How Philip Roth Helps Us Understand Our Immigration Crisis
In his 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” the late Philip Roth depicted an America that loses its soul: A wealthy celebrity wins a presidential election by scapegoating an entire community and goes on to turn the U.S. government into an instrument of bigotry and authoritarianism.
While Roth’s first-person account weaved together an alternate past — one in which his and other Jewish families were the primary target of the incoming regime — his prescience in imagining how something like Trumpism could take root in American society has been widely noted. But of all the episodes that have defined this administration so far — of all the ways in which it has trampled on the most basic notions of decency, respect and truth, and sent our nation spiraling into a barbaric tribalism from which reemergence feels like a distant and uncertain hope — its treatment of migrant families may be the most reminiscent of the tragedy envisioned by Roth.
Roth, sadly, passed away last month at the age of 85 after a lifetime of reshaping American writing. If he were here today, it’s hard to think that what we’ve seen over the past few weeks — the images and recordings of terrified children crying out for their parents from the depths of faceless warehouses, the president’s hysterical diatribes about immigrants “infesting” and “invading” America, the calls to forgo due process at the border, the unending stream of lies about migrant families emanating from the administration and its enablers — wouldn’t lead Roth to say something powerful about this crisis and its disturbing parallels to the Jewish experience through the ages.
As descendants of immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees reaching for more secure lives, Jewish Americans are deeply familiar with the tactics of the current administration: claims that outsiders with sinister motives are seeking to swindle society; targeted efforts to scapegoat, otherize and dehumanize; a near-constant ratcheting-up of rhetoric to focus all ire and grievances on the targeted community.
Collective memory of this history and its enduring legacy should make Jewish-Americans particularly sensitive to the ongoing persecution of migrant families and the Trump administration’s broader hostility to immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. Jewish-Americans must embrace their role in demanding the reunification of families, the abandonment of the so-called “zero tolerance” policy and the end of hateful and prejudiced rhetoric and actions from this administration and its supporters.
Beyond just the Jewish community, it falls on all of us, particularly those from marginalized communities, to stand together in defense of immigrants and against the rhetoric and actions of this administration. Unwittingly, the Trump candidacy and administration has already done much to bring about this kind of unified opposition. By comparing murderous neo-Nazis to those protesting their racism; by targeting Hispanics and Muslim Americans; by attacking transgender service members; by discriminating against disabled citizens, African-Americans, Native Americans, LGBT individuals and low-income communities; and by claiming that America has no place for “Dreamers”, asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants generally, it has fused together a galvanized and mighty force.
Already, we are seeing a transformative coalition assert itself, with a wide range of Jewish groups taking part in the growing and extraordinarily vibrant national movement against the appalling mistreatment of migrant families. As an official partner in the Families Belong Together rallies that took place across the country on June 30, J Street is proud to be among all those rising up in defense of immigrants and in support of a just and humane America.
The upcoming midterm elections represent a pivotal opportunity for this coalition to translate its activism into electoral power. That’s why J Street supporters across the country are mobilizing to help elect candidates who will fight for our democratic values in Congress. By working to elect congressional majorities that take seriously their responsibility to stand up to this president and serve as a check on the administration, we give voice to human rights, equality and justice.
So long as we advance together, we can counter the forces of xenophobia and injustice with a truer unity — one borne out of solidarity, not uniformity. Together, we can find a greater strength and the resolve to keep going. We can chart a path forward out of the current darkness — the darkness Roth warned us of — toward a future worthy of who we aspire to be, as individual communities and as a nation.