NEW YORK — It’s not that Prof. Jonathan Sarna disagrees with his colleagues about the dangers of a Trump presidency. Indeed, the rhetoric espoused during the campaign and the number of anti-Semitic incidents since the election absolutely dismays the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
Nevertheless, he declined to join the more than 250 Jewish professors from the United States who signed a statement calling on Americans to mobilize against the nativism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism that marked Trump’s campaign and has continued since his election.
Instead, he signed one issued by the American Historical Association.
“I understand where my colleagues are coming from, and there is a sense in the wake of the election to do something, but I felt the AHA statement was a better, more positive statement, trying to bring people together,” said Sarna, arguably the leading American Jewish historian.
Moreover, while there are parallels to the 1930s, Sarna sees this period as more closely resembling the 1920s under the Warren G. Harding presidency. During popular Harding’s time in office the Ku Klux Klan flourished, immigration was sharply curbed, and while Jews were discriminated against and anti-Semitism soared, they were not physically in danger. (At the time of Harding’s death in office, a series of scandals involving cronyism and nepotism were just coming to light. Several others surfaced after his death.)
None of this means Sarna is sanguine about the current climate.
“The fact that so many people have been targeted with virulent anti-Semitism, racism, sexism… seems to me that a president would — as Abraham Lincoln said — appeal to our better angels. Because hatred once unleashed is difficult to put back in the bottle. And verbal hatred can easily turn into outright violence,” said Sarna.
Dr. David Biale, University of California, Davis department of history chair, helped pen the declaration signed onto by other Jewish scholars that was published last week in the online Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal. The statement is — to the best Biale’s knowledge — the first of its kind. But uncommon times call for uncommon measures, he said.
“Hostility to immigrants and refugees strikes particularly close to home for us as historians of the Jews. As an immigrant people, Jews have experienced the pain of discrimination and exclusion, including by this country in the dire years of the 1930s. Our reading of the past impels us to resist any attempts to place a vulnerable group in the crosshairs of nativist racism. We stand ready to wage a struggle to defend the constitutional rights and liberties of all Americans,” reads the statement.
“The election was unprecedented. It’s caused people to become more engaged and there is a tremendous mobilization. This is one small piece of that mobilization,” Biale told The Times of Israel.
‘We’ve been very focused on anti-Semitism from the left and all of a sudden it’s coming from the right’
“As a Jewish community we’ve been very focused on anti-Semitism from the left and all of a sudden it’s coming from the right, recycling the same old anti-Semitism we knew from a century ago in Europe and the United States as well. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Los Angeles and never experienced anti-Semitism in any way. This has been an incredible shock,” he said.
The idea to issue a statement came over lunch the day after the election.
Biale was dining with fellow historian Hasia Diner of New York University. The two discussed making a statement as historians, but not representing any particular institution or association. After drafting and redrafting the statement several times, they each sent it to between five and 10 colleagues, who each did the same — and in the manner of a chain letter, Biale soon had more than 250 people who wanted to sign.
Dr. Edward Portnoy, Academic Advisor and Exhibit Curator for YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, was one of the 250.
Like the other signatories, Portnoy isn’t speaking for his institution, but rather for himself as a citizen.
“It’s a moral gesture. Personally, I’ve been offended by Trump’s behavior. I found his entire campaign to be degrading, offensive and dangerous. He’s a completely compromised figure; there’s never been anything like him,” Portnoy said.
Those who signed did so out of a sense of duty, out of an appreciation of how far Jews have come in America, Biale said.
“However, it is not only in defense of others that we feel called to speak out. We witnessed repeated anti-Semitic expressions and insinuations during the Trump campaign… The candidate himself refused to denounce — and even retweeted — language and images that struck us as manifestly anti-Semitic. By not doing so, his campaign gave license to haters of Jews, who truck in conspiracy theories about world Jewish domination,” said the statement.
About nine percent of the US population harbors anti-Semitic views, according to the 2015 Anti-Defamation League Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism.
Biale said that’s a relatively low number, and doubts it has changed much. Instead, the atmosphere has changed. The KKK openly endorsed Trump for president, the so-called “alt-right” movement trumpets his praises, and hate incidents have spiked in the days since the election.
“They are now legitimized in their own eyes. Trump echoes and occasionally gives voice to them. Either he is an anti-Semite or he just doesn’t care. But I can’t imagine he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Biale said, adding that Trump’s appointments include men linked to the alt-right — Steve Bannon formerly of Breitbart News.
In a separate statement about the event, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said, “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words. The Museum calls on all American citizens, our religious and civic leaders, and the leadership of all branches of the government to confront racist thinking and divisive hateful speech.”
Biale and his co-signatories don’t expect the statement to change anything. Rather, they see it as a start.
“Look, it’s not as if we publish a statement and they’ll change, but we are a profession who lives by words. That’s all we have,” said Biale. “I do think Trump has fascistic tendencies, and that’s worrisome. We’ve just seen him attack a Broadway show. Does that mean he will continue to attack those who criticize him? And now that he has the full power of the US government behind him, if he uses that, we are in uncharted waters.”