He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
I grew up in the Jewish communities in New Jersey and in Israel. My great-grandparents emigrated from Europe to New York and Illinois in the early 20th century. Of their relatives who stayed behind, a few moved to pre-statehood Israel, and the rest were wiped out in the Holocaust. This is a typical American-Jewish story.
Anti-semitism, with its apex in the Holocaust, is a constant motif in Jewish life. The holiday of Purim is about an evil regime that wanted to kill all the Jews. The Holocaust is central to the rationale for the existence of the state of Israel. High school students take trips to Poland to visit Auschwitz. The fear of anti-Semitism inhibits negotiations with the Palestinians toward a two-state solution. The image from the Passover story of Ramses’ pursuing chariots is visceral: They want to push us into the sea.
One bright spot in the Holocaust story is the tales of “righteous gentiles,” like Oscar Schindler, who risked their lives to protect Jews from the Nazis. These people, the narrative goes, were the good Germans and Poles; the rest were Nazis. They didn’t all personally kill Jews, but by being silent, by shielding their eyes, they enabled and became complicit in evil.
The Nazis maneuvered into power through elections and legal appointments, and promised jobs, infrastructure, stability, and pride. In those early years after their electoral victory in 1930, the Nazis weren’t yet the mass murderers we think of today. They were just nationalists, racists, fascists, sometimes thugs, and for many Germans, they vowed to restore the greatness taken from them through war and economic suppression.
The Jews are taking your jobs, the Nazis said. They’re manipulating the currency through capitalist banking and destabilizing the country through socialist agitation. (Strictly speaking, these were are all true.) So the Nuremberg Laws pass, and now all these Jews are illegal residents. When the authorities start rounding them up and deporting them, and distributing their “illegally”-hoarded possessions, who wants to stick their neck out to defend criminals? Law and Order must prevail.
A few people did not stand by silently. They recognized that it’s not acceptable to raise up some people by demeaning, harassing, criminalizing, (and eventually destroying) other people. Even if the Nazis hadn’t come for them yet — even if they would never come for them — there was a moral principle at stake, worth upholding at great personal risk. These were the people we call righteous.
When Jews tried to flee Nazi Germany for the United States, in the midst of the Depression, the government turned many of them back. It’s easy to imagine the rationale: They’ll all go on welfare. They’ll take our jobs. They wear funny clothes. They’ll vote for Socialists. They’re not Christian. They don’t even speak English! Jews see that rejection as part of the worldwide cowardice in the face of Nazism.
The 28% of American Jews who voted for Donald Trump ought to reflect on this history.
Trump promised jobs and America First and pride and winning, and he did this entirely at the expense of other groups. He branded Mexicans as criminals — “rapists” and illegal immigrants — and promised Law and Order and mass deportations. After leading the charge to delegitimize the American-ness of President Obama, he painted African-Americans with the brush of “inner cities” full of crime. He insisted that five Black and Hispanic teenagers falsely convicted (and eventually exonerated) of rape were guilty. He branded all Muslims, especially Syrian refugees, as potential terrorists, and called for barring immigrants by their religion.
This election followed eight years of a black president, during which (coincidentally) white Christians went from being 54% of the population to 45%. Many Americans in this demographic felt a loss of power, and Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” was aimed directly at them.
Everyone who felt their power weakened in this rapidly-changing, globalizing world could find solace in Trump’s message. If you lamented the loss of white majority, Trump would restore it by expelling 11 million Hispanics. If you were a Christian and feared an influx of Muslims, Trump would ban Muslim immigration. If you were disgusted by gay people getting married, Trump promised to undo those rights. If you were a man and women’s rising power threatened your masculinity, you were reassured that it was OK to mock women in public for their looks, and even grab them without consent by the genitals. For all the times you wanted to express yourself through racial epithets and were inhibited by political correctness — for every time you heard “Happy Holidays” and felt disgust that it couldn’t simply be “Merry Christmas” — for every time you heard someone speaking a foreign language and thought why can’t they just speak English — Trump would pat you on the back and say, Everything will be Great Again.
The most generous interpretation of Trump’s core supporters is by Arlie Hochschild, and it involves a “deep story” about zero-sum loss of dignity by resentful white people:
She was doing her level best but wondered why the travails of others so often took precedence over families such as her own. Affirmative-Action blacks, immigrants, refugees seemed to so routinely receive sympathy and government help. She, too, had sympathy for many, but, as she saw it, a liberal sympathy machine had been set on automatic, disregarding the giving capacity of families like hers.
This human tendency to protect one’s own group at the expense of others is the same protective instinct that brought the Nazis to power and prevented refugee Jews from settling in Depression-era America. It is understandable, and it is a powerful motivator, but it bears no righteousness. By building a campaign entirely on this message, aimed at the people that would be most susceptible to zero-sum resentment, Trump won the election.
In the process, Trump courted and empowered a coalition of truly deplorable people: the Klansmen David Duke; the neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer; the publication Breitbart, which peddle in misogyny and hate; the paranoid anti-Semite Alex Jones. Black churches and mosques were burnt and vandalized with “Vote Trump” as calling cards.
And par for the course, Trump used anti-semitic tropes — a star of David to represent corruption, pictures of Jews to represent “international banks” and the “global power structure” — to signal that he was on the side of the Jew-haters, too.
“I mean it’s not that Jews are bad, it’s just they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States. … They run the health care, they’re going to scam you, they’re going to hurt you.”
- Alex Jones
“Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”
- Donald Trump to Alex Jones
“This room negotiates deals. Perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to…You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”
- Trump to the Republican Jewish Coalition
“We have a wonderful OPPORTUNITY here folks, that may never come again. Donald Trump’s campaign statements, if nothing else, have SHOWN that ‘our views’ are NOT so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”
- Rocky J. Suhayda, the head of the American Nazi Party
“Only Trump can turn back the brown tide, and thinking Whites know this.”
- Endorsement for Trump in the neo-Nazi publication VNN
So of course, bullying is on the rise in schools across the country. The Klan is marching triumphantly. High school students are declaring “white power” to minority classmates. Muslim women wearing hijabs have been violently threatened. Swastikas are appearing on store fronts. An anti-Semite will be a Senior Strategist in the White House. Every sociopath and bully and misogynist and neo-Nazi now feels vindicated by a kindred spirit in the White House, and the stories of disgusting hatred following the election keep piling up.
People are terrified. Suicide hotlines are receiving record numbers of calls. Children are scared that their parents will be deported. Muslim women are afraid to wear head scarves in public. These fears are completely rational. And it’s just the beginning.
These were not accidental side effects — they were essential to the movement. Trump’s rallies were scenes of racist vitriol and violence and Trump egged it all on. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” Trump told a rally about a protester. “In the old days, they would be carried out on a stretcher.”
The people who voted for Trump accepted this, vindicated it, and need to reckon with the consequences.
This election was about more than the usual politics. This election was about whether good people have the courage — even at personal cost — to stand for basic human decency, and for the value that all people deserve dignity.
And the 28% of Jews who voted for Trump said, No. Each for their own reason said that something — maybe the Republican party’s past relationship to Israel, or a tax cut, or a job lost to trade, or the corruption of the establishment — made it OK to build a populist movement by denigrating and threatening other people.
Like many Germans in 1930, who just wanted good jobs and stability, the Jews who voted for Trump are not all bigots. There were economists and experts who supported the Nazi platform too, and plenty of voters who were just sick of the status quo. We have nothing to do with those bad apples, they could say. The other candidates weren’t perfect. But ultimately, in casting their vote for the Nazis, they eschewed the path of righteousness.
If you are Jewish and voted for Trump, know that you stood on the side of, and empowered, a movement of vicious hatred. You have no moral authority to complain the next time a swastika is spray-painted on a synagogue door, or the next time a Jew is attacked for wearing a yarmulke. You legitimized all of these people. You supported the leader of a movement based on their resentment. The next time you wonder how good people in Europe could have stood by as the Jews were scapegoated and rounded up and deported, look in the mirror.