Pepe the Frog, an internet meme, has become a symbol of the alt-right
Pepe the Frog, an internet meme, has become a symbol of the alt-rightTwitter/Lior Zaltzman

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Can you go alt-right without going anti-Semitic?

The movement that has emerged from conservatism -- and in some ways has turned against it -- appears to be nudging its way into the American mainstream as it attaches itself to the success of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee. Its followers and intellectuals have also been associated with anti-Semitism.

Now experts on extremism are contemplating whether the claim the alt-right has on establishment politics through its ride on Trump’s coattails also means a mainstreaming of anti-Semitism.

“You can have some of the ideas of the alt-right, which is anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism and anti-globalism, without it being anti-Semitic,” said Marilyn Mayo, who tracks the alt-right at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “However, a good deal of the people who are talking about the ideology of white identity, white culture, focus on Jews as part of a problem for them.”

The ADL defines the alt-right as "an extremely loose movement made up of different strands of people connected to white supremacy."

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremists, said that some of the movement’s ideologues explicitly rejected anti-Semitism, seeing Jews as a branch of the “white nationalism” movement they embrace.

Nonetheless, he said, the movement has its share of explicit anti-Semites. More substantively, Potok said, its embrace of “white identity” had roots in movements that have been dangerous to Jews.

“The alt-right, whether nominally anti-Semitic or not, certainly poses dangers to the Jewish community,” he said. “It is fixated on America as a country birthed by Europe and by a core population of Europeans, and for enormous numbers of people that description does not include Jews.”

The question of Jewish viability within the movement came to the forefront last week when Joshua Seidel, who is Jewish, proclaimed his robust backing for the alt-right, saying its willingness to stand up for Western civilization made it a better protector for Jews than the liberal movements favored by most American Jews.

“I sometimes wonder what Jews who enthusiastically go on about ‘white privilege’ think the endgame is,” Seidel wrote in the Forward.

He acknowledged that the alt-right “is the most aggressively offensive political movement in existence, and it often targets the Jewish community.” (In the essay's comments section, he engaged with multiple self-proclaimed alt-righters who argued – sometimes in threatening terms imagining Seidel’s elimination -- that his Jewishness necessarily excluded him from the movement.)

Alt-righters came to wide attention earlier this year after they targeted Jewish writers and reporters online who criticized Trump, and they have excoriated Jews as being at the forefront of those who would promote diversity. They use images that cross into anti-Semitism; one tweeted by Trump, casting Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as corrupt and accompanied by a six-pointed star spread over a pile of cash, emerged from the alt-right. (Trump’s campaign later removed the tweet, though the candidate said he would not have.)

In targeting Jewish reporters, members of the movement have created illustrations of placing their subject in a gas chamber while Trump, in a Nazi uniform, flips the switch.

Seidel said the movement’s flirtation with anti-Semitism was a function of its willingness to shatter taboos, which was what made it refreshing.

“I enjoy the nasty talk in the alt-right,” he wrote. “I enjoy spending rhetorical time with people who might otherwise hate me. The alt-right has energy, it has vitality, it’s something NEW and creative, it’s honest and forthright.”

Pratik Chougule, who last year served as a policy coordinator for the campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, said anti-Semitic expression may be a function of the movement’s exasperation with taboos.

“Any issue that is considered off limits by the mainstream, they gravitate to and relish,” Chougule, who also worked with the Trump campaign and has tracked the movement closely, said in an interview. “Is that an expression of anti-Semitism or more a statement about political correctness?”

He said the movement eventually will need to answer the question.

“If they choose the anti-Semitic path, they will marginalize themselves,” Chougule said.

It may be too early to define the movement, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but expressions of Jew hatred by some of its adherents need to be watched closely.

“It is wrong to accuse every person who associates themselves as part of the alt-right movement as an anti-Semite,” Cooper said in an email. “However, there are overt anti-Semites that are part of this movement.”

Clinton explicitly linked Trump to the movement in a speech last week, noting the hiring of Stephen Bannon as CEO of the Republican's campaign. Bannon held the same job at Breitbart News, the online magazine that has published paeans to the movement and promotes many of its ideas.

“Race-baiting ideas,” Clinton said after reading out some Breitbart headlines. “Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas – all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right."

Trump has not explicitly embraced the movement, but its champions have rejoiced in his upending of the Republican Party establishment. They have also identified with his central platform plank of blocking immigrants, including Muslims and Mexicans, who Trump says threaten the American character.

Breitbart, while sharing some of the movement’s antagonisms toward Black Lives Matter, Mexican immigration and Muslims, has adamantly rejected Clinton’s claims, made in the same speech, attaching Breitbart to the anti-Semitism found on the alt-right.

“They say that we are ‘anti-Semitic,’ though our company was founded by Jews, is largely staffed by Jews, and has an entire section (Breitbart Jerusalem) dedicated to reporting on and defending the Jewish state of Israel,” it said in a statement after Clinton’s speech.

Its founder, Andrew Breitbart, died in 2012.

It has since emerged that Bannon’s ex-wife said in legal papers that Bannon opposed enrolling their daughters in a Los Angeles private school because he did not want to expose them to Jewish children. He has denied the claim. The Breitbart site declined an opportunity to comment for this story.

Trump has – at times, with reluctance – repudiated the support he has attracted from the far right. Chougule, in an op-ed appearing Tuesday in The Hill, a newspaper that covers Washington politics, said the movement barely registered when he worked for the Trump campaign.

“The inspiration behind our campaign's policy work comes from more familiar sources — think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, policy staffs in Congress, and center-right publications where conservative wonks tend to publish,” he wrote, describing both the Huckabee and Trump campaigns.

Even if Trump did not embrace the alt-right, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Potok said, his enthusiasm for ideas embraced by the movement made him responsible for its insurgence.

“Donald Trump has opened up a political space that was completely off limits until a short time ago,” he said.