Last week in Poland, President Trump uttered this remarkable statement: “Americans, Poles and nations of Europe value freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come inside or out, from the south or the east, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.”
Notice the geographical terms. He didn’t say “north” and “west” but “south” and “east.” Trump was talking, in large measure, about Muslims. He wasn’t talking only about the threat that Muslims would commit terrorism. He was talking about the threat that Muslims, merely by being Muslim, would undermine the “culture, faith and tradition” of Europe and the United States.
No one familiar with the past statements of Trump and his advisers should be surprised. In 2015, Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, warned that if America doesn’t “hit the pause button…we’re going to be importing at least a couple of million Muslims.” In 2016, he questioned whether “Muslims that are sharia-adherent can actually be part of a society, be integrated into a society, where you have the rule of law.” Trump himself famously said that “Islam hates us.”
But what made Trump’s comments particularly alarming was the country in which he uttered them: Poland. Poland’s right-wing government buys Trump’s argument completely. It refuses to admit any refugees because, as the leader of Poland’s ruling party recently put it, “we would have to completely change our culture.” Last year, one of Poland’s most widely read newspapers put a picture of a dark-skinned man molesting a half-naked white woman on its cover alongside the words, “Islamic rape of Europe.”
If Jews don’t find this chilling, they’re suffering from historical amnesia. Poland was not always ethnically homogenous. Before 1939, ethnic Poles composed only two-thirds of the country population; Jews were a full 10% of the total.
There was a time when many Poles believed that Jews threatened “to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.” In her book, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew From 1880 to the Present, Joanna Michlic quotes Roman Dmoski, sometimes called the father of Polish nationalism, as writing in 1902 that, “Our national organism should absorb only those [foreign elements] that are capable of assimilating…[Jews] have far too many characteristics that are alien to our moral code.”
Today, some influential American Jews are happy to endorse the view that Muslims threaten Poland and America’s “moral code.” White House aide Stephen Miller, who is Jewish, reportedly wrote Trump’s Warsaw speech. Joel Pollack, the Jewish editor of Bannon’s former publication, Breitbart, applauded Trump for declaring that “there are parts of the world that reject and threaten the values of the West.”
When Jews like Miller and Pollack endorse Trump and Bannon’s vision of Muslims as a threat, they indulge the conceit that fearing Jews a century ago was irrational but fearing Muslims today is rational. Why?
First, because Muslims don’t assimilate. But didn’t Jews in synagogues around the world just read the Torah portion Balak, in which we interpret the prophet Balaam’s reference to the Jewish people’s tendency to “dwell alone” as a statement of praise? Don’t myriad commandments — from the obligation to affix a mezuzah to our doors and gates to the obligation to wear fringes on a four-cornered garment to the obligation to eat kosher food and drink kosher wine — have the precisely the effect of keeping Jews and non-Jews apart? Don’t Jews establish our own religious courts?
In the early twentieth century, a British government commission expressed concern about the tendency of Jewish immigrants to self-segregate. Are today’s pro-Trump Jews really unaware that Jewish clannishness was once used to justify anti-Semitism just as Muslim clannishness is used to justify hostility to Muslims today?
Secondly, some Jews today argue that it’s rational to bar Muslim immigration because today’s Muslims, unlike yesterday’s Jews, espouse illiberal ideologies that justify violence. But in the early twentieth century, anti-Semites constantly invoked the supposed Jewish predilection for communism to justify their fears. The Poles even had a word for it: Żydokomuna, the “Jewish–Communist conspiracy.”
And just as some Muslims today really do commit acts of terrorism, some Jews really did support the revolutionary leftwing movements. Howard Sachar has noted that in 1924 and 1928, Jews provided roughly one-fourth of the votes for William Z. Foster, the communist candidate for president, a figure vastly higher than their percentage in the population at large. In 1925, the Yiddish language, Freiheit, had the largest circulation of any communist newspaper in the United States. Nativists used these realities to justify cutting off Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 1920s.
They made similar arguments in Britain. Maleiha Malik, who teaches law at King’s College London, has written that, “In the siege of Sidney Street in London in 1911, police and troops confronted east European Jewish anarchists. This violent confrontation in the heart of London created a racialised moral panic in which the whole Jewish community was stigmatised. It was claimed that London was ‘seething’ with violent aliens, and the British establishment was said to be ‘in a state of denial.’ East End Jews were said to be ‘alienated’, not ‘integrated,’ and a ‘threat to our security.’”
Immigration can create economic, and even cultural, challenges. It did in America one hundred year ago, and it does today. But when Jews hear our president imply that the adherents of a particular religion threaten America and Europe’s “bonds of culture, faith and tradition” our spines should tingle.
Donald Trump wasn’t referring to Jews. He was referring to Muslims. But “remembering the heart of the stranger” — as the Torah demands in different forms 36 times — means being able to imagine ourselves as Muslims. Just as we would wish, if the circumstances were reversed, that they could imagine themselves as us.
Peter Beinart is a Forward senior columnist and contributing editor. Listen to his podcast “Fault Lines” with Daniel Gordis here or on iTunes.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.