In 1914, my Jewish grandfather arrived in the United States from Zhivatov, Ukraine, escaping antisemitic-fueled persecution and in search of a better life. For him, America lived up to its promise as a land of opportunity, hope and freedom.
Tragically, just a few decades later, the doors of our nation would be shut to many Jews desperately fleeing the Third Reich, including the 937 Jewish passengers of the MS St. Louis, who arrived in the harbor of Havana, Cuba 78 years ago this month. These men, women and children also sought safe passage to our country and a new life in a nation of immigrants.
But rather than being welcomed and protected, all but a few of the refugees on board this ship were turned away and sent back to Europe, where roughly a quarter of them were murdered in the Holocaust.
The passengers of the MS St. Louis were turned away in part because of a toxic, xenophobic ‘America First’ ideology that pervaded mainstream American life at the time. This anti-immigrant, anti-refugee mentality was accompanied by widespread antisemitism, exemplified by the best-known advocate of the ‘America First’ doctrine, Charles Lindbergh.
Today, in the era of President Trump, the story of the MS St. Louis has an especially frightening resonance, especially amid his continued attempts to implement a dangerous, discriminatory ‘Muslim ban.’ Thanks to Trump’s bigoted and violent rhetoric, his appointment of dangerous radicals like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka to key administration posts, and his implementation of policies that reflect this regressive worldview, the ‘America First’ mindset is making a comeback, accompanied by escalated anti-immigrant hysteria, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-black racism, and the same antisemitism that helped energize the movement in the 1930s.
Amid Trump’s political rise, we’ve seen the growth of a white nationalist ‘alt-right’ movement that promotes antisemitism and engages in violent harassment of Jews both online and in the real world. Jewish cemeteries have been defaced, and swastikas have covered college campuses. Jewish activists and journalists have also been targeted with horrifying abuse online and, in some cases, are facing threats to their safety and that of their families.
According to the latest reports, there has a been a staggering 86 percent increase in antisemitic incidents between last year and this year. We’ve seen similar escalations in violence against Muslims, immigrants and other marginalized groups, most recently the horrific murders in Portland and at the University of Maryland.
This white nationalism is driving our society to retreat into senseless hatred and ignore the fundamental values—liberty, equality, respect for human dignity—that form our national creed and highest aspirations.
If we want to rise above ‘America First’ and actually live up to our core values, we need to actively oppose the mindset and creeping acceptance of societal norms that allow Trump’s angry vision and the white nationalism that fuels it to persist.
We’ve already seen this happening in important and inspiring ways across the country. From the Women’s March, to the airport protests against Trump’s Muslim ban, to constituents demanding accountability from their members of Congress at town halls, millions of Americans nationwide are standing up and resisting the politics of hatred, fear and division.
It’s no surprise that Jewish Americans, mindful of what authoritarian, bigoted leaders have meant for our people throughout history, have been deeply involved in each of these forms of opposition. Across the country, groups of Jewish Americans are organizing in their communities to fight back and to support elected officials and political candidates who do the same. Jewish Americans have been building coalitions with other religious groups to rebuild burnt mosques targeted by arsonists, repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and support communities being harassed and threatened by white nationalists.
The passengers of the MS St. Louis were turned away because the toxic mindset of fear, xenophobia and the ‘America First’ ideology won out over our better communal impulses. Today, as President Trump parrots similar language and values – dog whistles to white nationalists – we must not despair. We must remember that we are capable of overcoming this toxic mindset if we work together.
To succeed, we need to continue the fight against Trump’s radical agenda. From vicious crackdowns on immigrants, to devastating proposed cuts to the social safety net and key government programs, to racially biased and vindictive criminal justice policies, the Trump administration is attacking progress and threatening our country’s well-being at every turn.
We need to speak out loudly and make sure that our elected officials understand that the American people have seen this before and oppose these dangerous policies. We must also work to wrest back political power from the extremists who now wield it by electing candidates who will advance a unifying, progressive agenda. In doing so, we will honor the memory of the passengers of the MS St. Louis and reject the legacy of hatred, fear and antisemitism that their tragedy represents.
‘America First’ failed us before, and if we don’t reject it now, it will surely fail us again.
Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, an organization that brings progressive Jews together to advocate and organize for a more just and equal society.