In an effort to discuss the rise anti-Semitic rhetoric in the Middle Ages, my history class was tasked to read an op-ed by Dr. Sarah Lipton entitled “The Words that Killed the Jews.” In it, she takes on the task of comparing Donald Trump’s Anti-Muslim (and anti-immigrant and anti-abortion) rhetoric, with the way language gave rise to violence against the Jews across Europe at the time. The op-ed attempts to make the point that violent language can and should be blamed for noted increases in attacks against Muslims, immigrants, and Planned Parenthood. In discussion, a Jewish student objected to this comparison, as she felt that it conflated the issue, trivialized Jewish suffering then, and forgot about anti-Semitism that exists today. I disagreed but I didn’t say anything because I felt it would disrupt the class and make us stray entirely from the point, but I feel it is important to understand why these connections should, in fact, be made:
Images of the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition are constantly fresh and present in popular consciousness as two of the greatest tragedies of all time. The Holocaust, especially, has been memorialized time and again with films, museums, books, articles and the like. And mentions of the Holocaust often come with the caveat: Never Forget. We promise to never forget these past atrocities and its countless victims, but what people tend to forget is that the term was also popularized as a warning to never allow something like it to happen ever again. Because the Holocaust was allowed to happen. The Nuremberg laws were published publicly. The mass deportations were no secret. The ghettos weren’t hidden away. People watched as bad things happened to innocent people and they did nothing to stop it. So we promised to never forget. We promised to never allow the bystander effect to keep the whole world standing still while innumerable men, women, and children were massacred.
And yet, Donald Trump can say that he wants to force Muslims to wear clear marks of identity. He wants to perform mass deportation on the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States, to send them back to places they’re escaping from largely due to problems the U.S. itself created. People are quick to highlight how similar Donald Trump’s campaign ideals are to Adolf Hitler’s, not out of a desire to trivialize Jewish suffering or to deny the existence of anti-Semitism, but in fulfilment of the promise we all made to Never Forget. By drawing these comparisons, we are actively honoring the memories of those who have been lost,we are ensuring that their deaths aren’t so in vain, and that we, as a society, won’t allow these things to happen again.
History is a potent driving force. Humans are fickle creatures, afraid of change and afraid of making decisive decisions. When we show someone how something happened in the past, we ground our claims in an undeniable reality. By linking Donald Trump’s rhetoric to historical counterparts that led to great tragedies, the historian paints a picture of what can happen if we do not stand up and stand firm for those who may lack imagination. The historian, as an artist, commemorates the victims in history not by painting a picture that will sit in a museum, but by creating one that should stir people to action.