The president’s suggestion that four non-white Democratic congresswomen “go back” to where they came from has brought the discussion on the nature of being American to a new level.
The distance between fact and the president’s rhetoric is instructive in revealing the assumptions that are at play. By indicating that the four congresswomen come from other countries (three of the four were born in the United States), the president is suggesting that if one is not of the majority (white) population then one is essentially “foreign.” By indicating that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s religion implicates her support of Al Qaeda (she has denounced Al Qaeda), the president is suggesting that someone’s religion can condemn her as disloyal. These implications should be troubling to everyone, but they are particularly troubling to Jewish Americans.
Our perspective as Jews is unique. On the one hand, we often pass as the majority in this country. I remember a long conversation I had in college with my Latina dean, trying unsuccessfully to convince her that Jews should also be considered “people of color.” And the president himself has taken extraordinary steps in bringing the United States closer to Israel —literally so, with the move of the embassy to the heart of Israel in Jerusalem — that he has become a hero to many in the Jewish world. No doubt he hopes to win some additional Jewish votes through his attack on Congresswoman Omar, who has infuriated the American Jewish community by suggesting that Jewish members of Congress are loyal to a “foreign element” in their support of Israel.
But on the other hand, we will never take our position with “the majority” for granted. The experience of the Holocaust has left a permanent scar on the Jewish psyche. No matter how successfully integrated we seem to be, we know that the winds of change can blow everything away in an instant. The Holocaust only confirmed what we already knew for two thousand years. No matter how secure we thought we were, persecutions and expulsions eventually found their way to us.
I have usually sought to distance myself from what historians of the Jewish people call “the lachrymose conception of history,” that Jewish history is a continuous story of pain and suffering. While it is natural to focus on that pain when things go badly, it is important to balance that with the knowledge that there were many more years of successful and (relatively) peaceful experiences. If not for those less dramatic years, our people could not have survived. And, of course, we like to think of our experience in America, what we call the Land of the Free, as one of the best chapters in our history. And yet we are all aware of the increase in anti-Semitism around us. We have experienced a year of synagogue shootings, street attacks, and swastikas appearing on public and private buildings around the country.
Our unique perspective, of being both white and non-white at the same time, helps us understand the danger of the president’s rhetoric. Speaking as an African American, Senator Cory Booker responded to the president’s tweet: “We’ve heard this our whole lives. Now we hear it from the White House.” The charge of being a “foreign element” in the country we live in is something that we Jews have heard for two thousand years. We even heard it from Congresswoman Omar, directed at Jewish members of Congress who support Israel. The president’s words should serve as cause to heal such open wounds and come together in support of what has always made America great.
I applaud the strong words of condemnation that the ADL directed at the president. “As Jews we are all too familiar with this kind of divisive prejudice,” ADL director Jonathan Greenblatt said. Addressing the president’s explanation of his attack on the four congresswomen as an attack on anti-Semitic politicians who hate Israel, Greenblatt said that “while the ADL has publicly disagreed with these congresswomen on some issues, the president is echoing the racist talking points of white nationalist and cynically using the Jewish people and the state of Israel as a shield to double down on his remarks. Politicizing the widespread, bipartisan support for Israel and throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism is damaging to the security of Israel and the Jewish community.” Congresswoman Omar’s words about Jewish members of Congress and their support for Israel were upsetting, hurtful, and inexcusable. But, as the ADL claims, for the president to exploit those remarks for political advantage erodes bipartisan support for Israel, and is, in general terms, not good for the Jews.
However, the danger behind the implications of the president’s remarks runs deeper. At one point he claimed that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. While many called that out as a racist calumny, there is no question that the president’s recent remarks about the four congresswomen are based on their non-whiteness, rather than the place of their birth. The charge is that if you are not of the majority then you should leave.
This should ring an alarm in all Jewish ears. This is what the ADL statement was concerned about, what “we Jews are all too familiar with.” This is what our American ancestors left the Old World for, and why our Jewish ancestors saw America as the goldene medina. This is why we call our country the Land of the Free. The question is, is it still the Home of the Brave?