Trump’s “Willing Executioners”?

In the last week I’ve received dozens of calls, emails, and face-to-face comments from community members, all around the same fear: what they hear now in the public square reminds them of everything they were told about “stage 1” of the Holocaust.  Most of them mention the haunting lines, “and then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” This quote has been voiced recently by many leaders today in reaction to Donald Trump’s statement regarding the banning of Muslims from entry into the United States. Without taking any position on his candidacy, it would be thoroughly irresponsible for me, as a rabbi, to say nothing regarding his comments.

“And then they came for me” is not the phrase keeping me up at night. We hear so many people speaking out against Trump’s hate speech, including his fellow Republicans Dick Cheney and Paul Ryan.  To say, “I did not speak for them because I was not Muslim” doesn’t reflect our reality – people are speaking out. Instead, the phrase that haunts me, the text that pervades my mind, is the title of Harvard Professor Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

Goldhagen’s thesis sent shivers down readers’ spines, as he argued against the dominant assumption that the devastation of the Holocaust can be attributed to the actions of Hitler and Nazi leadership.  Instead, Goldhagen shined the flashlight on the “ordinary German,” who, he argued convincingly, was ready and willing to engage in the dehumanization and eventual extermination of the Jewish people.  What could be more ominous and bleak than the realization that a modern, sophisticated, intellectually advanced society could be “primed” to engage in the most evil, barbaric campaign in the history of the mankind?

I am haunted by the possibility of “willing executioners” in our midst. Huge segments of our own population are receptive to the thesis that Muslims do not belong in America; that the enemy is Islam as a whole. Meanwhile a vast majority of devout Muslims in America live in fear, sandwiched between the radicals who claim to speak for Islam— and who wish to obliterate their allegiance to American freedom— and the growing segment of the American population, now telling them that they are the problem, that their religion and nationality are incompatible.

Last Friday, I joined the Muslim community at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, during their prayer service.  With 1400 worshippers gathering, listening to the peaceful sermon by their Imam Sheikh Yasir, I was joined by a few of my Christian colleagues, as we offered words of solidarity and comfort to conclude their service.  I said nothing overly profound— I affirmed the Jewish commandment “v’havta l’rei-echa kamocha— you must love your neighbor as yourself,” reminding them that the community of Temple Israel loves those who love peace; that our clergy are committed to fighting against hate speech; that they are not alone.  Afterwards, people lined up to shake our hands, some of whom with tears streaming down their faces.  I heard about their everyday experiences — the glances on the T, the unspoken fear they sense in the workplace from their colleagues, the comments they overhear not only in the news but in the streets.  They are terrified.

And as I hear countless people around me scared to death by the statements of Trump and other popular figures, my attention turns to the minds and hearts of those who hear hate speech and respond: “Yes!”  Is it fathomable that we could be witnessing a “phase 1” of “Trump’s willing executioners”?  Will we even know what it looks like if- or God forbid when- history takes its first steps to circle back to lure humanity once again into its abysmal, homicidal propensity?  Or will the American people pretend that the mandate to “never forget” is irrelevent when the victims are Muslim?

About the Author
Matthew Soffer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he leads the social justice efforts, practicing congregation-based community organizing with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt serves on the Advisory Council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, the Board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Rabbinic Council of Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
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