A surreptitious yet candid bigotry unfamiliar to many major city dwellers has made its way into the American spotlight with the election of President Trump.
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The administration’s normalization of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rhetoric during its first three months has forced religious and ethnic minorities in the U.S. to reflect on our own identity. This is especially true for Jewish Americans and Middle Eastern Americans who may have felt integrated into greater American society and are sometimes referred to as “model minorities.” However, with this bigotry comes an opportunity for long divided communities to find common ground and stand-up to hate.
Throughout the last century new waves of immigrants have arrived in the U.S., faced fierce discrimination, and then over time began to self-identify with an anglicized and hyphenated version of their identity. In other words, they became “white.” This phenomenon occurred for Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, and some Middle Eastern Americans. However, these last two groups never achieved an unimpeachable “whiteness” likely for a combination of reasons including appearance and religious differences from mainstream white culture.
For example, the trajectories of Eastern European Jews and Iranians after immigration into the U.S. are strikingly similar. Both have fared well economically and generally live in large metropolitan centers. Both have retained their culture but increasingly see themselves as White Americans. And, both were relatively shielded from open discrimination over the last two decades when compared to other minorities. This was especially true for Jews in big cities.
Not anymore. In the first three months of the Trump administration, Iranian Americans have seen their family members barred from the country, Muslims are increasingly targeted at airports and even in the street, and Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. Swastikas have appeared in big cities and in Kansas two Indian men were attacked based on the false assumption they were Iranian.
Whether the Trump administration is the cause or effect of these developments is irrelevant. The administration is directly involved in discriminatory policies such as the “Muslim Ban” executive orders. It has also failed to take an affirmative stand against hate such as when President Trump told a Jewish reporter to “sit down” and berated him after he asked about rising anti-Semitism. The latest scandal involving national security advisor Sebastian Gorka’s alleged membership in the Nazi-affiliated Vitézi Rend is the latest in a parade of questionable incidents.
Jews and Middle Easterners often live in ethnic enclaves like Dearborn, Westwood or Beachwood, or in the inner-ring suburbs of cities in which our status as a minority is understated.
Unlike many Jews in America I spent significant portions of my youth in school districts with few Jews—both urban and suburban. I served in the Marine Corps and was almost always the only Jew. I knew that despite my white appearance, my obviously Jewish last name was the weakest link in my shaky White American identity. Jewish whiteness is fickle, fleeting, and often based on what one does. When Jews marched with African Americans during the 1950s, history recorded us as “white civil rights activists.” But Bernie Madoff the fraudster is a Jew. When Jews do something wrong their Jewish identity suddenly eclipses their white one. Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans share similar experiences, so why aren’t we more unified?
Until now, the debate over Israel and Palestine was the main point of contention dividing our communities. However, these divisions increasingly exist among Jews as well. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has proved one of the most divisive leaders in recent Israeli history and enjoys waning support from within the government and among citizens. The issue of settlements and a two-state solution are hotly debated in the Jewish American community by liberal voices such as Peter Beinart and vehement supporters of Netanyahu’s policies like Noah Pollak. Many Jewish Americans have long viewed the alleged singling out of Israel for criticism as a new form of socially acceptable anti-Semitism. But the aftermath of the Trump election reveals that a deep-seated, apolitical, and very “white” anti-Semitism still exists in America. Furthermore, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are two sides of the same coin.
The Trump administration’s pointed targeting of Iranians in his executive orders and rhetoric has opened the door to increased understanding between our communities. I regularly interact with Iranian student organizations at U.S. universities and they have been reassured by the airport protests and numerous opinion pieces in support of their right to study, live, and work in the U.S. They have also noticed a strong Jewish American presence in those efforts, which many view as a welcome surprise.
These Iranians are neither dissidents nor staunch supporters of Tehran’s policies. They are patriotic Iranians who want a peaceful understanding with the rest of the world and they are the future of Iran. Yet an obsession with the Iran deal among many Jewish Americans still preoccupies far too many communal resources. A revolutionary yet pragmatic Iran is a major challenge, but not an existential threat to Israel, as the last three heads of the Mossad have pointed out publicly. What does pose an existential threat to Jews as a whole is a growing anti-Semitism in the West.
It must be remembered that anti-Semitism is a central pillar of many of the “clash of civilizations” theories that Islamophobes peddle. On social media, supporters of the Muslim Ban often point out that Jews are some of the strongest advocates for Muslim immigration and civil rights as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy against White America. Yet some far right Jewish organizations routinely support figures like Gorka solely due to their stances on the Palestine question and Iran.
This is an increasingly dangerous road for Jewish Americans to take. It is critical not to make alliances with figures who merely see Jews as a lesser enemy in a greater fight against Muslims. If anything, now is the time for Americans with similar concerns to put aside geopolitics—if only for a moment— prioritize the values that bond Americans together, and stand against hate together.
Adam Weinstein is a veteran of the Marine Corps, where he served in Afghanistan, and a policy research intern at the National Iranian American Council. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamNoahWho.