Admonishing Western leaders to take ominous threats to the free world and especially to Israel more seriously, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly has invoked historical events, including the tragedy of European anti-Semitism. In particular, in speeches to the U.N., Congress, and AIPAC and in press interviews, the prime minister has showcased Western appeasement of Germany in 1938 as analogous to contemporary toleration of the Iranian menace. So it should be no surprise that many turn to historical precedent in understanding how to respond to this year’s divisive election.
Some claim that Donald Trump’s presidential win parallels the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Germany’s chancellor in 1933. But that invites easy dismissal as hyperbole, inasmuch as Trumpism (at least so far) does not embrace the genocidal aspirations propelling Nazism. There is, however, a closer analogy that should inform and influence our responsibilities and obligations to protest against Trumpism.
American minorities — including Jews but also others — are facing not the Nazi anti-Semitism and racial bigotry of 1933 but the German anti-Semitic political movement of 1880. That movement arose after the Bourse (stock market) crash of 1872/73, which was blamed on Jewish speculators. Conservative ideologues, politicians, religious leaders, and intellectuals rallied to this cause, which did not seek to exterminate the Jews, but to marginalize them. This was connected to the effort to embolden a new “Germanism,” intended to reinvigorate the pride of Tacitus’ Germania. Nineteenth-century German anti-Semitism rejected the liberalism of emancipation, under which Jews became citizens and prospered in finance, the media and professional jobs as well as scholarly and artistic endeavors.
This modern anti-Semitism professed to be something different than age-old anti-Judaism, objecting to Jews not as much for their religion but more for the changes the new Jewish citizens wrought to German life. Anti-Semites contended that Jewish ways were polluting German culture through perceived Jewish dominance of the media, the banks, and cultural institutions, especially in the major cities. As one anti-Semitic agitator described Berlin in 1879: “One meets here . . . the arrogant Jew . . . the flea-market and marts-of-trade Jew, the press and literature Jew, the parliamentary Jew, the theatre and music Jew, the culture and humanity Jew . . . hand in hand with their kept press and stock market, they actually control the whole city government.”
Nineteenth-century German anti-Semitism was about making Germany great again for authentic Germans. It was a cultural movement that fostered anti-Semitic political parties; by 1892, there were 16 anti-Semitic deputies in the German Reichstag. Anti-socialist politicians, such as Adolf Stoecker, and conservative intellectuals, such as Heinrich Treitschke, joined the anti-Semites in defining Germanism as excluding Judaism. It was they — not Hitler — who popularized the ominous slogan “Die Juden sind unser ungluck.” (The Jews are our misfortune.)
In 1879 and 1880, Treitschke wrote a series of articles called “A Word About Our Jewry.” He explained that anti-Semitism may not be pleasant, but it is essential to strengthen Germany. After pummeling Jews for their corrosive foreign intrusiveness, Treitschke concluded: “May God grant that we come out of the ferment and unrest of these exciting years with a stricter concept of state and its obligations and with a more vigorous national consciousness.”
Donald Trump’s alt-right supporters are not dangerous because they are neo-Nazis or white supremacists. For the most part, they are not. They are, however, political descendants of the same exclusive nationalism that motivated the 19-century Germanism of the anti-Semites. It must be underscored that nationalism per se is not the problem. Fidelity and allegiance to your country — even romantically so — is often healthful and necessary to a strong society. But the alt-right is not about simple nationalism. It is about exclusive nationalism, which seeks to define a nation by excluding the undesirables. Based on the presidential campaign and the appointment of Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon as President-Elect Trump’s chief strategist, it appears that Trumpism veers toward exclusive nationalism.
We in the Jewish community cannot remain silent about the threats of Trumpism. During the campaign, Mr. Trump espoused an exclusive nationalism that all too frequently demonized whole groups and constituencies in our country. Many of them already are on the margins. For example, Mr. Trump bellowed for a reinvigorated America by demonizing Mexicans and Muslims and by mocking disabled people. Taking a page out of the anti-Semitic playbook, the candidate vilified the media and other “elites” as distorting “globalist” influences protecting the undesirables, thereby dog whistling anti-Jewish groups to their campaign.
Notwithstanding our historical obligation to combat anti-Semitism (and all hatred), some argue that we should not oppose Trumpism because Mr. Trump also ran on a pro-Israel platform, and the now anti-Israel agitators and policies, mainly associated with liberal organizations and politicians, pose the greater threat. Irrespective of the immorality of such an approach — and it is truly immoral to ignore the hateful statements Mr. Trump has made, especially now that he can make good on his threats — Jewish interests today include both those affecting Israel and those impacting the diaspora.
Just as Diaspora Jews are called upon to support, protect, promote, and defend the State of Israel, so too Israel must show concern, compassion, and support for diaspora communities, even America. The exclusive nationalism that historically has beleaguered diaspora Jewish civilizations is no less a threat today. We are not at liberty to abandon our brothers and sisters, no matter where they live.
But the more important point is that we do have a moral imperative to resist the Trumpist hate. As Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the great modern Orthodox sage, made clear during the evil days of the Holocaust, we must “publicly protest against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan. . . .
“No religious cult is of any worth if the laws and principles of righteousness are violated and trampled upon by the foot of pride.”