I spent the first six years of my life in a small town in Poland, and the parts of our old house that fascinated me most were the hiding places. There was an empty water tank in the attic and crawl spaces in the walls where I liked to play, and I knew that people had hidden there when the Nazis occupied Poland during World War II.
Eventually, I learned that my grandmother and great-grandmother sheltered a Jewish woman from our town throughout the war, spiriting her away to those secret places whenever German soldiers came with their dogs to search for Jews. Only recently, I learned that they had protected several others, too, in an apartment in Warsaw, even making a Jewish man my mother’s godfather on her Catholic baptismal certificate. They didn’t talk much about what they did, or about the incredible risk they took at a time when the Nazis would execute whole families if one member was discovered hiding Jews; it was treated, in my family, not as some act of heroism, but as what any normal, decent person would do.
Years later, I found myself, as an American diplomat, overseeing our State Department’s effort to combat anti-Semitism around the world. When we saw any sign of anti-Semitism or other ideologies of hate receiving official sanction, it was America’s policy to speak out. In 2015, for example, the Hungarian government promoted a statue honoring Balint Homan, a World War II-era nationalist leader who backed the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Ira Forman, our special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, and my deputy, Rob Berschinski, traveled multiple times to Hungary to object.
We won that battle, and others — the statue to Homan was not built. But now I fear we are losing the war. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again around the world, and America today is mostly silent. In Hungary, the nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban blew every racist and anti-Semitic dog whistle in winning re-election this year, yet he was invited to the White House. In Poland, the government rails against dark-skinned immigrants while criminalizing those who claim any Poles collaborated with Nazi crimes, yet President Donald Trump has praised the government for defending “the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are.” Trump’s State Department has not even filled the job of special envoy to combat anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism has always been with us. On the left, it shows itself as denial of Israel’s right to exist and the conflation of Zionism with racism. On the right, it has long been a feature of white nationalism. What’s different today is that some of our highest national leaders are giving license to the thinking behind anti-Semitism — to the idea that nations should be defined by blood and soil, that we should blame our problems on whatever and whomever is defined as foreign.
White supremacists know what Trump and his top backers are signaling when they disparage his departing economic advisor, Gary Cohn, as a “globalist,” and promote right-wing conspiracy theorists like Mike Cernovich (who last year tweeted a blatantly anti-Semitic cartoon showing the Rothschild family holding Trump’s former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on a puppet string). They know what Trump means when he says that Europe is “losing its culture” because of immigration, and that “the culture of our country is being ripped apart” by the taking down of Confederate monuments in the South. They get the point when his administration invites a pastor who believes that Jews and Muslims are going to hell to speak at the opening of our embassy in Jerusalem.
Anti-Semitic incidents in America, including physical assaults, threats, and attacks on Jewish institutions, surged by almost 60 percent in 2017 (along with an increase in hate crimes against other ethnic and religious groups), according to the ADL. In just the last few weeks, white supremacists have been posting flyers in New Jersey towns like Bedminster, Bridgewater, and Hillsborough urging people to “preserve the white race” and to “defend your nation.” The number of anti-Semites in America did not rise by 60 percent since Trump’s election; what’s changed is that people who might have hidden their hate a few years ago are now feeling emboldened to show it.
I’ve been thinking hard about what I could do about all this if I’m elected to Congress. Some of the steps are obvious. Congress should, for example, make the FBI devote more resources and attention to white supremacist groups in the United States, so that we prevent anti-Semitic and other hate crimes rather than just responding after they happen. Right now, only a tiny fraction of the Justice Department’s counterterrorism budget is dedicated to domestic terrorism, and the Trump administration has proposed shrinking it further.
Congress can and should take greater charge of speaking for America to the world — condemning xenophobic leaders, parties, and policies in Europe; funding efforts to counter extremism; keeping America open to refugees; preserving our alliances with democratic countries, including Israel, and our commitment to human rights.
But the most important thing we need now is for leaders to lead. If the Democratic Party was taken over by someone who demonized immigrants and praised white supremacists, someone who tried to take our foreign policy back to the “America First” ideology that tried to keep us out of the fight against Hitler, I would do everything in my power to take my party back. Some of my Republican friends have tried to do that since Trump emerged in 2016, but most are too frightened to act. They have placed party over country, and as a result could end up losing both.
What makes me hopeful is that more and more Americans recognize that we cannot let the haters divide us. When the Nazis marching in Charlottesville chant “black lives don’t matter” and the “Jews will not replace” them, when the same people who want to ban Muslims also threaten Jewish journalists, when the same administration that takes children from Salvadoran parents in Texas starts stopping Americans on highways in Maine demanding that they declare their citizenship, we know we are all in this together.
It’s time for all of us to say that there is no place in our politics for demagogues who seek scapegoats, not solutions, for our country’s problems — that we will not let them hold positions of responsibility, and that we will protect whomever they are bullying. That’s what any normal, decent people would do.
Tom Malinowski is President Barack Obama’s former assistant secretary for human rights, where he oversaw the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. He is a Democrat running for Congress in District 7.