The hyperactivity exhibited by the incoming Trump administration and the reactions of Israeli leaders to the plethora of executive orders emanating from the White House possess a common thread: they exhibit an appalling amnesia regarding recent history and they purposefully distort its lessons.
For the newly-installed president bent on fulfilling some of his most controversial electoral promises, the lack of historical reflection may prove par for the course, but for Binyamin Netanyahu, the son of a leading scholar of Jewish history and himself an avid aficionado of the study of its details, such a lapse is well-nigh inexcusable. He, more than most, should know that those who choose to forget their own past or willfully rewrite it to suit ephemeral needs not only risk losing their hold on reality, but may in the process forfeit their own identity.
The opening salvo came on Inauguration Day: Donald Trump took pains to hastily jettison the motto associated with his presidential campaign (“Make America Great Again”), replacing it with a tainted echo from the past: “America First.” He and his close advisors could hardly be oblivious to the uneasy connotations this combination of words arouses. The short-lived America First Committee (September 1940-December 1941) provided a platform for notorious isolationists whose key members (Charles Lindbergh, for one) used it as a springboard to spew Nazi-inspired anti-Semitic sentiments throughout the United States — resulting in the closing of America’s doors to Jewish refugees. While leaders of the Jewish community in the United States were quick to highlight the historical reference and its implications for the present, voices from Jerusalem were uncharacteristically mute.
Scarcely five days later, on January 25, 2017, Donald Trump announced his first mega-project: the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico in order to safeguard “America’s borders.” Netanyahu, the prime minister of a country whose boundaries are still amorphous, applauded quickly: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great Idea.” This response not only evoked the ire of Mexico, a country that has exhibited a particularly friendly stance towards Israel; it also aroused the wrath of the outgoing American ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, who protested Netanyahu’s troubling interference in a domestic matter that threatens to undermine bi-partisan support for Israel in Washington. In an attempt to cultivate additional favor with the new administration, Netanyahu’s rash tweet merely stressed how a loose finger may ultimately compromise vital Israeli concerns.
The brouhaha over the wall turned out to be a prelude to the dual barrage that took place two days later, on January 27 — commemorated throughout the world as International Holocaust Day. It began with a statement issued by President Trump that has created a mini-storm. “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror. Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.” The American president didn’t take the trouble to mention Jews, to refer to anti-Semitism, or to dwell on the universal obligation to combat racism and xenophobia in the wake of the Holocaust.
In stark contrast, the compelling words of newly appointed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ ring out: “Tragically, and contrary to our resolve, anti-Semitism continues to thrive. We are also seeing a deeply troubling rise in extremism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim hatred. Irrationality and intolerance are back.” He vowed to keep the United Nations “…in the frontline of the battle against anti-Semitism and all other forms of hatred.”
On that very day, the Likud, Israel’s ruling party, shamelessly drifted to Israel’s southernmost city for a weekend of fun and political mingling. Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev summarily dismissed criticism of the timing of the event: “International Holocaust Remembrance Day has never been covered as it has this year — thanks to the ‘Likudiada.’” She ‘then had the audacity to add that members of the Likud started their day of frolicking and political networking with a moment’s silence. If Israel’s current leaders can’t honor the six million, how can they expect any sensitivity from others? Have they forgotten where their pledge of “Never Again” comes from and what its universal message means in today’s troubled world?
Later on that very same day, in a bizarre juxtaposition, President Trump signed a series of executive orders banning citizens of seven Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia) from entering the United States; suspended refugees from coming into the country for the next 120 days pending a reassessment of procedures; and reduced the number of people to be granted refugee status by half.
Once again, the historical vision of the new administration has been blurred beyond recognition. The new Washington apparently has no recollection of the context of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It totally ignores the post-war context of Article 14, which is the basis for the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This path-breaking agreement spells out the duties of countries to the survivors of Nazi horrors. One of its greatest advocates at the time was Israel. In 1967, the principles laid down in the Refugee Convention were expanded to encompass the entire globe.
In response to the Trump move — which is sending shock waves throughout the world — many of the updated Protocol’s 146 signatories are pointing to US violations of the spirit of the agreements, focusing on Article 8 (which prohibits taking exceptional measures against a refugee solely on account of his or her nationality) and Article 32 (which stipulates that no refugees can be summarily expelled from their host countries). European leaders — most notably Angela Merkel of Germany — have berated the president, bravely reminding him of the historical roots of current international norms. Apparently, these protests have made next to no dent in the new American administration’s resolve.
The United States, conceived as a haven for those suffering from religious persecution, has grown and thrived on progressively diverse waves of immigration — including Jews who have flourished in its free environment. It is hardly surprising therefore, that Jews are at the forefront of the rising protests against the proposed reforms. Key leaders of the Jewish and other minority communities have reacted sharply to the Trump edicts, recalling not only the circumstances in which they arrived on American shores, but also the values of freedom and tolerance that enveloped them in their time of need. They underline the factual inaccuracies in signaling out particular Arab states while protecting others (whose nationals have been directly responsible for attacks on American soil); they highlight discrepancies in specific measures; and above all, they accentuate the betrayal of the American heritage. Ignorance of past precedents coupled with sloppy planning can only, as Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS bemoaned, yield “an international train wreck.”
Official Israel has been unusually reticent. Perhaps this studied silence is a result of its own refusal to grant refugee status to the some 40,000 asylum-seekers in its midst (while symbolically declaring its willingness to absorb 100 teenagers from war-torn Syria). It may be due to an overriding desire by a precarious government to nurture close relations with the new administration. Or it could be the outcome of solidarity with the attempt to defeat “Islamic extremism.” On a practical level, this approach totally disregards the fact that many Israeli citizens born in Baghdad, Aleppo, Sana, Tripoli or Teheran may be affected by the restrictions imposed only a few days ago; it also fails to safeguard the status of Israelis currently residing in the US on work visas. On a more principled level, it flies in the face of Israel’s own history as an immigrant society.
These are sad and fateful days for the United States, for American Jews, for Israel, and for human beings everywhere seeking to live in freedom and dignity. The willingness to sacrifice essential human values on the altar of short-term interests cannot but backfire over time. Leaders who coldly discard their own humanity may find that they lose their country’s innermost self. Indeed, neglecting history and its lessons may pave the way to the creation of alternative facts. It also, sadly, could doom those who ignore its message to reliving its bleakest times.