Despite the old adage that lightening doesn’t strike twice, it did on 27 January in the halls of the American Capitol: upon the first strike, President Donald Trump elided the identities of the chief victims of the Holocaust, the Jews, with a generic reference to “innocent people” as victims in a statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
That same day, with the second strike, thousands of refugees, green card holders and would-be immigrants from Muslim-majority countries were suddenly barred from entry into the United States.
The timing of these two actions share essential commonalities: a wanton disregard for the pain of others and an overt reshaping of the national narrative away from diversity and inclusion, the hallmarks of the US, towards division and exclusion.
The executive order declared, among other things, a 120-day freeze on the entry of refugees in general, and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees in particular. The order bars citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States until the development and implementation of “extreme vetting”.
Widespread chaos ensued: families were torn apart; legal residents of the United States were detained in airports, some of them in handcuffs; foreign children scheduled for life-saving surgeries found themselves stranded, their futures uncertain; government agents for a time even openly defied court orders from federal judges calling for the admittance of legal residents.
As scholars of the Holocaust, we see in Trump’s travel ban echoes of the same faulty logic used to dehumanise the victims of the Nazi genocide. Trump justified the ban by citing the supposed threat of terrorism refugees and nationals of the above-named countries pose.
Invoking the memory of 9/11, Trump argues the ban is necessary to prevent another such incident from occurring and points to “weak” vetting procedures that leave Americans vulnerable to attacks from terrorists posing as refugees.
Defending the ban in media outlets, Trump and his surrogates also cited more recent attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando as further proof of the imminent threat of attacks by refugees. But how sound is this rationale? As it turns out, it is no sounder than Hitler’s insistence that Jews posed a threat to the security of Germany.
We note four points: first, the 9/11 attackers all hailed from countries absent from this list, including Saudi Arabia, as are other countries well known for terrorism such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, as reported in multiple news outlets, the ban would not have prevented the attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando. Third, no American has died as a result of an attack carried out by refugees.
Finally, contrary to how Trump and his surrogates portray it, refugees already undergo rigorous vetting through a process that often takes two or more years to complete; non-refugees requiring visas normally have to wait months for approval. So what purpose does the ban truly serve?
Similar to his egregious depiction of Mexican rapists sweeping north to ravage America, Trump repeatedly demonises Muslims and Islam. The president stated continually that his executive order is not a Muslim ban. Yet he campaigned precisely on the promise of banning Muslims. It is true that the ban refers to citizens of specific countries and not their religion: yet they are all Muslim-majority countries and special consideration would be granted to “religious minorities”, meaning Christians.
It does not ban all Muslims from entering the US, however, because it does not need to. Just as Trump did throughout his campaign, with the travel ban he offers up to his base Muslims-as-scapegoats. It is fear-mongering, an exhortation to the American public to cease living in a spirit of openness and instead adopt a siege mentality.
The ban’s purpose is to “help” Americans conceptualise an enemy from whom only Trump can protect us. In reality, it is not just about keeping Muslims out; it is about locking us into a mental prison and “teaching” us to love our warden.
The parallels between Donald Trump’s America and the early years of Adolf Hitler’s Germany are chilling. Whether Trump is a fascist or not, we now have a government that works to erode key fundamentals of a democratic society, such as a free press and an independent judiciary. This makes the timing of the ban, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, bitterly ironic.
The White House’s official statement in recognition of this day refers generically to “innocent people” as victims of “Nazi terror”, giving cause for another scandal. Aside from being a lost opportunity to educate the public, in failing to recognise the Holocaust for what it was – an organised, genocidal campaign of epic scope – and its primary victims, Jews, as well as other groups such as Roma, the statement deprived the Holocaust of its historic specificity.
This is troubling on several counts. First, not honouring Jews and other victims by name in a way concedes a victory to their murderers, who aimed to erase world Jewry. Second, it fits within a historiographical trend that downplays the suffering of Jews by equating it to that of civilian populations during World War II.
Nourished by fear
Perhaps Trump did not wittingly engage in revisionism. However, the clumsy wording of the Holocaust statement and his callous manipulation of refugees – people who, by definition, are fleeing war, tyranny and death – for his own political ends displays a profound inability to empathise with others. But making pawns of refugees carries a terrible price.
After all, when the St Louis sought safe harbour in the US for its Jewish passengers in 1939, who were refugees fleeing anti-Semitic persecution, they were turned away. The US government justified its refusal by referring to the ship’s passengers as potential spies. Forced to return to Europe, those refugees became witnesses to the cost of human indifference as nearly half were murdered in the Holocaust.
Loathe as one may be to draw lessons from such an evil event as the Holocaust, there is this: a nation that nourishes itself on fear in the end will surely starve.
In a society where facts are now routinely dismissed by certain political leaders including the president, what can we scholars of the Holocaust and genocide do to counter post-factualism? Of course, we can unite our voices in vigilance, speaking out against tyranny and repression and for truth. We suggest that scholars must also change the way we share our knowledge, moving well beyond the academy.
In addition to speaking at conferences, we must also speak at our local libraries. In addition to writing scholarly articles and books, we must also write for media outlets. In addition to traditional classroom teaching, we must also connect with the public in innovative ways.
Although the academy rarely rewards such behaviours, we must also advocate for change from within our own institutions of higher learning so that public outreach and dialogue are just as important as traditional scholarship.
Dr M Benjamin Thorne is assistant professor of history at Wingate University and Dr Michelle Kelso is assistant professor of sociology and international relations at the George Washington University, USA.
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