The moments after the election were for mourning and introspection, but to dwell too deeply or for too long in our own cesspool of political self-pity is irresponsible while there are countless Americans whose lives are tangibly endangered by its outcome. This is not to say that the time for reflection is over, but that for the American Jewry, to reflect without organizing is to abdicate our responsibility to those Americans who need us most.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how my maternal grandmother—an immigrant who sought refuge in this country in 1937—taught me about the core values inherent in American society. In thinking about my responsibilities in the wake of the Trump victory, however, I reach for the stories of my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother.
My grandmother, Masha Greenbaum, is a Holocaust survivor. She spent the years of World War II first in ghettos, later in forced labor camps, and finally, in Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp. No words can adequately chronicle the horrors she experienced at the hands of her oppressors, but it is the brave actions of a Catholic woman who refused to be a bystander that now inform how I think about the collective Jewish responsibility to defend our fellow Americans.
Masha's father had a secretary who was half-German and half-Lithuanian. Shortly before Masha's family was forced into the Kovno ghetto, the woman offered to take her in and, hoping that she might avoid whatever grim fate awaited the rest of Lithuanian Jewry, her family consented. Within minutes Masha regretted her choice, gave back the cross the woman had placed around her neck, and ran back to her family to face the nightmarish years together.
Just as the secretary had tried to help my paternal grandmother, a hero in plainclothes intervened to save my maternal grandfather, Willy Apfel. But unlike my grandmother, Willy was fortunate enough to avoid the worst of World War II as a direct result of this intervention. His father had worked in the textile industry, and, after years of helping manufacture uniforms for the Viennese police, had developed a rapport with some of the officers. Around the time of the Anschluss, one of them warned Willy's father that they'd received instructions from the Nazis that in a matter of weeks, young, able-bodied male Jews would be rounded up, their fate unspecified. Willy escaped Vienna soon thereafter, and lived a long and fulfilling life in an America that proudly protected its immigrants.
Our communal history of oppression is one of the things that binds together the many disparate strands of American Jewry. Even on this campus, the Jewish community is by no means monolithic; we are deeply divided by religious doctrine, political ideology, and cultural practice. American Jews are religious and secular; Republicans and Democrats; rich and poor; gay, straight, and everything in between. But there are moments when we've acted as one people, and this must be one of them. Jews all across the spectrum of religious observance and political affiliation must now come together and put up a strong, united front against Trump's targeting of Muslim Americans. As a people that so recently faced the acute danger of religious persecution, we have a unique responsibility to defend its latest victims.
I've heard some argue that comparisons to the Holocaust are reductive, and that Trump is no Hitler. I would agree. But this call to action is not about redrawing Donald Trump or 2016 America in the image of Adolf Hitler and 1930s Germany. There are lessons to be gleaned from the Holocaust—things to learn from the ways in which the righteous among the nations reacted—that have applications that do not begin and end within the borders of the ghettos or the camps. The belief that things have to be at their absolute nadir before Jews get involved is one that flies in the face of our religious and cultural heritage. We are in fact instructed in Jeremiah 22:3, “This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place."
Much has already been said on this topic, and I was heartened to see a list of prominent Jewish historians issue this statement on Jewish responsibility under a Trump administration. These displays of unity are important, but they sadly do not tell the entire tale. Segments of the Jewish community have been silent or have even unfathomably gone so far as to defend Trump. Others Jews are being excluded from anti-Trump organizing because of their Zionist beliefs.
I've written before on how intersectionality is sometimes a marginalizing force. As with No Red Tape's explicit endorsement of anti-Zionism, Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network's chant at the walkout on Wednesday of, “From Palestine to Mexico, border walls have got to go” and more broadly its usage of the rally as an opportunity to issue a plug for divestment, is unproductive and divisive.
It's true that some Zionists have been misguidedly defending Steve Bannon, just as it's true that others, like Columbia alum Bari Weiss, CC '07, have decried his appointment. It's true that some in the pro-Israel world have jumped on the Trump bandwagon, essentially promising their support in exchange for pro-Israel policies, just as it's true that many within the pro-Israel world (myself included) are horrified at the idea of excusing, accepting, or normalizing Trump's behavior solely because he has promised to throw the Zionists a bone.
But it is entirely unstrategic to use Zionism as a litmus test for who can and should be involved in defending the “foreigner [or] the fatherless.” You won't find rational activists arguing that black men or white women shouldn't stand up and be counted in the fight against Trump's illiberal policies, despite the fact that 13 percent of black men and 53 percent of white women filled in the bubble under his name. As Hillary Clinton highlighted throughout her campaign, we're Stronger Together. To protect the people that a Trump administration will target, we need to create the broadest coalition possible.
If throughout his term Donald Trump neglects to deliver on a single one of his promises, if he decides not to require Muslims to register, if he chooses not to institute a religious test when reforming immigration policies, I'll be thrilled to have been proven a pessimistic bloviator chronicling dystopian fiction. Until then, I echo the call for Jews to commit to registering as Muslims should Trump move forward with his execrable and patently un-American policy proposal.
The portrait of the righteous is painted with a multitude of different brushes and colors, and like the Viennese police officer who saved my grandfather, and the Lithuanian secretary who risked her life to aid my grandmother, Jews have a moral obligation to defend the defenseless. If Santayana was right, if “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it's a good thing the Jewish cri de coeur has, for the past 70 years, been, “Never forget.”
Daniella Greenbaum is a Barnard College senior majoring in English literature. She tweets @dgreenbaum. Agree to Disagree runs alternate Mondays.
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