Commentary: Charging Jews with disloyalty is playing with fire

(Gene J. Puskar | AP file photo) A man takes part in a vigil outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh to honor the victims of the Saturday attack on a synagogue in California, Saturday April 27, 2019.

The president of the United States suggested Jews who vote Democratic are either ignorant or disloyal. The absurdity of President Trump’s phrase is only worsened by its historical connotation, which has grave consequences in contemporary America.

Whether the president is steeped in Jewish history is irrelevant. Any student of history knows that Jews have had the “disloyal” word attached to them for centuries. Disloyal to Germany. Or Poland. Or France. Disloyalty suggests the disloyal individual can be tagged as “other.” As the pages of history document, that designation resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews throughout history.

Perhaps this was not on Trump’s mind. His reference point was recent events regarding the proposed visit to Israel by two members of Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Trump directly involved himself in a domestic Israeli decision, leading to the embarrassing vacillation of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the grandstanding by Omar and Tlaib. Trump’s words need to be understood as raising the ugly spectre of anti-Semitism.

We cannot turn our eyes away from a disturbing reality in contemporary America: an increase in anti-Semitism, including a rise in attacks on Jewish targets. The hateful chanting of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville and the violent deaths at Pittsburgh’s “Tree of Life” synagogue are examples.

Is Trump responsible for these attacks? The easy answer is “no.” The same applies to death threats received by Amos Guiora in response to various writings, including on the Holocaust.

But to dismiss the consequences of the president’s inflammatory language and to consistently give him the benefit of the doubt is also facile. The “Trump is Trump” excuse perhaps mollifies some. However, history repeatedly demonstrates that casually dismissing dangerous rhetoric can have frightful consequences, as in Rwanda. In some instances, the speaker intended words to lead to horrific actions; in other instances, the speaker was engaged in rhetoric with no intention to fan the fires.

Nevertheless, fires are easily fanned. The phrase “words have meaning” is an accurate portrayal of the relationship between words and consequences.

It is in that concrete sense that we must understand the canard of “disloyalty.” To accuse one of disloyalty is to identify that person as a threat, whose presence has the ability to undermine societal stability, or whose values do not match those of society. If you are “disloyal,” you must be loyal to something else. The insinuation is that American Jewish voters who vote Democratic are loyal to some other entity.

If on Tuesday, Jews are disloyal, does that mean on Wednesday another ethnic group is disloyal, and on Thursday that accusation can be leveled at a third ethnic group? Where does this stop?

Where this must stop is “here and now." The horrors of the past months, with its litany of victims, make clear the consequences of ignoring hate-filled speech.

The German theologian, Martin Niemoller wrote:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.

"Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.

"Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

We are citizens of the Jewish faith who love both the United States and Israel. We may respectfully disagree with some policies of the current leadership in both nations and votes by elected congressmen. But we are loyal American citizens who strongly condemn inflammatory speech and thus, speak out. We call on the Utah congressional delegation and on Utahns to demand an immediate end to hate-filled language that can lead to violence.

Amos Guiora is a professor of law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah.

Rochelle Kaplan is a board member of the National Council of Jewish Women, Utah Section.

Jonathan Klein is a member of the Alliance for a Better Utah board of directors.

Josh Kanter is the founder of the Alliance for a Better Utah.