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June 4, 2020 4:48 am

Who Will Tell President Trump That His Place Is With the Victims of Racism?

avatar by Mitchell Bard

Opinion

US President Donald Trump speaks about the nation’s food supply chain during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic response event in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 19, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Leah Millis.

In speaking to Jews from my grandparents’ generation, they often viewed policy decisions through the lens of religious self-interest. They asked, “Is it good for the Jews?” The next generation might add a second, related question: “Is it good for Israel?” Even though I am younger than both, I evaluate American leaders’ responses to challenges at home and abroad through the prism of the Holocaust. My question is slightly different: What if they were Jews?

I am driven by what I learned writing my book Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps. I was familiar with the work of David Wyman and others who documented the abandonment of European Jews by the Roosevelt administration. It still shocked and outraged me to discover that American citizens and soldiers were also victims of the Holocaust, and that our government had the same disregard for them.

Breckinridge Long at the State Department was the principal culprit in this policy, but it was not divorced from the attitude and policies of the president who did not allow the St. Louis to dock in Florida, failed to order the bombing of the concentration camps, and refused to allow thousands of children into the country before the war had begun. More than 50 years later, the State Department was still obstructing efforts to help American victims by delaying and restricting their demands for compensation from the German government.

When Philip Roth published The Plot Against America a decade after my book was released, I did not find his ominous warning of what could happen in the United States implausible.

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Some people romanticize the special relationship that the United States has with Israel, but are not aware of much of the history in which US officials, of both parties, did not act in the Jews’ best interests. This was the case in the fight for Israeli independence, which was opposed by the secretaries of state and defense and the intelligence community. Besides the conviction that US relations with the Arab states would suffer, one of the justifications for opposing the creation of a Jewish state was the fear it would become a Soviet ally because so many Jewish immigrants were coming from Russia and suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers.

When Jews were fighting for their survival against five Arab armies in 1948, the United States imposed an arms embargo. The US did the same in 1967, and only reluctantly supplied arms to help Israel stave off defeat in 1973. In 1957, Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after capturing it from Egypt, which helped sow the seeds of the Six-Day War. In more recent wars, the United States has pressured Israel to stop offensives before their objectives were accomplished. Presidents from Carter to Trump have sold weapons to Arab states that have refused to make peace with Israel.

Beyond Israel, I worry about the treatment of other populations that, under different circumstances, could be Jews. I lost faith and respect for Bill Clinton for example, not because of the Lewinsky affair, but because of his failure to act in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda. If Clinton was not prepared to stop the slaughter of Muslims or Tutsis, why believe he would act differently if it were Jews who were being murdered? I asked the same question when Donald Trump withdrew US troops from Syria and exposed the Kurds to a potential massacre by the Turks.

Today, we have an administration that is hostile toward immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. Many of these refugees are fleeing violence and oppression. One justification for keeping out Latin Americans is that they will become an economic burden; in the case of Muslims, some fear that Islamists may infiltrate our country along with the refugees. I am reminded of how European Jews desperate to escape the Nazis were barred from the United States in the 1930s and ’40s because of antisemitism, xenophobia, fear of communists, and concern they would become welfare cases. Would thousands of Jews fleeing antisemitism and threats to their lives be welcomed today? Would this administration take the same steps the Reagan administration did to help rescue African Jews from Ethiopia?

Monday night, not far from my house, protesters gathered peacefully across from the White House to demonstrate against racism. Imagine if instead they had been Jews speaking out against antisemitism and the police shot rubber bullets and tear-gassed them so they would disperse to allow the president a photo-op holding a Bible in front of a church (ironic given he is one of our least religious presidents). Would pro-Trump Jews, especially among the Orthodox, be silent out of fear of offending a president who is pro-Israel?

Now that Elie Wiesel is gone, we have no leaders with his moral authority and courage. Is there a Jewish leader of any stature prepared to speak truth to power as Wiesel did when he stood in front of Ronald Reagan and publicly told him to cancel a visit to a German cemetery where Nazi war dead are buried? “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” Wiesel said. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

Who will tell this president that his place is with the victims of racism?

I wonder how many Jews read Roth’s book or watched the recent miniseries based on it and thought, “It would never happen here. It could never happen here.”

How many still feel that way?

Jews are fond of quoting Martin Niemoeller on the failure to speak up against the Nazis. I imagine if he were Jewish, he might say today:

First, they barred the gates to the Muslims, but I was not a Muslim, so I did not speak out. Then they prevented Hispanic refugees from entering and came for the illegal immigrants, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came after the African-Americans, but I was not black, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations.

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