Donald Trump, The Holocaust, And The Danger Of Apathy

By Emma Tessler

The articles that have been flying around the Internet this week can speak for themselves. This is a weird, scary moment for our country. Donald Trump is spewing his hateful rhetoric to every news outlet that will listen (all of them. That would be all of them), and huge swaths of Muslims (and Mexicans, and any other immigrants) are being reminded that certain people in this country don’t want them here.

So what can we do? I’m writing because I feel impotent and frustrated, because I want to speak up and join the chorus of voices saying, “We will not stand for this.”

But is that the only thing we can be doing?

This isn’t one of those rhetorical writer questions. This is a real, actual question. What should we, the people who are horrified by this, be doing?

The Daily News is sporting a cover with the quote, “When Trump came for the Mexicans, I did not speak out — As I was not a Mexican. When he came for the Muslims, I did not speak out — As I was not a Muslim. Then he came for me . . . ”

And this is really the crux of my incredibly shitty feeling. I know that this kind of hatred is not relegated to the Muslim community. Hatred is, ironically, non-discriminating. This kind of hatred will spread from group to group, if it remains unchecked. And it’s not enough to acknowledge that, wow, it must be terrifying to be a Muslim trying to get into America right now. It’s also terrifying to be a Muslim living in America right now. It’s not enough to say that this must be really scary for them. Because we’re all them. This is really scary for everyone — or at least it should be.

We cannot simply do nothing just because we are not part of the group being targeted (at the moment). So if we can’t do nothing, that leaves doing something.

I just don’t know what that is.

What I do know is that I don’t want to treat these issues like a punchline. I don’t want to acknowledge the fear of others while resting in my false sense of security. And I know that I can’t watch history repeating itself without at least speaking about the eerie similarities to one of the most horrifying periods in human history.


I’m Jewish, and for a million different reasons, I feel like that means I have to be the biggest, loudest ally that I can be. I went to a Jewish school growing up. So when I was in grade school, we learned about the Holocaust every year, for nine years. And we heard the stories of the Righteous Gentiles; the non-Jewish families who allied themselves with the persecuted people. Those who hid Jews and Roma and homosexuals in their attics and basements. We learned about their bravery. But the subtext of these lessons was that these righteous people were rare. Most people did not risk their lives. Most people did nothing.

As kids, we used to play games surrounding this idea. We’d sit together and talk about what we would do, if we would hide people. We talked about which non-Jewish friends of ours would protect us. (It was similar to the conversations that happen now about who would be your ally in The Hunger Games, or who would die first in a zombie apocalypse). And of course, we all insisted that we would hide people. We would do the right thing.

And yet here I am, two days after the leading Republican presidential candidate said he wanted to ban all Muslims from coming into our country. Weeks after he said he wanted a database tracking all Muslim Americans. And have I done anything? Have I done “the right thing?”

I’ve done nothing, except stare at a blank Word document for hours. I texted a few friends about how frustrated I was feeling. I had two glasses of wine. And then I went to bed, in my safe apartment. Safe and ineffectual.

I was reading Humans of New York yesterday when I saw a story about a Syrian refugee family living in Turkey. A woman was describing when ISIS captured their town. She repeats the sentence, “We should have left right away.” But she didn’t. Because even when a group like ISIS takes over, even when a party like the Nazis takes power, even in these circumstances that seem so incredibly obvious in retrospect, we under-react. We never think it’s going to get as bad as it does.

I’m not saying Donald Trump is ISIS. I’m not saying he’s a Nazi (although . . . ). And I’m not saying we’re at the point where people should start leaving. But will we know if it gets to that point? What will it look like? Will it look like a Trump presidency? I almost hope so, because that would be too obvious to ignore. Or will it look something like today? And will Muslim Americans, like so many others, end up saying, “We should have left sooner?”

In the meantime (assuming there is a meantime), what can the rest of us do? Those of us who aren’t being targeted, the white Americans who can get on the subway without people inching away, don’t we have a responsibility? I believe the answer is yes, but the yes leaves me with more questions. How can we be the most helpful? How we can assert ourselves as allies? How can we ensure that we’re not falling into the easy, comfortable land of complacency and inaction?

Unfortunately, this piece doesn’t have a conclusion. I honestly don’t know what I can do. Frankly, writing it has been a relatively self-serving way for me to feel like I’m doing something, even if the something is only typing. So if you’re scared about what’s going on, I am too. If you don’t think it’s a joke, I’m not laughing either. And if you want to freak out, I’ll freak out with you.

And if you have any ideas on how to stand as an ally in a meaningful way, I want to learn. I will stand with you.


Lead image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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