Selective Memory

Throughout the Trump presidency, the American Jewish establishment’s focus on policing Holocaust analogies undermined efforts to hold the president accountable for stoking white nationalism.

Rebecca Pierce
December 4, 2020
Protesters assembled by the group Never Again Action march against Trump’s immigration policies in Philadelphia, July 4th, 2019. Photo: Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo

IN NOVEMBER, the Holocaust Memorial and Education Resource Center of Florida came under fire for its new exhibit Uprooting Prejudice: Faces of Change, featuring Minneapolis photographer John Noltner’s work documenting the mourners and protesters who congregated at the corner where George Floyd was killed by police this past summer. The exhibition drew ire from some Jewish far-right commentators like Dov Hikind and Ezra Levant, the latter of whom tweeted, “George Floyd is added to a Holocaust museum? That trivializes and distorts the Holocaust and its six million Jewish victims.” Both Hikind and Levant suggested that in even including the George Floyd exhibit, the center was drawing an inappropriate comparison between the United States and Nazi Germany. But the museum, founded by Holocaust survivor Tess Wise, has long used the past to illuminate the present, contextualizing contemporary human rights abuses like the genocide in Darfur through the history of the Holocaust and other legalized oppression like Jim Crow. 

Considering that the center is far from the first US Holocaust education initative to take this approach or even to memorialize George Floyd, the controversy seemed less a critical engagement with human rights education than a reflection of a particularly polarized moment in American and Jewish politics. Four years of the Trump administration have brought the material connections between the fascism of the past and the white nationalist authoritarianism of the present into sharp relief. The question of whether a Black man killed by American police officers “belongs” in a space dedicated to the Shoah has therefore become a proxy for the presidential election’s referendum on two competing visions of the country: an exclusivist one versus a pluralistic one. The Jewish community considered the election high-stakes: According to polling released earlier this year by the progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc, the majority of Jewish voters view the president as antisemitic and consider white nationalism to be a major problem in the Republican Party. Accordingly, during the Trump era, Jewish activists, artists, and community groups heavily relied on Jewish legacies of resistance to Nazi fascism in their organizing against policies like the Muslim Ban and ICE Detention, and liberal Jewish organizations like the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) and Bend the Arc took a similar tack in their anti-Trump get-out-the-vote campaigns. But the last four years have also been defined by the protestations of Jewish establishment groups against such comparisons, in ways that often felt out of step with the tenor of Jewish resistance to the injustices of the Trump administration. It’s worth investigating what these establishment institutions have sought to protect, and the message they have sent, with their careful gatekeeping around Holocaust memory. 

In September, the JDCA released a TV spot that aired in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida, featuring split screen images of Nazi fascism in 1930s Germany alongside footage illustrating the antisemitic white nationalism of the Trump era. The voiceover narration urged: “It’s time to show that we’ve learned from the darkest moments in history. Hate doesn’t stop itself—it must be stopped.” Conservative groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition were quick to condemn the ad, and so were some ostensibly non-partisan Jewish legacy groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt decried the spot as insensitive in a Twitter thread, arguing that referencing Nazis “has no place in the presidential race and is deeply offensive to the memories of 6M+ Jews systematically exterminated during the Shoah.”  

But the ad also garnered support from some Holocaust scholars, like Deborah Lipstadt, who pointed out that it did not directly display images of Jewish death during the Shoah, but rather highlighted resonances between Nazi incitement toward hatred and the current American white supremacist threat. Indeed, without invoking the specific violence that was the endpoint of this hatred in Nazi Germany, the ad contextualized antisemitism as part of white nationalism, creating visual connections between Trump’s policies and supporters and the history they are in conversation with. One of the spot’s early side-by-side comparisons showed Goebbels’s torchlight marches—an early Nazi show of force that continues to influence today’s neo-Nazi movements—in a split-screen with footage of marchers brandishing Tiki torches at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. The voiceover narrator warned: “History shows us what happens when leaders use hatred and nationalism to divide their peoples.” This imagery took on new resonance the very evening the spot was released, during the first presidential debate, when Trump responded to a question asking if he would denounce extremist supporters like the Proud Boys by saying they should “stand back and stand by”—a line swiftly adopted as a rallying cry by the white nationalist group. 

Throughout the last four years, Jewish establishment groups like the ADL and the AJC have walked a thin line of publicly repudiating some Trump policies—like the Muslim Ban, ICE Detention, and police brutality—while simultaneously condemning leftist critiques of Trump that they believe hit too close to home, especially when it comes to Holocaust references. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described ICE detention centers as “concentration camps” during a 2019 Instagram Live broadcast explaining the border crisis, she was roundly condemned. While Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison may have seemed harsh in the moment, revelations of mass sterilizations and the intentionally cruel nature of Trump’s family separation policy have brought to light the white nationalist underpinnings of these immigration prisons. In fact, long before Ocasio-Cortez made these comments, former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio described his own immigrant detention tent city as a “concentration camp,” and Trump gave Arpaio a Presidential pardon for criminal contempt charges related to abuses in these centers in 2017. CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour recently drew similar criticism for comments tying the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht to the ascendent white nationalism of the Trump era, prompting a rebuke from the ADL and AJC. In the days that followed, ADL Associate Director of Middle Eastern Affairs Shaya Lerner published a piece linking Amanpour’s comments to a series of other incidents in which the Holocaust had been referenced alongside contemporary politics, including the JDCA ad. He called for a blanket moratorium on Holocaust comparisons, declaring that “[t]here is simply no equivalent event, historical or current, that compares with it.” 

At the same time, these groups have appeared to treat the Trump administration with kid gloves, facing criticism from Jewish leftists for using much harsher rhetoric when responding to controversial comments from progressive politicians than when addressing blatantly antisemitic comments from Trump and his affiliates. For example, the AJC responded deferentially to Trump’s antisemitic rhetoric reflecting stereotypes about Jews and money at a December 2019 pro-Israel event, highlighting his Israel support first before offering a mild rebuke: “surely there must be a better way to appeal to American Jewish voters.” This stood in stark contrast to their much harsher response to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial “all about the Benjamins” attributing GOP Rep Kevin MacCarthy’s attempts to censure her and Rashida Tlaib over Israel criticism to donations from AIPAC, calling it “demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic,” and demanding an apology. 

Jewish legacy groups have also frequently lauded Trump’s pro-Israel policies, even when they raised serious questions from human rights advocates. While Trump’s executive order inscribing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which associates criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews, into the federal government’s civil rights policies was panned by Jewish scholars and free speech advocates, the AJC and the ADL welcomed it as an anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) win. Legacy organizations similarly celebrated Trump’s controversial Jerusalem embassy move, an extremist blow to Palestinians that was meant to appeal to Trump’s hardline evangelical base. Both the ADL and the AJC have touted the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates as a win against antisemitism, despite the serious human rights questions raised by such deals with Gulf despots. The AJC even took partial credit for the UAE deal, stating that “AJC’s quiet but consistent dialogue with the UAE and other Arab countries has helped prepare the ground for greater engagement with Israel.”

While these groups say their criticism of the JDCA ad—and similar comparisons between Trump and Nazi fascism—is about protecting the sanctity of the Holocaust, it’s not the only thing at stake in these discussions. They have a strategic interest in minimizing such comparisons. Memorializing the Holocaust has long been a pillar of postwar American Jewish identity, and such memorialization teaches that there is no acceptable collaboration with Nazis or their ideological heirs. The fact that Trump was more ambivalent about Jews than other groups traditionally targeted by white nationalism, tolerating us so long as we toe the line on Israel, created plausible deniability for those who sought to make his fascist regime work for them. After all, while Jewish establishment groups have ardently opposed some Trump policies, they have also praised him as a partner on Israel. Allowing comparisons between Trump and Nazism would call these partnerships into question. 

In fact, even as they balk at comparisons between Trump and Nazi facism coming from the left, these groups have trafficked in similar comparisons almost as a matter of course. In 2018, ADL CEO Greenblatt described crematoria employed by the Assad regime as “invok[ing] the worst nightmares of Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people.” At the ADL’s 2019 conference, keynote speaker Sacha Baron Cohen compared tech companies platforming hate and incitement on their pages to their selling ads to Hitler—to thunderous applause. This inconsistency sends the message that these groups do believe Holocaust comparisons are in fact appropriate in some situations, but that the threat to the communities targeted by Trump’s policies is not sufficiently urgent in their eyes—or, at least, that they won’t risk a cordial relationship with the Trump administration to say so.

While there is certainly room for disagreement regarding the appropriateness of one or another particular Holocaust comparison, it’s clear that the white nationalists emboldened and empowered by Trump share with the Nazis the desire to impose exclusive citizenship, effectively writing those they deem undesirable out of society. What’s more, the development of this ideology has historically been a two-way conversation: In Mein Kampf and subsequent writings, Hitler looked to the US’s western expansion, its Jim Crow system, and its restrictive immigration laws for examples of how to establish a völkisch citizenship that applied only to Aryans. The logic of these examples led directly to the creation of the Nuremberg Laws. In an essay for the Boston Review, Italian social theorist Alberto Toscano writes about how Black radical thinkers like Angela Davis and George Jackson have long conceptualized American racial fascism, not in terms of an analogy or comparison to European fascism, but as a system in place long before Hilter, Franco, and Mussolini came to define the term. For the Black and Brown communities targeted by the prison system, racist immigration laws, and other forms of systemic violence, he writes that “the threat is not of a ‘return of the 1930s’ but the ongoing fact of racialized state terror.” In the eyes of those most targeted by Trump, the US was already fascistic, and the ability to experience it as a liberal democracy is itself a privilege when the country was built on slavery, Indigenous genocide, and the systematic denial of rights to large swaths of people subject to its rule. In this regard, American fascists cosplaying as the Fourth Reich are re-synthesizing what Nazi Germany learned from American white supremacy. 

If these histories are in direct conversation with each other, so too must be our response to them. Jewish establishment groups’ decision to condemn this line of comparison (even as they practice it in other contexts) is an inherently political one, and is indicative of their failure to meet a moment where American Jews are largely rejecting the racial fascism the Trump regime represents. Trump’s Israel policy is part and parcel of that regime, intent on solidifying apartheid conditions in Israel/Palestine and catering to a white evangelical base in the US; Jewish legacy organizations who countenanced Trump on Israel’s behalf gave a clear signal about where their priorities lie. 

On November 4th, 68% of American Jewish voters joined the majority of their Black, Latinx, Native, Asian, and Muslim American neighbors to repudiate Trump’s whites-only vision of America, according to the AP VoteCast election survey. (The number was even higher, at 77%, in J Street’s exit polling.) While some in the community still support the incumbent, and Jews like Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller have actively participated in his administration, a clear majority have rejected Trumpism. What remains to be seen, however, is the continued relevance of those establishment organizations who claimed to hold authority over the Jewish past while failing to heed the call of the Jewish present.

Rebecca Pierce is a Black and Jewish filmmaker and writer from San Francisco and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. Her writing has been published in The New Republic, The Forward, The Nation, and +972 Magazine.