Donald Trump makes me feel Jewish. Watching him run a presidential campaign on scapegoating and otherizing Muslims has connected me to a Jewish heritage from which I am for the most part detached. While I am undeniably ethnically Jewish — neither of my parents can trace anyone on their respective family trees who is not — my Jewishness has never been central to my day-to-day existence. I was raised by two staunch atheists: We never lit the candles on a Friday night, and I couldn’t explain Yom Kippur to you even if it gave Hilary 38 more electoral votes. But I believe that my ancestry permits me the right to compare Trump to Hitler.
The comparison is one of controversy. Historians, journalists and apparently school superintendents (a high school history teacher in California was suspended for commenting on the “remarkable parallels” between the two) have slammed it. Recently, an LA Times editor — a guest speaker in my journalism class — argued that it is a lazy conversation ender. But to all critics of the comparison I ask: When does it become appropriate?
Trump says the United States has a “Muslim problem,” he lies about the “thousands of thousands” of Muslims cheering at 9/11, he proposes policies to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and has called for a registry of Muslim-Americans and a monitoring of mosques. Beyond that, he has appointed undeniable Islamophobes to senior positions, such as Michael Flynn, who referred to Islam as “cancer,” and former CEO of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, who published articles with headlines such as “10 things Milo hates about Islam.” Trump has stolen the Nazi playbook and replaced the word Jew with Muslim.
My parents instilled in me the belief that secularity and a disinterest in tradition does not detract from a Jewish cultural identity. In my household, Jewishness means an awareness of history, an understanding of the discrimination, exclusion and horror met by every generation before us. And what is the point of that awareness, if I do not use it to call out the past as I see it in the present?
Growing up, my mum and dad would speak to me and my younger sister about Russian and Lithuanian family members fleeing persecution. They gave us Old Testament names: Leah and Jemima. They would remind me that I am biologically comprised of asylum seekers, that I only exist because Britain opened its borders to refugees. When my mom deemed me and my sister old enough — 18 and 15 respectively — she and my dad took us to Auschwitz.
Trump is not Hitler yet. But to deny the eerie parallels, the way both hijacked economic anxieties and insecurities of declining international influence on the world stage, is to deny history. When people deny that Trump depicts the 21st century Muslim American as suspicious, secretive and threatening, they deny Hitler’s parallel representation of the 1930s German Jew. With a national jewish registry, a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses and racism based on “Jewish-sounding” names, there is little question as to whether Trump’s threats reflect Hitler’s actions. To deny that Trump’s registry for Muslims reflects Jews wearing Gold Stars in Nazi Germany is to deny history.
Neo-Nazis are aware of the parallels. Since Nov. 8, these individuals on the fringes of American society seem to be gaining confidence. The “alt-right” — a veiled rebrand of Neo-Nazism — hosted a celebratory convention in D.C. where they cried out, “Hail Trump!” and performed Nazi salutes. Numerous mosques in five states received anonymous letters stating that “Trump is going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to Jews.” Every daily news cycle brings another report of Swastikas painted in a park or in a block of flats.
Let me reiterate: Trump is not Hitler yet. But as the United States Holocaust Museum’s recent statement, in response to the “alt-right” D.C. convention, reads: “The Holocaust did not begin with killing, it began with words.”
We condemn the Trump-Hitler comparison because we view Hitler as an evil so without bounds that it feels arbitrary to equate him to anything 2016 could cook up. We mythologize the past, pretending that 80 years ago in Western Europe was ancient history, rather than our grandparents’ generation. But we have to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that we are exempt from this sort of horror. After all, it was this skepticism that partially contributed to Hitler’s rise to power.
Certainly, there are clear distinctions between Trump and Hitler. As Washington Post columnist Shalom Auslander wrote, the comparison “belittles Hitler” as he was a “psychopath” while “Trump is just a con-man.” Yes, Trump is a tackier, stupider, faux Nazi lacking a genuine vision. But his brand of personality — cheap shock value, sex scandals and rudimentary rhetoric — holds up a mirror to our time: Trump is Hitler raised on Adderall and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
I wholeheartedly hope that Trump is not genocidal. I am by no means contending that he will be. But as Irish Senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin said recently, “I don’t think any of us in the years to come should look at this period and not say that we did everything in our power to call it out for what it is.”
As Jews and as citizens of the world, we must welcome the poignancy and vitality of the Trump-Hitler comparison. We must stand in solidarity with Muslims and call Trump and his team what they are: Neo-Nazis. It is insulting to our ancestors to do any less.
Leah Gavron is an English Literature major, on exchange from the University of Sussex. She can be reached at [email protected]