By Meenakshi Chakraverti
Dec 7, 2016
The election of Donald Trump has created a delicate solidarity between Jewish and Muslim communities in the United States, arising from Jewish memories of registration and its aftermath in Nazi Germany and the current vulnerability of Muslims in the US. This solidarity may go nowhere but, perhaps, just perhaps, it may open a new window of opportunity for Muslim and Jewish groups that, in general, tend not to know each other personally and to be suspicious of each other, despite efforts on both sides to build ties.
On November 17, 2016, Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, a major Jewish organisation in the United States, said: “If one day Muslim-Americans will be forced to register their identities, then that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.” Mr Greenblatt’s statement was reported by various US papers and online entities, the Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Haaretz, and others, but also spread by Twitter with the hashtag #NeverIsNow which was the name of the conference on anti-Semitism at which he said those words.
This commentator first saw news of Mr Greenblatt’s statement on Facebook, posted by a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) pro-Palestinian movement along with a positive acknowledgement of Mr Greenblatt’s public commitment. In a context where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a core generator of the mutual discomfort and suspicion that exists between Muslim and Jewish communities, the way Mr Greenblatt’s statement was heard and welcomed by a passionately pro-Palestinian voice is politically and culturally significant.
Mr Greenblatt’s statement has been preceded, echoed, cheered, amplified and added to by other Jewish Americans, many, but not all of them on the left of the political spectrum. For example, Rabbi Zemel of Temple Micah, a reform synagogue in the Washington DC area, said in his November 11 sermon: “If they’re asking Muslims to register, of course we’ll get every Jew in America to register.” In the Forward, a left-leaning Jewish newspaper, Benjamin Gladstone wrote on November 15, 2016: “All Jews should register as Muslims because we know the horrors of religious registration all too well.” To the centre of the Jewish political spectrum, the very influential American Jewish Committee condemned the idea of a Muslim registry in November 2015 and again this November. On November 21, 2016, David Harris, AJC CEO, said: “Targeting all Muslims is a horror movie that we Jews are all too familiar with. It can easily lead to heightened discrimination, persecution and scapegoating. In the United States, there is no place — no place, whatsoever — for this kind of divisive, hateful rhetoric.”
The message resonates for Jewish Americans who have direct and indirect memories of the persecution and subsequent genocide of Jews in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some American Jews are directly descendants of Holocaust survivors. Thus, David Nir of the left-leaning Daily Kos wrote in response to Mr Greenblatt’s statement: “As a proud Jew myself — and the son of a Holocaust survivor who taught me all too well about the consequences of hatred — I can only stand in awe of what Greenblatt has just done… and co-sign.” Others may not have a direct genealogical experience of the Holocaust but most families know of extended family that were lost, and many whose forbears came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries will speak about the loss of family histories and family members as pogroms decimated European Jewish communities.
But while the spirit of Mr Greenblatt’s statement comes from the “Never Again” resolution of Jews after the Holocaust of the mid-20th century, the urgency of his and similar messages comes from growing worry about statements made by President-elect Donald Trump during his campaign; statements made by some of his major supporters and surrogates; his appointment of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, who is viewed by many as sympathetic to an anti-Semitic and white nationalist “alt-right”, as his White House strategist; and, perhaps most crucially, the election-time and post-election increase in virulent anti-Semitic online trolling and bricks-and-mortar graffiti, including Nazi swastikas, in the midst of other anti-immigrant, anti-non-white person and anti-Muslim actions. Various American news outlets, including USA Today, CNN, Slate.com, CBS News, the New Yorker and others have reported an uptick in “hate crimes” against Muslims, people of colour, immigrants, Jews, and LGBTQ+ Americans since the election.
Not all Jewish Americans are uncomfortable with the legacy of Mr Trump’s campaign and the President-elect’s appointment of Steve Bannon. About a quarter of Jewish voters chose Mr Trump as President. Religious, social and economic conservatism as well as worry that Hillary Clinton could be “bad for Israel” drove Jewish votes for Mr Trump.
The question of registry came into prominence in November 2015 when Mr Trump said: “I would implement (that policy) absolutely.” Since then, the alarm was raised again when prominent Trump supporter Carl Higbie pointed to the internment of Japanese-Americans as a precedent for a policy of Muslim registration. At this point, Jason Miller, the communications director for Mr Trump’s transition team, has stated that “President-elect Trump has never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion and to imply otherwise is completely false”. But concerns about the safety of Muslims continue in this country where the presidential campaign of Mr Trump attracted and gave exposure to increasingly harsh voices against immigrants, Muslims and others, and many of those voices now have the ear of the President-elect.
After the rise of the Nazis was followed by the Holocaust, not just the Jews but the world learnt the cost of complacency when a danger is viewed as unimaginable, when an acquiescence to the scapegoating of a minority group can lead to a Holocaust. Jews, around two per cent of the US population, by rallying around Muslims, about one per cent of the population, aim to show that the lessons of the Holocaust — Never Again! — have not been forgotten.
Meenakshi Chakraverti is a consultant in leadership development based in California