RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When mass shootings happen in this country, we often don't understand the motive. That is not the case with last weekend's shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. According to court documents, the alleged shooter said he wanted to kill Jewish people.
President Trump, who visited the synagogue yesterday, has repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism. But critics say his divisive rhetoric contributes to a climate in which anti-Semitism can take root. NPR's Tom Gjelten assesses that argument.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Anti-Semitism is the ideology that Jews are malevolent, out to control the world. Jeffrey Herf, a historian at the University of Maryland, says the ideology depends on a certain type of argument, a way of thinking, most importantly, a willingness to buy into conspiracy theory.
JEFFREY HERF: The world is governed by small groups of people who operate behind the scenes and are enormously powerful and enormously evil.
GJELTEN: There's no question Donald Trump, at times, deploys conspiracy theories, like TV networks and big newspapers produce fake news, like the protesters they interview are actually hired by somebody like philanthropist George Soros.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They'll go to a person holding a sign who gets paid by Soros or somebody. Right? That's what happens.
GJELTEN: That from a rally earlier this month in Missoula, Mont. Now, George Soros happens to be Jewish. Does that mean that President Trump is promoting anti-Semitism? It seems unlikely. A large segment of the Jewish population in this country supports him and his agenda, especially on matters related to Israel. But Jeffrey Herf argues that any promotion of conspiracy theories is dangerous because the logical conclusion of such thinking is anti-Semitism.
HERF: I can't think of a conspiracy theory that, at some point or another, doesn't bump into the most famous conspiracy theory that the Jews run the world.
GJELTEN: Herf has written extensively on the anatomy of anti-Semitism. Another key element, he says, is deep distrust of intellectuals and the elite class in general - again, a bias Trump has personally promoted, as he did in August, speaking to a crowd in Ohio.
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TRUMP: You're the smartest people. You know when they talk about - they talk about the elite, the elite. Do you ever see the elite? They're not elite. You're the elite. You are the elite.
GJELTEN: Herf says when people are encouraged to resent the elite, Jews get nervous.
HERF: The danger for the Jews is that we are very small in number. But we are prominent, whether it's Hollywood, academia, banking, the print press.
GJELTEN: Any connection of Donald Trump and his rhetoric to an environment in which anti-Semitism grows is controversial. His own daughter and son-in-law are Jewish. And Herf is careful in what he says about Trump.
HERF: I think he loves his daughter, and he has a lot of Jewish friends. So I don't think that his intention is to bring harm to the Jewish people, no.
GJELTEN: So then what's the connection?
HERF: He wants to win. And he has a special talent of knowing how to appeal to the resentments and hatreds of his base. And if in order to win he needs to fan the flames of conspiracy, then he is perfectly willing to do it.
GJELTEN: To be sure, other factors may be at work behind any worsening anti-Semitism, like the growth of social media. Nathan Diament is the director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, representing Orthodox Jews.
NATHAN DIAMENT: You can have individual anti-Semites who might have been very isolated but now have these platforms in which they can find other people that share their views and can urge them on. And it's fostered an accelerated climate of hate and anti-Semitism.
GJELTEN: Whatever the reason, it does seem to be an increasingly dangerous time for Jews. The Anti-Defamation League says the number of anti-Semitic incidents has risen sharply over the last two years.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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