We have seen this before.
A week in which the president of the United States repeatedly questioned the loyalty of Jews who did not vote for him and his party shocked and dismayed the American Jewish community. We should be dismayed; we should hardly be shocked.
Jewish loyalty oaths, in the modern world, have led to disastrous consequences for our community. The 19th century began with Napoleon questioning whether Jews were truly loyal to France; that same century ended with the French scapegoating of Alfred Dreyfus and public displays of anti-Semitism.
In 1934, Adolf Hitler instituted “The Fuehrer Oath” as a litmus test for the loyalty of the German military. Just 11 years later, 6 million Jews had been murdered by the fuehrer’s final solution.
Jews are rightfully dismayed when a nation’s leader questions our loyalty, as President Trump did twice recently. That existential fear is deepened when such leaders are also commanders in chief of armed forces. Dreyfus was framed in a military court-martial. French anti-Semitism was abetted by the nation’s military. Likewise, hordes of brownshirts, soldiers and SS officers took the lead in the Nazi genocidal plan.
Knowing the historic line from questioning Jews’ loyalty to the persecution of Jews, our communities throughout our country are rightly on edge.
Even as we are dismayed, we Jews should not be shocked. Even before he became president, Trump embodied bigotry. He spoke of Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals.” One of his first moves in office was to ban people from seven mostly Muslim countries from entering the United States. As commander in chief, he referred to African nations through vulgar references and a predominantly African-American congressional district as “infested.” He has rolled back protections of the LGBTQ community. He frequently uses tropes that dehumanize his dissenters.
The Jewish community should not be surprised that it is our turn to be marginalized and threatened; perhaps it should only shock us that it took so long.
It is not only Muslims and Jews, the Latino and black communities that should be dismayed by the dehumanizing language of Trump. All Americans need to be on notice about what can happen next if every citizen fails to speak up to counter this outrage, to silence this kind of speech.
And, we need to admit, it may already be too late. Trump might command the United States armed forces for another 18 months, or another five years. But he has a different audience whom he can command for a far longer future.
What is clear from the shooting in El Paso, Texas, is that Trump has inspired white supremacists. Armed white nationalists whose hearts are as filled with hate for minorities as their cabinets are filled with AK-47s have been identified by terrorism expert Daniel Byman as the leading terror threat in America today.
Every new dehumanizing word that enters our national conversation has the power to inspire mass shootings and the mass murder of minorities.
The pressing question facing America today is: Can the cat be put back in the bag? Can we, even in a divided political environment, stop the spew of hatred? Can we call out all hate? Can we muster the courage to say that words have consequences, and then hold people to account for their speech? Can we literally and figuratively disarm the hate that has stepped into the spotlight of American life?
During a different American crisis to which far too many remained indifferent, the LGBTQ community reminded us that “Silence=Death” — words we need to heed today.
Seth M. Limmer is the senior rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation.
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