In recent weeks, I have heard eerie echoes of the past. President Trump proclaimed “America First” from the inauguration stage. As an American Jew and daughter of immigrants, that slogan makes me shiver. It beckons back to the 1920s and 1930s when politicians like Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson tried to close our country off to the rest of the world by declaring, “America First, Last and Always.” Such isolationist and nativist ideology condemned many Jews to their death in their Holocaust.
My family reached the United States before the Holocaust. Both of my parents emigrated from Russia as young children. My grandparents were fleeing religious persecution and came to America seeking a better life for their family.
My parents settled in Chicago. I grew up in Rogers Park, a middle class neighborhood, and now I live just a few miles north in Evanston. My neighbors (now my constituents) include one of the largest group of Holocaust survivors in the country. After neo-Nazis tried to intimidate the local Jews in the 1970s, the community organized to start what became the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie.
As American Jews and descendants of immigrants, we never forget where our families came from or what members of our community experienced. Because we remember, we look out for those who are freeing persecution, oppression, and danger.
Unfortunately, some in power have chosen to ignore that we are nation of immigrants – that diversity is part of what makes America great.
Immigrants and refugees are not a threat.
Friday – one week after Trump declared “America First” at the Inauguration – marked Holocaust Remembrance Day. I might be able to forgive President Trump’s neglect to mention Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. What I can never forgive is what happened that afternoon. Fulfilling his unnerving slogan of America First, he closed our country to families seeking refuge from Syria, Iraq, and other majority-Muslim nations. He detained and turned away refugees on Yom Hashoah. Irony is too weak of a word.
We understand what President Trump means when he talks about taking the country back. He does not see America as a country of people from diverse backgrounds united around values of freedom and respect. In his “American carnage” version of our country, immigrants and refugees are a threat.
Immigrants and refugees are not a threat. Exactly zero refugees from countries included in the President’s travel ban have killed anyone in a terrorist attack on American soil. They include the Syrian families that I had Thanksgiving dinner with a year ago that fled the only homes they knew to seek safety. Talking to them, I heard the horrors of their journeys to finally get to the United States.
These are people who are hungry for an opportunity to work hard and give back to their communities. This weekend, amid the panic over President Trump’s executive actions, I heard from a constituent and friend of mine who is a medical volunteer for the Syrian American Medical Society, which sends volunteer physicians from the US to provide treatments to refugees who have no other source of medical care. He was extremely worried, because many of his volunteer doctors are of Syrian background, including some green card holders, and have been strongly advised against leaving the country. This means that while we close our doors to immigrants and refugees at home, the President’s executive actions will also affect the medical care of people suffering around the world.
We must resist this President’s agenda of hate and hold accountable all those in power if they respond with indifference.
The President’s actions are creating real fear in our communities. On Sunday, I went back to my alma mater, Sullivan High School, for an event to support Iraqi and Syrian immigrants and refugees. The auditorium was full of anxious residents seeking answers for what would happen to friends and family members now that the President issued his executive orders against immigrants and refugees. Later, I joined over one thousand people at a local mosque where Muslims were scared that members of their faith were no longer welcome in a country that prides itself on religious freedom. Together this enormous group of community residents from all races, religions, and backgrounds chanted “this is what America looks like!”
No one who has gotten to know refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and other threatened members of our communities can feel comfortable with the actions President Trump has taken. The real threat to the character of our nation is the hateand fear he has generated and supported within our borders.
The late writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite is love is not hate. It’s indifference.” We cannot afford indifference when refugees are turned away. I was heartened to join Chicagoans of all faiths and backgrounds at the O’Hare Airport this weekend as we stood up for an America that is strong enough to accept those in need of refuge – regardless of religion.
We will not forget the past, and we will not repeat it. We must resist this President’s agenda of hate and hold accountable all those in power if they respond with indifference.