“And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” ― Exodus 22:20
As a child, I lived in two worlds: the world that I shared with other kids on the streets of Brooklyn, and the world inside my house – a place of tension, strange stories, uncomfortable silences and sudden outbursts; a place where you never knew what would evoke rage and fear or what would trigger a horrific memory or what would turn light, empty talk into the subject of a dire warning. My parents were refugees who had escaped from Poland during the Second World War – and my family kitchen was, in a way, an outpost of the Holocaust.
So, although I lived the privileged life of lower middle-class white America in the 60’s, I didn’t know it as a child. Because simultaneously, I lived in a world where friendship was determined by who I believed would hide me when the Nazis came to take us away; and where naiveté was represented by those who wouldn’t take these threats seriously or wouldn’t recognize when it was time to flee.
This is why, when reading about what Donald Trump and his appointees are doing to our current immigrant population and to those seeking refuge, I can’t help but identify with the “aliens,” intuitively replacing the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Syrian refugee’ with ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish refugee.’ I instinctively transpose the language, for example, of Trump’s new Federal program, Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement, to Victims of Jewish Crime Engagement, just to feel what it would be like to be Trump’s target, and wondering, if it were written that way in newspaper headlines, whether it would change anyone’s consciousness of what is happening.
... Sometimes, holding on to hope too long is the greater threat.
This is not to say that Trump is preparing concentration camps or the mass extermination of Muslims. But it is to say that that I read Trump’s policy-making as borrowing a page from Hitler’s playbook, galvanizing populist support by mobilizing his followers’ sense of special suffering at the hands of a specific population of alien usurpers. And, by ‘Hitler’s playbook,’ I am not speaking in generalizations or euphemisms; I am referring to Hitler’s actual playbook, the 1920 25-point program of the Nationalist Socialist Party. Like Trump’s playbook, this plan identified aliens as a threat to national unity, responsible for the usurping of jobs and the weakening of “positive Christianity.” Here are excerpts from Hitler’s 25-points:
Only members of the nation may be citizens of the State. Only those of German blood… may be members of the nation. Accordingly, no Jew may be a member of the nation… Non-citizens may live in Germany only as guests and must be subject to laws for aliens… We demand that the State shall make it its primary duty to provide a livelihood for its citizens. If it should prove impossible to feed the entire population, foreign nationals (non-citizens) must be deported from the Reich…
My friends tell me that, as a child of Holocaust survivors, I am too sensitive to these issues, and I, too, have always been skeptical of the overuse of the Hitler card to criticize political hate-speech. But the vitriol of the language of used by the current administration, coupled with the skill with which Trump mobilizes this hatred, has changed this reticence, not only for me, but for other historians of the Holocaust.
One of the stories that was frequently told in my house was the story of my mother’s father, a tailor who delayed my family’s deportation to Auschwitz from the Lodz ghetto, because he spoke German and made uniforms and other garments for the German elite. One day, a neighbor, who had escaped to the Soviet Union, returned to the ghetto to try and help his family escape and warn the Jews of what was happening. He told terrible stories of mass shootings of Jews at the hands of the Germans. My grandfather, who learned German as a young soldier in the German army during the First World War, refused to believe his stories. He told my mother that he had been treated very well in the military and that the Germans were a civilized people.
For my mother, this was not simply a cautionary tale, but simultaneously a story about how her father, even in the ghetto, had not given up hope in others’ humanity. For me, it is a reminder that, sometimes, holding on to hope too long is the greater threat. My grandfather, my grandmother, my aunt and two uncles died in Auschwitz as a direct result of the hatred of the foreigner, stoked by Hitler’s playbook.
So when Trump stokes ethnic hatred by painting an immigrant ethnic group as criminals, rapists, and drug dealers (in much the same way that Nazi propaganda highlighted Jewish crimes); creates a special Office on Victims of Immigrant Crimes; and calls for a weekly report to “make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens,” it does not feel like a leap to harken back to Hitler’s creation of a special Office of Racial Policy, and the order from Hitler’s Minister of Justice that called on prosecutors to “forward a copy of every [criminal] indictment against a Jew to the ministry’s press division.”
I play my language game very seriously because, as a Jew, I know that when one group is targeted, we must see all groups as targeted. As a Jew, I know that when bystanders ignore one outrage and then another and another, they become complicit and less likely to protest as time goes on. As a Jew, I know better than to confuse my current privilege with safety. And as a Jew, I know that when they come for the aliens, the Muslims, the Mexicans, when they come for the [fill in the blank], they come for me.