Steinberg: ‘History warns us . . . the best thing to do is leave’
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Your neighbors will gladly murder you, given the nod by authority, then blame you for bringing your own death upon yourself. They’ll then move into your empty house, live there guilt-free, and years later, should anybody be so impolite as to raise the subject of your death, deny it ever occurred.
That, in brief, is the lesson of the Holocaust, and if you suspect it left a scar on world Jewry, you’re right. Nothing like seeing the culture that produced Goethe, Rilke and Beethoven herding children into gas chambers to make you realize that the solid bedrock of civilized life, well, ain’t so solid.
The earthquake of Donald Trump’s election began with his calling Mexican immigrants rapists, then radiated outward, as hatred will, jarring Muslims and blacks, rattling women, before deputizing Mike Pence to go after gays. Hate doesn’t discriminate — talk about irony — it settles for whoever is convenient.
Jews not fixated on Israel were shaken by formerly fringe anti-Semitic organizations riding into the mainstream on the Trump bandwagon, their slurs retweeted, their coded rhetoric about shadowy global conspiracy pockmarking his speeches.
It worked. He won. Since Trump’s seismic election, rather than distance himself from the focused cruelty he exploited, as many wanly hoped he might, Trump has kept going, naming alt-right Breitbart bigot Stephen Bannon as his special adviser one day, recommitting himself to forcing Muslims in America to register the next.
A few weeks ago, the vow “We’re moving to Canada!” seemed a cliche, the empty bleat heard every election. My parents promised we’d move to Canada if George Wallace was elected.
Wallace didn’t win; Trump did, and it is a sign of just how scary times have become that some are following through with their vows.
Wendy Mills told the congregation at her Northwest suburban synagogue’s healing service last Friday that she and her husband David are moving to Canada.
“Everybody was being optimistic, saying, ‘It’s okay!’” Mills — not her real name — told me, later. “‘We’re all going to be okay. We’ll survive this.’ In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that.”
She believes it’s time to leave. Really?
“It’s not an idle comment,” she said. “If you start expelling one group, or preventing one group from coming in, who’s next? We’re seriously planning. It’s beyond consideration. Consideration was last spring . . .”
She felt imperiled before Trump was elected, and it is important to remember that Trump didn’t invent these bigots. What he did was give them permission. He didn’t say “Go paint swastikas on Jewish cemeteries.” He didn’t have to. By welcoming open bigotry into his fold, he gave it a gloss of validity. Now we are in the sounding-out phrase, where haters, who like all bullies are cowards, test the waters to see what pain they can safely inflict without drawing penalty on themselves.
In the Holocaust lesson, those who flee are bold, prescient. They read the writing on the wall, take off and are spared the horror.
Does that lesson apply to America in 2016? The fear is real, but I’m not sure the need is, not yet anyway, and even if it were, I’d much rather take the last train to Toronto than the next. This is just beginning. The United States is still a fine place and worth the fighting for, to paraphrase Hemingway. Surrender is both premature and what the haters want.
But that’s me. Mills, 67, has seen enough.
“History warns us,” she said. “My intuition and my intellect both say the best thing to do is leave.”
The Holocaust was in part a failure of imagination. Jews just couldn’t imagine it. Which has to trouble anyone insisting it can’t happen now. Because that’s exactly what they thought then.
If you can’t see how this could turn really bad, really quick, let me ask you this: When Donald Trump fails to provide the boon he promised, when his protectionist trade policies crater the economy, who is he going to blame? Himself? Donald Trump does not blame himself.
Who will he blame? When he’s in Pennsylvania, talking to coal miners whose industry he did not revive; when he’s in Youngstown talking to factory workers whose jobs never returned, who will he blame? Who?
You know the answer.Tweets by @neilsteinberg