When my father’s citizenship papers fell out of the envelope of family treasures, they held two strange bits of information. His eyes were never hazel as duly recorded, but rather the same blue-gray I now see every day in the mirror. And his “race” was listed as “Hebrew.”
A Hebrew race? Who knew? But the year was 1931, and it wouldn’t be long before a madman in Germany would attempt to wipe that “race” off the face of the earth, leaving it Judenrein.
So the executive order signed by President Trump this week made me shiver with the same horror of that moment of discovery when I realized that I too could now be labeled another member of the Hebrew “race.”
Sure, the intent of the order is supposedly honorable — to use Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to protect Jewish students at universities who face the scourge of anti-Semitism. The act doesn’t cover religion, only race or national origin so now we Jews must be considered one or the other. And of course it’s well intended, because presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner says it is. In fact, he assures us all in a New York Times column it’s all for our own good.
Would Kushner lead us on? Would this child of Holocaust survivors be anything other than “proud of President Trump’s new policy” as he put it?
Yes, redefining Judaism not just as a religion but as a race or national origin must make some sort of sense within the confines of the White House and to Trump supporters among evangelicals and Orthodox Jewish communities. Heck, even the Anti-Defamation League was supportive, adding that it “reaffirms protections of Jews under Title VI without infringing on First Amendment rights.” The latter, of course, is as absurd a notion as the former.
It has often been said that where there are three Jews there are at least four opinions. And so it is here.
But for countless American Jews who have fought to be accepted as Americans first and Jews second since the first Jews landed on these shores, the notion of Jewish “nationhood" is nothing short of appalling. For those who have had to fight allegations of dual loyalties, especially after the founding of the modern state of Israel, it is like turning back the clock to a darker era.
Rabbi Howard Berman of Boston’s Central Reform Temple took to Facebook to declare, “Fact: Jews have not been a nationality since the destruction of the biblical Kingdom of Judea by the Romans in 70 AD … I am an American by nationality and a Jew by faith and by cultural ties that reflect the essence of American pluralism and diversity — this nation’s distinctive characteristic from the beginning.”
Once again Trump has found a way to divide and conquer — pandering to divisions within the Jewish community and attempting to drive a wedge between the nation’s Jews and everyone else. And all for yet another foolish executive order that will likely have little effect on universities other than to keep their lawyers busy and to possibly further chill the free speech and debate that they should be in the business of fostering.
The irony of having a president who has done more during his tenure in the Oval Office to encourage the rise of white nationalism and anti-Semitism, and make hate speech a part of our everyday lives now coming to the “rescue” of America’s Jews by redefining our faith should not be lost on any of us.
Long before this executive order and before the Civil Right Act there was President Washington’s letter to Newport’s Touro Synagogue, which simply pledged that “happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. . .” America’s Jews have relied on that promise for nearly 230 years. Washington never redefined our faith. He did what good leaders do. He simply reaffirmed our right to practice it.
Rachelle G. Cohen can be reached at Rachelle.Cohen@Globe.com.