NEW YORK — President Donald Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. has galvanized a widespread Jewish resistance. In the days since the order was signed, it included a vocal, visible response at the ongoing airport protests and street demonstrations that have already forced the administration to walk back a few steps.
From New York City’s JFK to San Francisco’s SFO, Jews have turned out in force.
Many waved posters comparing Trump’s order with America’s WWII decision to turn away Jews fleeing the Holocaust and seeking asylum on American shores. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was well-informed about what was happening to the Jews of Europe but was more concerned about the unpopularity of admitting refugees to a country struggling with the Depression. On multiple occasions, he refused to intervene to raise immigration quotas or ease strictures in response to the humanitarian emergency.
FDR’s inaction resulted in the preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
“Anne Frank's family was denied entry into the United States because of the same strain of hatred and fear we are witnessing today,” said Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews For Racial & Economic Justice.
Longtime JFREJ activist Cynthia Greenberg added, “Across Jewish history — ancient and far too modern — Jews know first-hand what ‘quotas’ and ‘bans’ and ‘restrictions’ mean. Refugees and immigrants are our kin; they are us. When the Trump administration comes for Muslims, we know we Jews and all targeted communities are next.”
Major Jewish organizations joined in with the Anti-Defamation League, which vowed to “relentlessly” combat the executive order. J Street called it “an affront to American values,” and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society denounced it as “repulsive."
Trump, who uses Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner — his son-in-law and an Orthodox Jew — to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism, seems incapable of remembering what Jews vow never to forget.
“I think that even Jews who came out for Trump must have been staggered by the timing of this order, falling as it did on Holocaust Remembrance Day and with the president’s explicit comments on the Christian Broadcast Network about how Christian refugees would be favored,” said Dahlia Lithwick, senior legal correspondent for Slate. “Given that Trump never had really substantial Jewish support in this country, I am not surprised that this became something Jews could organize and act upon.”
To make matters worse, Team Trump openly defended its decision not to mention Jews in the White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement under the theory that other groups were also targeted — strange logic for communications strategists who surely knew that a similar omission in 2016 by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caused a media firestorm.
“I imagine that even if you aren't a social justice warrior or a Trump opponent this all starts to look like a pretty dangerous move,” said Lithwick.
Clearly Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and a known white supremacist and anti-Semite, is running the Southern strategy — Lee Atwater’s infamous Reagan-era game plan for how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves — all over again.
This is dog-whistle politics. Like Reagan kicking off his presidential campaign with an opening speech from Philadelphia, Miss., where three young civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered by white supremacists. Or like his 1985 visit to Bitburg Military Cemetery in Germany — the one where Reagan first planned to visit the graves of 49 members of the Waffen-SS alongside West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, while eschewing a visit to a Nazi concentration camp. Or when he equated dead German soldiers with the victims of the Holocaust. ("They were victims," Reagan said of the soldiers buried at Bitburg, "just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.")
Many of the Soviet-Jewish refugees who fled to the U.S. between 1973 and 2003 can hear that whistle now. Journalist and author Masha Gessen and RUSA LGBT founder and co-president Yelena Goltsman are just two of the 942 signatories of a Solidarity Letter that reads, in part:
Those of us that came as refugee children feel deep personal anguish when we see photos of drowned Syrian children or imprisoned Salvadoran toddlers. They are as human and deserving of protection as we are. As religious minorities, we reject the singling out of Muslims as not worthy of protection.
“For me, it's a deeply personal pain,” said Gessen, whose family came to Boston on a refugee visa in 1981. Gessen, who was legally stateless for eight or nine years, said she could just imagine how it would feel had her parents been denied entry into the country.
“I wasn't facing mortal danger, so there is no comparison to a lot of the people affected by the ban,” she added. “But I know that if I hadn't be able to come here, I would not be who I am.”
Goltsman, who spoke to me before the White House rolled back its mandate to detain even immigrants with green cards and valid visas, said it made her “think back to the Soviet Union, where rules were changed suddenly and what was allowed yesterday was persecuted today, and there was nothing you could do about it. People who were midair when Trump changed the rules are paying for something they’re not guilty of, and Muslims in particular.”
Of course, not all Jews oppose anti-immigration measures or stand up for persecuted ethnic or religious minorities. One of the first moves by Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, after Trump’s inauguration was to green-light the building of a large new settlement in the occupied West Bank. It’s a middle finger to growing international pressure against Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians.
The day after Trump announced his plan to build the infamous Mexican wall, Bibi (Netanyahu’s nickname) fed Trump’s insatiable appetite for bonding with other international strongmen (see Putin, Vladimir) by tweeting his approval.
“The truth is that Islamophobia plays a key role in building and sustaining public and U.S.-government backing for Israel,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director at Jewish Voice for Peace. “I believe the Trump-Netanyahu alliance will fundamentally reshape the American-Jewish conversation around Israel/Palestine.”
Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, put it more starkly: “I believe that there is a great movement in this country uniting Muslims and Jews against the dictatorial, anti-immigrant, white supremacist, anti-Semitic forces that Trump and his election have unleashed.”
Goltsman, who has attended multiple demonstrations against the Trump administration’s policies in the past week, sounded weary as we got off the phone while the JFK demonstration continued into the night.
“What is the United States if not a country of immigrants?” she asked. “If that’s no longer [the case], what does the Statue of Liberty symbolize? Why don’t we take it down?”