Like the racist fear of African American men assaulting white women, the idea that Jews are suspect citizens of their home nations is deep-seated, pernicious and blood-soaked. It persists over time, from Exodus to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, from the ovens of Auschwitz to last year’s massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Hearing it echoed from the White House is not only chilling but also representative of yet another way the Trump administration is eroding American values. It denies a fundamental American value: e pluribus unum — out of many, one.
For centuries, Jews have been scattered across the globe, dwelling among others. At worst, they were enslaved, as in pharaonic Egypt; at best, they lived the perilous existence of second-class citizens, part of society, but not fully of it, safe for today, but marked for possible slaughter tomorrow. And the slaughter was always presaged by accusations of disloyalty and betrayal.
In Exodus, the pharaoh warns Egyptians that, if left free, Jews might side with Egypt’s enemies. In medieval times, Christian leaders slurred all Jews as Christ killers, betrayers therefore of all mankind. Fears of disloyalty led to the torture and expulsion of Jews from Spain. In Russia, Jews were accused of plotting to betray the czars; in the Soviet Union, of plotting against communism. In fascist Europe, the Jews were accused of working for communists. The Nazis made Jews responsible for Germany’s loss in World War I — this “stab in the back” anti-Semitism was used to justify the Holocaust. (For a more detailed exploration of this history, see Alex Zeldin’s commentary in the publication Forward.)
The virus of the Jewish disloyalty slur took root in the U.S. as well. Henry Ford, America’s preeminent anti-Semite, published a set of pamphlets, “The International Jew,” that spread the lies of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the New World.
Today, the perfidy proliferates in two forms. First is the accusation that Jews are secretly loyal to Israel above their own nations. Trump echoed this in a follow-up to his disloyalty comments. A reporter asked to whom Democratic Jews were disloyal and he answered, “Israel.” The second is associated with the white genocide theory, also called the Great Replacement, which sees a Jewish conspiracy in immigration. It lies behind claims that George Soros is driving “caravans” to the U.S. (which Trump has also repeated) and inspired the Tree of Life synagogue shooter.
That an American president would traffic in any aspect of the Jewish disloyalty/betrayal slur is profoundly disturbing. It also undermines one of the best and most unique aspects of the United States: We are a mosaic, or, if you prefer, a melting pot, and no matter your ethnicity or religion.
Earlier this week, I had dinner with my sister, who is a first generation immigrant like me, and her U.S.-born children. Each time I see my nephews, I’m reminded of how thoroughly they understand themselves to be Americans. It’s hard to explain how stunning that is.
My family emigrated from the Soviet Union, but even there we weren’t Soviets; we were Jews who happened to live in the U.S.S.R., just as our ancestors were Jews who happened to live in the Russian Empire.
Many Americans fail to realize that even in Western Europe, nationalism is often defined by ethnicity. You could be born in a country, be a native speaker, be successful, occupy a valued role in society, but unless you are part of the “right” ethnic group, society will always remind you: You’re with us, but not of us. We live here; you’re just renting.
The United States is one of the very few places where your primary national identity is explicitly not linked to ethnicity. Of course, as the survivors of Japanese internment camps will testify, that’s not a standard the nation has always met. Today, plenty of citizens, especially those of color, may not feel like they are fully accepted — but if asked their nationality, most would still say “American.” Just like my Jewish, second generation nephews.
By labeling Democrat-voting Jews as disloyal, the White House is spreading a hateful lie and attacking a powerful and quintessentially American ideal. How shameful.
Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”