If you are tempted to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, as many celebrities and politicians have done this week – stop it now.
It is perfectly reasonable to be outraged by President Trump’s executive order directed at seven Muslim majority countries. There has been bureaucratic chaos at airports and misery for hundreds of passengers. The policy maliciously targets green card holders and desperate Syrian refugees alike. Families, friends and colleagues will be cruelly separated for many months. It represents a form of collective punishment that stands against fundamental American values. It rightfully faces determined opposition in Congress and the courts.
But if you want to use dead Jews in your moral crusade against Trump, count me out. In doing so, you display a stunning lack of historical imagination, a questionable political agenda and little sense of proportion.
No decent human being can oppose racism and discrimination without drawing profound moral lessons from the Holocaust, as the Chief Rabbi and Prince Charles have subtly done. Controversy arises when people unthinkingly accept exact situational parallels between European Jews and other minorities in Western countries today. There is a fine line to tread between universal lessons and the particular circumstances of history.
Common experiences of genocide – Tutsi, Armenian, Jewish or otherwise – should and must be compared. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust successfully brings these valuable perspectives together. By contrast – even when done with the best of intentions – comparing Trump to Hitler, and therefore American Muslim lives to European Jewish deaths, is inappropriate and offensive. It desensitises us to real acts of genocide and risks turning millions of victims into political pawns.
Unfortunately we live in a society with a woefully limited historical memory. Many public figures have trivialised Nazi racial policy by applying it to everything from immigration policy to disability benefits. In the eyes of his many critics, Trump’s racism and misogyny make him an irresistible figurehead for Nazification.
Shared memes and slogans are ripe for the purpose of emotional exploitation; street placards and social media posts have been awash with swastikas and references to “Never Again”. In an emergency Commons debate, Mike Gapes, a Labour MP, labelled the Prime Minister “Theresa the appeaser”. LBC presenter James O’ Brien has called Trump a ‘Nazi’ for treating individual Muslims like ‘untermensch’. Ironically, O’ Brien said this in the context of a programme in which he defended Arab states’ boycott of Israeli citizens.
Even with a loathed figure like Trump, Jews should be especially cautious of making Nazi comparisons. After all, the UK’s working definition of anti-Semitism includes equating the State of Israel with Nazi Germany. The normalisation of such comparisons allows elements of the political Left to attack Jews and the Jewish state in a demented and demonising fashion. In this twisted worldview, Gaza and Jenin become morally equivalent to the Warsaw Ghetto.
When individual Jews choose to invoke Nazi comparisons or their dead relatives, they risk cheapening the sacrifices of those who cannot speak for themselves. They also conform towards a disturbing cultural trend which sees Muslims as “the new Jews”. In reality, both religious minorities are the victims of unacceptable prejudice in the modern age.
Trump’s political programme is ugly and discriminatory. But there can be no serious parallel between the United States and the unique circumstances of Nazi Germany, even in its first few weeks. One is a federal republic with a strong system of checks and balances. It has a deeply embedded culture of liberal democracy. The other was a totalitarian dictatorship. It triumphed over a fragile order that collapsed under the strain of street fighting, popular anti-Semitism and the Great Depression. Trump has not called for genocide or territorial conquest. Hitler called for both long before he became German Chancellor in 1933. No newspapers have been forcibly shut down. No political opponents have been rounded up or assassinated. No businesses have been officially boycotted. No minority groups have been hounded from their professions.
Ideally, Trump should be treated on his own terms. If, however, you cannot resist referencing history, then it is more proportionate to view Donald Trump’s actions against the backdrop of America’s own troubled history of immigration and race relations. Thousands of Native American tribespeople were ethnically cleansed by Andrew Jackson during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. Slavery of African Americans was not outlawed by the US Constitution until Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Under the Jim Crow laws, African Americans continued to face racial segregation and could not register to vote in many Southern states until 99 years later. Chester Arthur excluded further Chinese immigrants from 1882 onwards. Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 National Origins Act explicitly targeted Jews, Italians and others from Southern and Eastern Europe. Franklin Roosevelt turned away the St. Louis, resisted Jewish immigration and locked up innocent Japanese and German Americans during the Second World War. Under Dwight Eisenhower, hundreds of thousands of illegal Mexican Americans were rounded up and deported during Operation Wet Back in the 1950s.
Clichéd parallels with the Nazis should be critiqued and ultimately rejected. The above list clearly shows that America has its own embarrassing history of ethnic and religious discrimination. Decades from now, historians, teachers and students will most likely add Trump’s temporary immigration ban to this damning record.