Scott Kendall, the chief of staff to Gov. Bill Walker, said the week after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was not easy for him.
A Jewish Republican, Kendall had just spoken to his 7-year-old son about why it was important to continue to go synagogue, so the “bad guys” wouldn’t win. He’d been to memorials at synagogues in Juneau and Anchorage, where he lives, in the state, which home to a Jewish population that numbers in the couple of thousands.
And then he saw the mailer from a local Republican group attacking Jewish state Senate candidate Jesse Kiehl with the image of a man stuffing a fat stack of hundred dollar bills into his suit.
“I was revolted,” Kendall recalled in a phone interview, saying he believed the ad was blatantly anti-Semitic. “Jesse is proudly and prominently a member of Juneau’s Jewish community … It is tough for me to process through that and not see an ill intent.”
The ad was not alone.
In North Carolina, the state Republican Party depicted Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., with what appeared to be a stack of bills in his hand. In a hotly contested race outside Seattle, Republicans illustrated Kim Schrier, a Democratic candidate for Congress who is Jewish, with a wad of $20 bills fanned out in her hands. In California, a Republican state assembly candidate tinted his Jewish challenger a shade of green in an ad, adding $100 bills to his hands for good measure.
And national outcry ensued last week after a Republican candidate’s ad against a Jewish challenger was digitally altered in a way to play off classic anti-Semitic tropes.
The ads come amid the tense and bitter run-up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, as national politics increasingly pivots on fundamental issues of race and identity. But in the wake of the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, concerns about anti-Semitism and questions about whether it is being fanned by the flames of conspiracy theories and political fear-mongering have come to the fore.
“What’s stunning is that these are old images that are very similar to those from other eras and other places,” said Pamela Nadell, a history professor at American University and the director of its Jewish Studies program. “But I will say I have not seen images like this in 21st-century America before.”
Nadell sent the Washington Post of an unflattering image from a 13th-century Spanish manuscript that depicted Jewish money lenders handing over bags of coins to unhappy loan seekers.
The sampling of advertisements is not a scientific study. It is not clear if other candidates have been attacked this way during this election cycle. But national sensitivity is heightened amid rising reports of anti-Semitism, and as some political campaigns have turned toward the type of blatant and overtly racial attacks rarely seen since the 1960s.
“There’s some famous Nazi posters that have exactly the same images but with different people,” said Omar Bartov, a professor of European History at Brown University and the author of a book examining Jewish stereotypes, of the crop of ads in an interview.
The political advertisements have caused local consternation as well.
In Juneau, the mailer prompted dozens of conversations both within the Jewish community and without, residents like liberal activist Karla Hart said, sparking media coverage and angry letters to the local newspaper.
“Shame on the Republican Women of Juneau for using an anti-Semitic trope in their recent mailer against Jesse Kiehl,” Elizabeth Seliotes Bolling wrote to the Juneau Empire.
Kendall said he phoned the group that created the flier, the Republican Women of Juneau, and asked that they were thinking after he was flooded with calls and emails about the ad.
“I’d like to believe it wasn’t intentional.” Kendall said he told them. “But whatever you do, you need to put out a statement that you condemn anti-Semitism.”
The group, which did not return messages The Post left for its president and another member, did not put out such a statement, Kendall said.
Seth Klayman, a resident of the research triangle area in North Carolina who has a PhD in Jewish studies from Duke, flagged the Schumer ad when it appeared in the middle of a news article he was reading online.
“Immediately I thought they were at the very last rooted in anti-Semitic stereotypes and at worst full blown anti-Semitism, on the part of the North Carolina Republican party,” he said. “I found it abhorrent.”
Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, dismissed questions about the Schumer ad in an email.
“The question itself, not the mailer is a racist anti-Semitic smear,” he wrote. “It is just one more final disgusting attempt to Kavanaugh Republican candidates and activities. We don’t track people’s religion here or lack thereof.”
He called questions about the ad “the single dumbest and most outrageous inquiry I’ve ever had from a member of the media,” but did not answer questions about whether the state party had ever run ads against any other candidates with money in their hands.
Kyle Fischer, a spokesman for the Washington State Republican Party, which sponsored the Schrier ad, said in a statement that the ad was meant to highlight her support for costly government policies.
“To imply that the content of these mail pieces is based on anything other than Schrier’s record of supporting policies that would cost taxpayers billions of dollars is baseless and untrue,” he said.
Schrier spokeswoman Katie Rodihan said Republican ads for other candidates in Washington did not feature the same imagery. (Fischer did not answer a question about whether the party had run ads that showed any other candidates with cash in their hands).
“It’s an outrageous characterization of a candidate that draws on centuries old anti-Semitic stereotypes,” she said. “Kim’s whole platform is focused on lowering costs for families. This is a complete mischaracterization.”
The Republican National Committee did not respond to a request for comment. In Connecticut, the ad run by Republican candidate Ed Charamut has caused some hard feelings within the party.
“As a Jew and as a Republican I was very dismayed, I was very disturbed by the content of that mailer,” Leora Levy, the Republican National committeewoman for Connecticut said in an interview.
She said that she would not support Charamut or anyone who sent similar material.
The ads come as political rhetoric has been examined for what some see as overt signs of classic anti-Semitism, as conspiracy theories about Jewish financier George Soros directing an “invasion” at the southern border have become a prominent theme in conservative politics in recent weeks. President Trump told reporters last week that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the unfounded conspiracy theory were true.
Bartov, the Brown professor, said that these narratives echoed classic Nazi propaganda that tried to paint Jews as both capitalists and revolutionaries seeking to subvert the social order.
“Much of the rhetoric is about how the left is going to destroy everything, destroy the economy, bring this invasion of barbarians – all of this was very much part of fascist and Nazi xenophobia,” he said. “It’s this combination of things: speaking about them undermining order on the one hand, bringing in hordes of invaders, and on the other hand, manipulating the economy.”
Kendall, whose boss Gov. Walker is an independent, said that it was tough for him at times to “keep my party affiliation,” but said that he did not believe that the Republican party was inhospitable to Jewish people.
“The anti-Semitic tropes have no place in the discourse. The anti-immigrant tropes have no place in the discourse,” he said. “Perhaps individuals are using the politics of division to get ahead, but it’s not who we are.”
Bartov said he didn’t believe that the ads could be blamed on naivete.
“It’s not by chance that they’re showing people showing money. It’s not by chance that these people happen to be Jews and it’s not by chance that there’s more talk about people’s Jewish identity in politics,” he said. “Some genie is being let out of the bottle.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Eli Rosenberg