President Trump, widely accused of seeking to drive a wedge between Americans based on race, gender, financial status and urban-rural geography, has managed to unify much of a divided Jewish community, at least for the moment. He did so on the basis of three controversial moves this week.
The first concerns the flap over the president’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the face of criticism that somehow, and for the first time, the statement did not specifically mention Jews as victims, the administration defended its wording rather than acknowledge an oversight. “Everyone suffered in the Holocaust, including the Jewish people,” a spokesman said, precisely missing the point.
What made the Holocaust a genocidal tragedy was its targeting the Jewish people for destruction and systematically murdering 6 million European Jews.
The Republican Jewish Committee and the Zionist Organization of America, whose leaders are supportive of the president, were among the many Jewish groups to criticize the fact that the statement did not mention the Jewish victims of the Nazis.
What made matters worse were subsequent statements by the president’s spokesmen that resisted an apology and instead accused Jewish critics and the press of “nitpicking this statement,” and being “pathetic.”
For the president not to apologize and clarify that anti-Semitism and the murder of millions of Jews form the very definition of the Holocaust only adds to the perception that this administration is a safe haven, if not a platform, for bias and bigotry.
That concern was heightened by the elevation of Steve Bannon, the alt-right guru, to special status on the National Security Council, in place of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of national intelligence. Bannon is said to be the driving force behind Trump’s executive order to ban travel to the U.S. for visitors from seven mostly Muslim countries.
Here again, a wide range of Jewish groups, including each religious denomination — a rare occurrence of unity — criticized the ban as a violation of religious freedom. The groups asserted that discrimination based on religion is immoral and, as the Orthodox Union statement said, “anathema to the great traditions of religious and personal freedoms upon which this country is founded.”
A Fox News poll found that 48 percent of the country supports the ban while 42 percent oppose it. Clearly Americans favor tougher immigration rules for problematic countries, but applying a religious test is upsetting to many.
The president denied that his ruling was a ban on Muslims, but his previous statements have called for such a move. His recent tweets have cited that innocent Christians are being executed in the Mideast, and “we cannot allow this horror to continue.” He did not mention Muslims, who have suffered far more deaths in the region.
With his approach of “Ready, Fire, Aim,” Trump’s hastily planned executive order unleashed an enormous backlash of opposition from those who fear America’s democratic norms are under attack.
How ironic that it was on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that the word went out to close our shores to refugees. It revived painful World War II memories of countless European Jews whose fate was sealed because the U.S. and other countries refused them entry. Numerous Jewish organizations this week drove home the message that we are an immigrant nation, and that our legitimate concern for security should not blind us to the fact that our country is strengthened in being a bastion of compassion.
The new ban actually strengthens ISIS recruiters who make the case that the U.S. is anti-Muslim; it makes Muslims working with us in Iraq and Afghanistan question their rationale; and it is illogical in not including such states as Saudi Arabia, the home of 15 of the 19 attackers on 9/11.
We urge, if not dare, the president, who is not reticent about speaking out, to do so in reminding the nation that the Holocaust was an effort to annihilate the Jewish people. And that racism and religious persecution of any kind can never be tolerated. It is time to rescind the ban and renew America’s status as a place of refuge for those who are “yearning to breathe free.”