Harsh lessons on nationalism from the St. Louis

Harsh lessons on nationalism from the St. Louis

Sol Wachtler
Sol Wachtler

Eighty years ago, in June 1939, the St. Louis and its over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis sought refuge in America. At the time we were still recovering from the Great Depression, and the “America First” movement was reawakening a nativism and isolationism that blamed Jews for America’s entry into World War II. Jews were also considered a risk to our national security: President Franklin Roosevelt observed that “refugees out of Germany … especially [among] Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”

Rae Kushner — the grandmother of Pres. Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — who had been a critic of the United States’ restrictive immigration policy, said in a 1982 interview: “For the Jews the doors were closed. We never understood that. Even President Roosevelt kept the doors closed. The boat, St. Louis, was turned back. Why? What was the world afraid of?”

Rae Kushner was a remarkable heroine of the Holocaust who immigrated here in 1949 after a daring tunnel escape from the Nazis. The answer to her question as to why “the St. Louis was turned back” is inscribed on a monument erected to that ill-fated “ship of the damned.” The “Wheel of Conscience” memorial, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is a set of gears labeled: “Hatred,” “Racism,” “Xenophobia,” and “Anti-Semitism.”

Those same labels are being used by Steve Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart News and one-time chief strategist for Trump. In his current well-financed anti-immigrant “movement,” Bannon addressed Marine LePen’s historically anti-Semitic National Front Party by saying: “Nationalism is part of a worldwide movement that is bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary, bigger than all of it.” He praised Le Pen’s vision of nationalism over globalism, saying, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.” Tragically, that “badge of honor” has been worn by anti-Semites and racists for 3,000 years.

Bannon’s alt-right version of nationalism has been embraced by Trump. In his announcement for the presidency and his most recent announcement for re-election, the president has waged a battle against migrants and asylum seekers and demeaned immigrants from certain regions and those of certain religions — all in the name of “nationalism.” (The man accused of killing 11 members of a Pittsburgh synagogue while they were worshipping cited HIAS’ work aiding asylum seekers at the southern border as a motivation for the attack.) Trump never misses an opportunity to blame Democratic Party “globalists” for the problems that beset the nation and world. The final TV ad of Trump’s 2016 campaign featured sinister grainy images of George Soros and two other recognizable Jewish financiers with the message: “It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

This is a stark example, not only of anti-Semitic tropes, but an anti-Semitic vocabulary that could have been taken from the fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which accused Jews of seeking global Jewish hegemony by controlling the press and the world’s economy. It even sounded familiar to Hitler’s message: “Through control of finance and the press, by inciting the workers, by promoting class conflict, by destroying the rights of property owners, by inciting war and conflict between peoples, by fighting against religion … the world will be replaced by Jewish world domination, by a reign of terror.” Hence the Nazi slogan “Jews will not replace us,” which neo-Nazis repeated in Charlottesville, Va.

Then there are those on the left who spread hatred of Jews on the pretext of being anti-Zionists. There is nothing wrong with questioning Israeli policies or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political alliances, which some can argue mitigate against peace in that region. But they should never be used as a device to separate Jews from their fellow Americans, nor to disparage the patriotism of Jews or as a tool to further politically divide this country. This explains why Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweet, suggesting that those who support Israel have a dual allegiance, was so resented. It’s an anti-Semitic trope that goes back to the biblical Queen Esther.

Omar “unequivocally” apologized, saying: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” But the apology wasn’t enough for Trump, who told the Republican Jewish Coalition that the Democratic Party has allowed anti-Semitism to “take root in their party and their country.”

On the right, Republican Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Louis Gohmert of Texas have launched scurrilous attacks on Soros, repeating the lie that he was a “Nazi sympathizer” who turned in “his fellow Jews” and that he “may be funding” the caravan of immigrants Trump seized on to vilify immigrants seeking asylum. (Fox News apologized for Gohmert’s “false allegations” against Soros.) Immigration must be regulated and asylum seekers must be treated humanely; our history shows that we have been nourished by immigrants.

The fact that anti-Semitism is still with us and, according to statistics, continues to grow, is not a Republican or Democratic problem; it’s an American and international problem. I’ve been a Zionist all my life, and Israel and I welcome the support of world leaders and others, but we must not exchange that support for tolerance of anti-Semitism here or abroad. We must never forget the pain inflicted on Jews by xenophobic nationalists.

As a Republican Jewish Zionist, I’m ashamed when Trump describes asylum seekers in the most degrading terms, and when Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) members cheered when he said to asylum seekers: “Can’t come in — our country is full.” If Rae Kushner heard those words, I’m certain that she also would be saddened and be reminded of the St. Louis — about the plight of the homeless victims of violence. She was not in the audience, but her grandson was.

Sol Wachtler is former chief judge of the State of New York and a distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.

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