Schwartz: In light of Trump’s immigration ban, we must take a lesson from the Holocaust

Alex Schwartz, Columnist

International Holocaust Remembrance Day has two pretty straightforward objectives: to remember the victims of the Nazis and to educate ourselves with the intention of preventing genocides from happening in the future. Remembering this scar in our history may be somber and at times painful, but it’s not a difficult directive to follow. Last week, I thought that even the Trump administration, which has been quite vocal about its support of Israel, would surely get this one day right.

As it turns out, I was giving President Trump too much credit. Not only did he make no mention of anti-Semitism or anything related to the Jewish people in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump actively intensified the global refugee crisis by signing an executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days, preventing refugees from entering for 120 days and blocking out Syrian refugees indefinitely.

President Trump has managed to do the exact opposite of both tenets of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And his actions could result in devastating implications.

The White House statement about Remembrance Day may not initially seem problematic. Its concise and somber language achieves a tone of reflection and tolerance worth of a presidential statement — ironic coming from this administration. But it refers to the Holocaust’s victims simply as “innocent people” instead of “Jewish people.” Jewish leaders quickly criticized Trump for this generalized language, to which his spokespeople — in typical Trump fashion — said they expressed no regret and that the word was used to reflect all the other groups who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, not just Jews.

Of course other groups of people were persecuted during the Holocaust, including homosexuals, political prisoners and people with mental and physical disabilities, but Jews made up a majority of the victims. Trump’s statement also discounts the fact that the Holocaust is part of a multi-millennial narrative of anti-Semitism across civilizations. While the Holocaust was certainly not an event that affected only Jews, it was an event that primarily targeted them, and leaving the uniquely Jewish struggle out of Holocaust remembrance discounts that fact.

Recognizing the role of anti-Semitism in the Holocaust isn’t just about Jews. It’s also about understanding the principal role of prejudice in genocide. A genocide is not just blind extermination — it is a calculated effort to eliminate a particular ethnic, racial or religious group of people from existence. If we do not recognize that the Holocaust was, first and foremost, an effort to eliminate Jews, we’ll be less likely to recognize the beginnings of another ethnic group’s genocide.

That brings me to Trump’s immigration ban. His executive order entirely betrays the Holocaust’s most solemn lesson: that a tragedy like this should never happen again. Turning away refugees from war-torn nations like Syria is a human rights atrocity, comparable to the U.S. turning away Jewish refugees during the Holocaust because they were believed to be Nazi spies.

Trump’s executive ordeer contributes to the types of societal shifts that will increase the likelihood of future genocides. It plays into fear, ignorance and isolation. It makes Americans fear Muslims as some conglomerate, abstract enemy, one they can’t see or interact with. Populist leaders have a knack for telling their citizens who to fear, and Trump is telling us to fear a harmless, battered Syrian refugee stepping off a plane at Kennedy International Airport by saying –– without any evidence –– that they are a radical Islamic terrorist in disguise.

This is no longer just rhetoric; this is rhetoric combined with real legislation. It makes us as Americans less compassionate for human suffering, more fearful of what we don’t understand and therefore more likely to attack and destroy what scares us.

When I learned about the Holocaust in elementary school, it was unfathomable to me that an era of such hatred, violence and prejudice could occur again and in my own lifetime. It seemed common sense to me that people would learn from the tragedy of the Holocaust and World War II, but it seems as if we are instead headed toward repeating the same mistakes.

Remember the struggles of the Jewish people. Remember that almost 80 years ago, this happened to Jews. Remember how and why it happened, and why no one stopped it until it was too late.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.