine Le Pen, is working to cleanse the party of its reputation for Jew hatred, telling the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that it “has always been Zionistic.” In the early 1990s, the British National Party organized a violent neo-Nazi gang called Combat 18. In 2009, the party’s leader, Nick Griffin, boasted that his was the only British party to support Israel’s war “against the terrorists” in Gaza.

Similarly, almost across the board in U.S. politics, pro-Israel sentiment reigns, and any critiques of the country’s policies and actions are shunned; even in left-leaning New York, a bill was just passed by Senate that’d see the McCarthyist listing of any individual involved in the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that criticizes Israel for Palestinian human rights infringements. To this end, it seemed like a big deal when people like Bernie Sanders merely suggested that Israel had gone too far in Operation Protective Edge, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and killed over 2,100. And that’s just the  American Left: the Right is of course notoriously far more Zionist. Trump recently classified Israel as a “a force for justice and peace” (though he’s been opaque, as usual, about his actual ideas for negotiation between Israel and Palestine.)

It’s therefore quite odd but also unsurprising to see a group that doggedly favors a candidate who favors Israel resort, so quickly, to antisemitism the second a Jewish woman seems to pose some kind of journalistic threat to that candidate and his family. It seems that if someone offends Trump and identifies as any kind of minority, that’ll automatically be his supporters’ ammunition. The Trump campaign obviously appeals to people who consider identity politics to be PC-gone-crazy, and  thus — regardless of how much or little they even believe in the hateful words and images they might be propagating — it’s identity that becomes those people’s target.

With the rise of identity political discourse, the people attracted to Trump’s campaign have found their target in any identity they might see as sensitive and therefore vulnerable — i.e. anyone who doesn’t belong to generalized, “populist” ideals of whiteness. The fact that they’d aim the same discriminatory vitriol against Jews — many of whom are perceived as white, and oftentimes cherished by this very group as a whiter presence in the Middle East — exhibits the unfortunate state of Jewishness in the eyes of white supremacists’ eyes: as a symbolic racist lesser-of-two-evils, and one against which supremacists can just as easily turn, with the same hideous rhetoric.

Ire towards Jews involves an odd alchemy of cultural and religious prejudice and racism against a group that cannot be classified as a race. (Within Judiasm, there are of course various genealogical ethnicities, from Sephardic to Ashkenazi — whose physical traits are the most known in antisemitic propaganda — to Ethopian to Persian to Arab, etc.) The genuinely chilling display of what happens when someone like Ioffe “mistreats” a Trump — by authoring a somewhat unflattering multiple-sourced profile in GQ — is a hyperbolized example of the status of the Jews in America. They remain a confused, flexible symbol, at once cherished by White Supremacists to prove a Zionist point about Islam, but often very only thinly accepted. Should a Jew do anything out of Trumpist line, it seems they’ll get the same bigoted treatment the candidate’s vitriolic supporters reserve for anyone who doesn’t fit their false ideal of “American.”