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July 8, 2020 3:04 am

Jews Cannot Stay Silent Amid American Bigotry

avatar by Mitchell Bard

Opinion

US President Donald Trump holds up a Bible during a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, outside the White House in Washington, DC, June 1, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Tom Brenner.

I have written many times that non-Jews have no business telling Jews what is and is not antisemitic. That is why, for example, we reject their claims that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.

The same principle applies to other minority groups, who alone should be the arbiters of what constitutes bigotry towards them, whether it is women and sexism, Blacks and racism, gays and homophobia, or any other persecuted group. Just as we believe those constituencies should join us in condemning antisemitism, they expect us to call out bigotry directed towards them.

So how can we remain silent when Muslims, Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians say that the president’s statements and actions are bigoted?

What would Jewish leaders do if the president stood in front of a rally and said that Israel had exported the “Jew flu” to America, and thousands of attendees began chanting “Jew flu! Jew flu!”?

Would Trump apologists say he was only joking? Would they insist Trump cannot be antisemitic because he is the most pro-Israel president in history and what matters are his deeds not his words?

To his credit, the ADL’s leader Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted, “It’s racist to refer to #COVID19, a disease that has killed 100k+ in America, by a name that incites hate.”

Is it too much to ask the Republican Jewish Coalition to say, “We are working for the president’s reelection, but we believe that language that offends our fellow Americans is inappropriate”?

When I hear people say, “It could never happen here,” I am reminded of our not-too-distant history. For example, when Trump said immigrants were not “going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare,” I recalled how the State Department feared Jews would also become “welfare” cases. Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith wrote in November 1939:

Their real status does not differ very much from that of the many thousands of unfortunate persons deserving of our sympathy, and having no claim to American citizenship, who would desire to come to this country in order to escape from danger zones or for other reasons and who seek immigration visas and passport visas to that end.

When Trump instituted a Muslim ban because of the concern with terrorists entering the country, I was reminded that Breckinridge Long, the head of the State Department’s Special Division, told President Roosevelt in 1941 that because of reports of Nazi agents pretending to be refugees, “it has been considered essential in the national interest to scrutinize all applications carefully.” In another letter to the president, Long said he was proposing new regulations for travel to and from the United States for all persons, including US citizens, because the laxity of the current law allowed subversives to enter the United States.

When Trump said immigrants from Mexico were “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” I thought of America’s reluctance to exchange German prisoners for just 2,000 Americans in German internment camps. “As Americans received in the recent exchange were found to include some Nazi agents, we might very well expect to receive many subversive agents among aliens who have long been exposed to Nazi methods of indoctrination,” wrote James Keeley, the chief of the Special Division. “It would be almost an impossible task to separate the bona fide from the mala fide in such a conglomerate assemblage of people as would in the circumstances seek to come to the United States.”

Before the pandemic began, Trump had already reduced the cap on the number of refugees admitted to the United States to the lowest level since the program began four decades ago. In December 1942, Keeley gave this excuse for keeping Jews out:

If we once open our doors to one class of refugee, we must expect on the basis of our experience in extending relief in occupied territories, that all other sufferers from Nazi (including Japanese) oppression (the Belgians, Dutch, Poles, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Norwegians, Czechs, Chinese, et cetera) will likewise wish to avail themselves of our hospitality….Even the most optimistic dispenser of largess could scarcely expect us to become an unrestricted haven of refuge for all suffering peoples. Furthermore, to accede to the request of one group, while refusing similar refuge to other oppressed peoples, might well give rise to bad feeling and engender disunity among the happy family of the United Nations.

The Roosevelt administration did not want to highlight Nazi discrimination toward Jews or give them special consideration. In an ironic choice of words, Long wrote to Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-NY), “The final solution can be more speedily and more easily arrived at if the special interests of any group can be merged in the common interest to support the war.”

In June, Trump instituted new regulations to limit those eligible to seek asylum in the United States, which was reminiscent of America’s fear that Jews fleeing Hitler might seek asylum in the United States. Cavendish Cannon of the State Department’s Division of European Affairs objected, for example, to a proposal to move 300,000 Jews out of Rumania to Syria or Palestine because “endorsement of such a plan [was] likely to bring about new pressure for an asylum in the western hemisphere” and that, because atrocities were also under way in Hungary, “a migration of Rumanian Jews would therefore open the question of similar treatment for Jews in Hungary and, by extension, all countries where there has been intense persecution.”

Perhaps Trump supporters’ interpretation is that this is what can happen when a Democrat is in power. And it is indeed ironic that the man who is largely responsible for Jews’ overwhelming identification with the Democratic Party was accountable for these policies.

Still, when Trump directs his bigotry toward others, Jews should remember that as antisemitism surges, we will expect support from those victims when we are targeted. History also teaches us that Jews not only could be treated in a similar fashion in America, but that we once were.

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

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