This year on Yom HaShoah, I joined hands with fellow members of the Jewish community at Georgetown University to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for those murdered in the Holocaust.
Less than an hour later, I stood in solidarity with fellow Jewish, Muslim, and allied students to protest a man who is a member of a far-right Hungarian group with historic ties to the Nazis, and a virulent Islamophobe. Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to the President, had been invited by the Georgetown School of Foreign Service to speak on a panel at the International Conference on Cyber Security.
Gorka spoke on a panel titled “News, Alternative Facts, and Propaganda” - an issue he’s well versed in, having created and disseminated his share of alternative facts. He is the author of widely debunked “counterterrorism” research filled with misrepresentations of Islam and Muslims.
The protest proved to be an incredible moment of solidarity between the Jewish and Muslim communities, affirming that our struggles to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are linked. During the event, as he has before, Gorka denied his anti-Semitism in part by touting his fierce opposition to Islam and support for Israel.
When subjected to tough questions from students in the audience, Gorka became more and more flustered, struggling and failing to justify his long history of shameful affiliations and activities. He chose to use his time to lash out at the students, journalists, and critics who have reported on his background and attempted to hold the White House accountable for employing such a dangerous person.
I’m proud of my fellow students, Jews and Muslims, who refused to be intimidated by Gorka’s position of power. I’m proud that on Yom HaShoah, of all days, we stood together and refused to normalize his ideology of hate.
But I’m also deeply concerned and saddened that a man like Gorka was given this platform to speak - and that this will not be the last time. Over the next few months, Gorka is scheduled to speak at two pro-Israel gatherings - the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, and the Washington D.C. Summit of Christians United for Israel.
It should be unacceptable for Gorka to present his hateful, narrow-minded worldview as “pro-Israel.” At these events, he’ll speak alongside senior Israeli ministers and leaders of mainstream American Jewish organizations. Will these officials and leaders of the Jewish community challenge Gorka’s disgraceful beliefs? Will they find a way to stand up and fight back against Islamophobia, against sympathy for fascists and neo-Nazis? Or will they sit back while Gorka uses the guise of “strong support for Israel” to demonize millions of people, and advocates for policies that target and discriminate against them?
Our community needs to face the facts: right-wing extremism is on the rise in our country. It has a strong hold on the White House - according to a recent report by the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, President Trump “has created the most Islamophobic administration our country has ever seen.”
Jewish institutions and spaces aren’t immune from it. The president of the Zionist Organization of America has defended and praised leading Islamophobe Steve Bannon. Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. has proudly accepted an award from an organization that has called for banning all Muslims from the United States. And now, someone with ties to Nazi allies is welcome at pro-Israel conferences.
We can’t let this become the new normal. We need our leaders to follow in the footsteps of what we did at Georgetown, and to push back against bigotry and lies, even if they come from White House officials or the President himself. We need to remember our values of tolerance and respect, the legacy of the Holocaust, and the consequences of failing to stand up for those who are vulnerable and targeted by power.
We must not allow ingratiating and self-serving declarations of being pro-Israel to provide cover for an agenda of hate. We know better than that. Virulent attacks on Muslims and Palestinians won’t make Israelis safer - nor will undermining democratic values in Israel or in the U.S. The ideas of Gorka and his allies offer only disaster for the Jewish community and for the world - and we need to say so now, while there’s still time to expose and stop them.
My grandmother, a Shoah survivor, taught me the importance of standing up against people like Gorka and the consequences of remaining silent. In this time of Holocaust commemoration, I urge others in the Jewish community take this legacy to heart.
Julia Friedmann is a sophomore at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and co-chair of J Street U Georgetown.
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