What did we see when thousands of Donald Trump supporters obediently raised their right arms high in the air to pledge support for him? It’s unlikely that many American Jewish voters saw that as just another election rally scene. The visual echoes were visceral, immediate and repellant.
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More than any theological belief, the one shared value that has characterized the American-Jewish worldview of the 20th and 21st centuries is ‘Never Again.’
The historical imperative to never repeat the Holocaust has served as a core component of the education of American Jewish youth for three generations. We visit Holocaust museums and memorials and some - actual death camps. It seems as if half of our Jewish education is devoted to text and traditions; the other half to bearing witness to our recent collective trauma, vowing communally that never again will we fall victim to persecution, never again will we allow such evil to take root.
But when does ‘Never Again’ start?
That’s the challenge of extracting lessons from the Holocaust and proposing contemporary parallels: You can’t judge backwards, when the cattle cars are already running. You have to look to the roots, to the foundation that allowed a destructive system to grow. But if the roots, nourished by fear and prejudice, are already established, it's too late. You have to look back further and identify the seed that sprouted those rotten roots.
Language is the seed, and “Never Again” begins with zero tolerance of inflammatory speech. Symbols, gestures and images matter, too – they are the precursors of action. So while an impromptu rally pledge can't be blown up to suggest an American Reich is imminent, our history tells us that when paired with demagogic rhetoric, it's not harmless either - and can't be ignored.
Our Holocaust education touches on the social circumstances in which a vulnerable Germany was manipulated into becoming a murderous nation. But in most of our conversations and depictions, we tend to focus on the blaze of the Final Solution, rather than on the small, early sparks that ultimately caught fire. We say “Never Again” when we look at Auschwitz, but perhaps we have not paid enough attention to the first incendiary speeches that set it all into motion.
When language breeds and abets violence, we must condemn it. Donald Trump’s campaign is made of such language.
I understand Trump’s appeal: We have all, at some point, been charmed, amused or invigorated by his unfiltered rants. His candor, when not offensive, is often refreshing. You may admire his ability to cut through the political clichés that numb us. You may be sick of the inertia and pettiness of government; you may seek someone who can press ‘restart.’ You may simply hate every other candidate.
But if we as Jewish Americans are to honor our own history and the lessons pulled from the ashes, we must reject him. Any Jew that supports Trump and has said “Never Again,” has said those words in vain.
To be very clear: I am not saying Donald Trump is, or will become, Hitler. “The Art of the Deal” is not “Mein Kampf.” But the point is this: Hitler was once Donald Trump – an impossibility until he was a reality. And he built the bridge between the two with words, gestures and symbols that lifted up certain people and degraded others, that identified scapegoats, and that gave people permission to turn against their fellow citizens.
And what of our words? When does our mantra of “Never Again” move from slogan to action?
It's a tricky tightrope. We don’t know if or when the blame and anger Trump feeds off will sprout into something more tangibly sinister. But if we take history seriously, we have to accept that the seeds Trump is planting are like those planted by charismatic figures like Stalin and Putin and Mao, who watered them with generic promises of greatness paired with the toxic manure of bigotry and nationalism.
Our own history offers strong evidence that Jews and all other minorities never win in such situations. “Never Again” means we cannot wait around to find out. So it starts now.
Brian Schaefer is a contributor to Haaretz, based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @MyTwoLeftFeet