October 20, 2018

Jews should be wary of Trump’s rhetoric

Delete the word “Muslim” from Donald Trump’s rants. Substitute Jew, Latino, African-American, Asian American or any other ethnicity or religion that has felt the oppression of racist governments.

This would be a useful exercise for casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who, The New York Times reported, is willing to donate $100 million to Trump’s presidential campaign. It would also be useful for other Jews considering backing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Among the many reasons for them to reconsider their support is the way Trump scorns the idea of immigration, particularly that of Muslims. A voice of reason put it this way: “I cannot go there,” Heidi Wixom, a Nevada Mormon and GOP activist well respected in the community, told Politico of her thoughts on Trump. Pointing to the bigoted comments he has made about minority groups, she continued, “Belonging to a church that has felt persecution, you wonder, will his rhetoric continue on? What happens to a group of people he sees isn’t supportive of him? What would he do to them?”

With his constant attacks on Muslims, Trump also assaults a fundamental building block of United States democracy — freedom of religion. The U.S. was founded as a secular nation, as expressed in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” Granted, the amendment has been ignored, scorned and reinterpreted at times, but it remains at the heart of our democracy.

Trump’s attitude was clear in a speech he gave in New Hampshire earlier this month on the Orlando massacre.

He pledged again to suspend immigration from “areas … where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe, or our allies … after a full, impartial and really long overdue security check, we will develop a responsible immigration policy that serves the interests and values of America. We cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country, many of whom have the same thought processes as this savage killer. Many of the principles of radical Islam are incompatible with Western values and institutions.”

He tried to get around the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.  As Julia Preston wrote in The New York Times, “By proposing to bar people from certain regions rather than religions, Mr. Trump had avoided the sticky issue of testing someone’s faith.” But his meaning was clear from his many months of inflammatory depictions of Muslim immigrants.   

Trump’s speech was filled with his usual misstatements. Take, for example, his words on Syrian immigrants: “We have to stop the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States,” he said. “We don’t know who they are. They have no documentation.  And we don’t know what they’re planning.” 

The Guardian newspaper reported that since 2012, the U.S. has accepted 2,174 Syrian refugees — roughly 0.0007 percent of America’s total population. These are, the Guardian said, the most vulnerable survivors of the Syrian conflict, including women and their children, religious minorities and victims of violence or torture. President Barack Obama wants to take in 10,000 more.

These and other immigrants must undergo a background screening by the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the FBI and intelligence agencies, a process that takes between 18 and 24 months.

It is true that the United States, traditionally a nation of immigrants, still welcomes a lot of them. The Migration Policy Institute reported that in 2014, 1.3 million foreign-born individuals legally moved to the United States, an 11 percent increase over the 1.2 million who came here in 2013. India was the leading country of origin for new immigrants, with 147,500 arriving in 2014, followed by China (131,800), Mexico (130,000), Canada (41,200) and the Philippines (40,500).

But these statistics don’t support Trump’s picture of a wave of Muslim immigrants. India, the Migration Policy Institute notes, is 79.8 percent Hindu and 14.2 percent Muslim. Mexico’s Muslim population, estimated at about 110,000, is a small percentage of that country’s total population of 122.3 million. Only 3.2 percent of Canadians are Muslim, and only 5-12 percent of the population of the Philippines.

India has had major episodes of terrorism. Would Indian immigrants be investigated as to whether they were Hindu or Muslim? And what about Sikhs from India? Canada, the Philippines and Mexico have experienced terrorism. Would immigrants from these countries be investigated, inquiries that surely would include their religious backgrounds? 

To do so would require a massive expansion of federal law enforcement agencies. 

Yet some Jews, even though we’ve been singled out throughout our history for ethnic and religious persecution, support Trump.

JTA’s Uriel Heilman interviewed a number of Jewish Trump supporters and wrote in March, “There appear to be some inherent contradictions in the qualities many of Trump’s Jewish supporters say they like about him. They see his brash and sometimes crude persona as authentic but believe he’ll behave differently as president. They admire his business successes but disregard or explain away his business failures. They acknowledge his big ego but say Trump understands that being president is more about assembling the right team of advisers than about the man himself.”

That reflects one of the great misconceptions about Trump — that smart, sensible advisers would shape his administration. The other is that Congress, the courts and public opinion would prevent him from violating the Constitution.

His conduct during the campaign — a one-man band consulting only a few enablers — shows the fallacy of the sensible adviser theory.

And history shows that supporters are wrong when they say the courts, Congress and public opinion would rein him in.

In 1942, at the beginning of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, exercising his vast war power, issued an executive order requiring that 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry be confined in detention camps. Racism, particularly in California, plus fears of a Japanese invasion, were behind the order. Fred Korematsu, 23, refused to leave home and go into a camp. He was arrested, convicted and interned in a government camp in Utah. Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, he fought the conviction, but the Supreme Court upheld it.  ‘

Speaking for a 6-3 majority, Justice Hugo Black agreed with the U.S. military view that some Japanese Americans were loyal to Japan and that it would be impossible to separate them from those faithful to the United States. The court ruled that national security outweighed the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights.

In a powerful dissent that presciently seems to warn of the coming of Trump, Justice Robert Jackson wrote: “If the people ever let command of the war power fall into irresponsible and unscrupulous hands, the courts wield no power equal to its restraint. The chief restraint upon those who command the physical forces of the country, in the future as in the past, must be their responsibility to the political judgments of their contemporaries and to the moral judgments of history.”

In the months before the election, American Jews will inevitably discuss their feelings about Trump. The Jewish media will write about him more and more, as well it should.

During these discussions, we should remember the Korematsu decision is still on the books, available as a precedent for Trump. As Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman wrote in a 2004 essay, quoted in The New York Times: “What will we say after another terrorist attack? More precisely, what will the Supreme Court say if Arab Americans are herded into prison camps? Are we certain any longer that the wartime precedent of Korematsu will not be extended to the ‘war on terrorism?’ ”

If they do it to the Muslims, they can do it to any ethnic or religious group. It’s something that we Jews, of all people, should think about. 

BILL BOYARSKY is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).