I arrived at naptime at Bethany Mandel’s 2nd floor apartment in Central New Jersey. Evidence of her two children under 3 — toys, toys and more toys — was everywhere. She’s a full-time mom and writer who works from home. And so amid the kiddie detritus is her laptop, open, on the couch.
But that’s not what I came to see.
“Can I see the gun?” I asked.
“Sure. I have to go get it.”
Mandel retrieved a purple box from the bedroom. “It’s a .22 revolver,” she said, pulling the handgun out of the box.
Mandel, 30, is an Orthodox Jew and conservative writer for prominent Jewish and conservative publications who has vociferously opposed, particularly on Twitter, the candidacy of Donald Trump.
And that’s why she had to buy a gun.
Mandel estimates she has faced thousands of anti-Semitic messages online, mostly from self-identified white nationalists who are passionate Trump supporters — as made clear by their exhortations to “make America great again” and the Trump imagery in their user profiles. The messages she has received (“Die, you deserve to be in an oven,” for example) are tame compared to the pictures (Mandel’s face superimposed on that of a Holocaust victim).
Mandel is far from alone. An old argument has been rebooted for a new political age: Jews are destroying the country, and only Trump can stop their malevolent hold over media, business and government.
Mandel said Trump first went after the “easy targets in our culture” — Mexicans and Muslims. Then some of his supporters turned on the Jews. “We have to speak up,” she said. “And I feel this as a Jew…Because I knew they were coming after us next. And I was right.”
Jewish reporters have been sent images of themselves behind the gates of Auschwitz — and pictures of Trump operating the gas chambers. Sometimes he is leading KKK rallies; other times, prominent Jewish journalists have Nazi yellow stars with the word “JUDE” plastered on their faces. The anti-Semites mockingly use Yiddish words, like oy vey, and often invoke the Hebrew word for Holocaust, Shoah.
Jonathan Weisman, an editor at The New York Times who is Jewish, wrote about his Twitter timeline: “I was served an image of the gates of Auschwitz, the famous words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ replaced without irony with ‘Machen Amerika Great.’ Holocaust taunts, like a path of dollar bills leading into an oven, were followed by Holocaust denial.”
He reported the scores of anti-Semitic tweets he received to Twitter, which initially determined they did not qualify as “abusive behavior.” So Weisman quit Twitter for Facebook, where users must identify themselves with their real names. (He also joined me in a discussion about this on WNYC earlier this month with The Daily Show’s Hassan Minhaj.)
Mandel estimated that she has blocked 1,000 users on Twitter who have gone after her. Trump has been “playing to the absolute bottom rung of our society,” she said. “It feels like this is Germany in the 30s. Like we’re watching the rise of someone really, really dangerous. And this is how you elect a fascist who could potentially — God knows what he would do.”
So a couple of months ago Mandel packed up the kids and went to the gun shop. “I’m walking in, I’m wearing jeans, I have grape juice spilled on my shirt…And I’m like, ‘I need a gun because people are mean to me on the Internet,'” Mandel remembered. “And like, yes, that’s true, but people are publishing my phone number and address and I’ve written for some of the most prominent places on the Internet this election season, and that sort of makes you a target.”
Mandel got her gun and alerted local police, who now monitor her home. Mandel also wrote a piece for the Jewish Forward: “My Trump Tweets Earned Me So Many Anti-Semitic Haters That I Bought A Gun.” It went viral.
And now Mandel, a 2nd Amendment advocate, feels safer at home than she has since Trump won the South Carolina Republican primary in February — around the time that anti-Semitic attacks against her spiked.
“I’ve had dreams of people lurking in my apartment since then and [now] the only way I can talk myself down from that crazy ledge at 2 in the morning is like, I can see my gun from my bed,” she told me. “Come at me. Everyone knows I have a gun now. And I’m really not afraid to shoot it.”
The anti-Semites’ initial targets when Trump announced his candidacy last year were conservative writers who opposed him on moral and political grounds. But the Trump-backing trolls soon went after mainstream reporters who cover him. When Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe wrote a profile of Trump’s wife for GQ that the candidate’s supporters didn’t like, she had to file a police report over threats she received by phone and email.
The Ioffe incident represented something of a tipping point, and Trump last month was asked on CNN to respond.
“Some of your supporters have viciously attacked this woman, Julia Ioffe, with anti-Semitic attacks, death threats,” interviewer Wolf Blitzer said. “These people get so angry. What’s your message to these people when something like that happens?”
Trump responded: “I haven’t read the article, but I heard it was a very inaccurate article. And a nasty article.”
He did not offer a message to his fans who sent the threatening tweets in his name. He has never specifically renounced them, and Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not return an email seeking comment.
Trump has drawn scrutiny for insensitivity before. He retweeted a user named WhiteGenocideTM who listed his location as Jewmerica. He is supported by the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi site, and he was slow to renounce an endorsement from former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Yet many Jewish Republicans continue to back him. So I headed to Trump Tower to find out why.
Jason Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, chief legal officer for the Trump Organization and one of Trump’s two advisers on Israel works out of the top floor of Trump Tower. Greenblatt says Trump has always respected him, his passion for Israel — and his need to take time off for the Jewish holidays. Trump supports Israel so wholeheartedly that he doesn’t believe that the country’s settlements in the West Bank are a problem or an obstacle for peace, Greenblatt said.
Greenblatt told me that Trump would bring his notorious deal-making abilities to try to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “Like any skilled negotiator — and he is probably the most skilled negotiator I’ve ever met in my career — he will listen to all the sides and try to mesh the sides wherever he can,” Greenblatt said. Trump has indicated a similar sentiment in this video declaring his “love” for Israel.
As for the anti-Semitism, Greenblatt said Trump shouldn’t be blamed for anonymous internet users who are “trading on his name” in order “to get more recognition.” Greenblatt wrote a letter to The Jewish Forward last week after the paper protested the Trump campaign by refusing to publish any articles about the candidate for 24 hours.
“People like The Forward [editor] are trying to lay at Donald’s feet Twitter trolls — we don’t even know how many there are,” Greenblatt said. “And I guess if somebody did a scientific study there are plenty of Twitter trolls who support Hillary [Clinton].”
But journalists and anti-Clinton liberals who are Jewish have not complained about similar anti-Semitism from Clinton supporters. And as Mandel pointed out in a response to Greenblatt yesterday, Bernie Sanders was strong in his immediate condemnation after his online supporters went after women.
A debate is raging among Jewish Republicans about how seriously to take the anti-Semitic threat from the Trump camp. The Republican Jewish Coalition, a fundraising entity backed by GOP financier Sheldon Adelson, endorsed Trump and minimized any unusual anti-Semitism coming from his supporters. Their statement last month indicated that all candidates have their share of anti-Semitic backers, but did not offer evidence to back that up.
The Republican Jewish Coalition endorsed Trump for president, but my requests for an in-person interview with a member of the group’s leadership to discuss that endorsement was denied. A spokesman, Mark McNulty, told me that the group opposes anti-Semitic attacks against reporters but believes “it’s very easy to mask yourself online and say you’re a supporter of this person or that person.”
Trump did give a statement to the New York Times after he came under scrutiny for the Duke endorsement, in which he said anti-Semitism has no place in society.
“I recognize that people think that he should do more and I’ve had many conversations with different people about that,” Greenblatt said. “He’s running a campaign, he has a business to run, I don’t think it’s fair for me to constantly go to him and say, ‘Well, this unknown Twitter troll said this, can you make a statement?'”
But it goes beyond just tweets. Anti-Semites created a program in Google’s Chrome web browser to search for Jewish last names online. They then flagged Jewish journalists by putting their names in triple parentheses in order for fellow white nationalists to identify Jews. This is known as “echoes”; the corresponding Chrome extension was removed following an investigation by the news site Mic.
In response, many Jews on Twitter have put triple parentheses around their own user names. Among the first was journalist Yair Rosenberg of the Jewish publication Tablet Magazine.
“Right now I don’t think they’re much of a threat,” said Rosenberg, who has published a list of ways to troll Nazis online. “That’s why I mock them…The internet has allowed them to network, and Trump has energized them to make them think they are running some sort of wave.”
Rosenberg described those bigots who support Trump as having “collected themselves under a banner” that’s widely known as the “alt-right.”
“They see themselves as a more intellectual form of a white supremacist,” he said.
The alt-right and Trump share the same enemies — foreigners, immigrants and the media. “And so the people he goes after gives these people energy,” Rosenberg said. “They feel, ‘Oh, we have someone who is unaccountable to the elites, who is pushing the envelope and making it possible for us and our worldview to be part of the public discourse.”
Rosenberg doesn’t believe Trump created these anti-Semites; he thinks they were always there, but Trump “has absolutely energized this whole group of people.”
The anti-Semitic Trump supporters I spoke to don’t necessarily think Trump is the American version of Adolf Hitler. But they do believe his candidacy is laying the groundwork for a future presidency that would be more aggressive in turning America whiter and less Jewish.
All of this has the Anti-Defamation League concerned. Anti-Semitic incidents were up 3 percent nationally from 2014 to 2015, with a 50 percent increase in assaults. The group has set up a task force to specifically address concerns with Trump-backing neo-Nazis going after journalists, and it has vowed to turn donations Trump has sent the group in the past to support anti-bias and anti-bullying programs.
For me, it took just a few days of reporting on Trump before I was called a “Kike.” Then, my name was posted inside triple parentheses. I wanted to know why. So I called up “Tony.”
“At the time when I did that, it was really nothing personal against you,” Tony told me.
Tony, who would not give me his real name, said he’s a 28-year-old Trump supporter in Tennessee and Iraq war veteran. We conducted the interview on the phone after he flagged me on Twitter for being Jewish.
“It is your ethnicity, I don’t understand why you’d be upset, regardless of who it is saying it,” he told me. “It’s a factual matter.”
I told him Jews have been scapegoated for thousands of years as minorities in whatever country they were in. Totalitarian leaders then took advantage of that scapegoating and used it as an excuse to expel or murder Jews.
Tony seemed to get it. “Looking at it logically,” he replied, “it is completely understandable.”
But then he went on to say that white people are the ones who are scapegoated in modern America. He thinks Jews dominate American foreign policy — both the “neo-conservatives” and the “Zionists.”
“A lot of people are resentful that we have a sort of niche community guiding an entire dialogue that maybe the entire country isn’t behind,” he said.
Personal experience frames Tony’s views. He claimed his father was fired from a job after being falsely accused of calling someone a racial slur. And he said he resented that can be riots when a black person is killed by police after committing a crime.
Tony perplexed me. He told me that he had a half-black son. And he said that a tweet about Jews and an oven was just a joke.
Another Twitter user who goes by a German pseudonym, Bluten Bloden, mocked a picture of my Jewish colleagues and I accepting a journalism award. When I asked him about that — this phone interview was also conducted on the condition of anonymity — I found his answer revealing.
“It’s like four Jews and an Asian,” he said. “It’s just funny, you’re just four Jewish journalists — I could be wrong about one or two — but you’re in New York, you’re getting awards, being influential. And it’s just like when we look around and see what kind of influence Jews have in academia, the media, in Hollywood and pornography, all this different stuff, and we see it as subversive, as pernicious, as degenerative, as harmful, as corrosive.”
Also on the phone line with us was a self-described “blue-collar worker” in Texas who goes by the name Fascist Lemming. They joked that while a President Trump wouldn’t make Jews wear yellow stars, as Nazi Germany did, he would make the Muslims do something similar.
Other Trump views resonate with the white nationalists, like rebuilding ties with mostly white Russia, erecting a wall on the Mexican border and banning Muslims from entering the country.
And Mandel says Trump’s promises to end political correctness — Trump often says he wants people to say “Merry Christmas” again — has particular resonance among the anti-Semites.
“When people heard, ‘I’m not bending to the political correctness police anymore,’ the white nationalists heard, ‘Finally, he’s going to stand up to the Jews, they own the media, they own everything,'” she said. “And lot of the tweets that I get I would say are along those lines that we run the media, that we have all the money, and that we are the bankers. A lot of that Nazi imagery is still around.”
There’s a paradox here — because Jews are an integral part of Trump’s operation. His national finance chairman, Steve Mnuchin, and his top attorneys, like Greenblatt and Michael Cohen, are Jewish. One of his closest advisers is Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and the Orthodox Jewish husband to his daughter Ivanka, who converted. Trump’s son, Eric, is also married to a Jewish woman.
When speaking to Jews, Trump often mentions his Jewish grandchildren. Through the years he has donated to various Jewish charities, received an award from the Jewish National Fund and served as grand marshal of an Israeli parade in New York.
But the candidate is known to go off script. Trump said this to a room of Jews at a Republican Jewish Coalition event last year: “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? This room, perhaps more than any room I have ever spoken to.”
Some surprised laughter followed. Somehow, Trump managed to stereotype Jews as cheap — the kind of joke that usually only flies if it’s a Jew saying it.
Greenblatt said that people in the room knew it was a joke, and it was entirely appropriate.
“I didn’t think it was a Jewish bigoted remark as some cast it, but rather ‘Look, we’re businessmen and sometimes we negotiate and sometimes the deal doesn’t work and then we have to renegotiate,'” he said.
“I think sometimes we as Jews can be sensitive to certain things. And I understand why, but I don’t think that’s what he intended.”