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Don't confuse today's nationalism with patriotism

An aerial view of Temple Emanuel in Pueblo,

An aerial view of Temple Emanuel in Pueblo, Colo. as seen on Aug. 22, 2019. Richard Holzer was charged with a federal hate crime Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, for his part in a plot to bomb the synagogue, which is the second-oldest congregation in Colorado. Credit: AP/Zachary Allen

The FBI recently foiled an attack on an anti-Semitic and Nazi-sympathizing white supremacist who allegedly plotted to firebomb Colorado’s second-oldest synagogue. Although Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson recently said white supremacy is “actually not a real problem in America,” calling it “a hoax” and “a conspiracy theory used to divide the country,” the fact is, as reported by the FBI, “white supremacist extremism” in the guise of “nationalism” has fueled some of the most violent anti-Semitism in this nation’s history.

I have watched the most recent political rally speeches delivered by President Donald Trump. The audiences were enormous. All were broadcast to even larger audiences by Fox News. His “Keep America Great” speeches are reminiscent of the Nuremberg rallies where the concept of Volksgemeinschaftwas orchestrated — the idea of uniting all people across class lines to achieve a national purpose.  This is nationalism in its purist form — the exaltation of one nation above all others, giving it supreme loyalty.

The idea of nation first, “right or wrong,”  has been responsible for intelligent and industrious people turning to barbarism and even genocide. The Turks slaughtered the Christian Armenians in the name of Turkish nationalism —the same reason for their endless, and now seemingly successful war against the Kurds. And then, of course, there was the Holocaust.

When the America First movement was gaining traction in America, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was refusing to allow the passengers on the ship St. Louis to disembark sending them back to Europe, America was silent. We were told by prominent Americans that this was a European problem, and not an American problem. That silence and isolationism was an important contributing cause of the Holocaust leading the Nazis to believe that we would not stand up for European Jews. That we would turn a blind eye to the murder of innocents because that was not an American problem. We can’t let that happen again. Tyrants, bullies and thugs equate silence as condonation and license. If our history teaches us anything, it is that tolerating injustice anywhere is toxic to our own liberty — and that is an American problem. 

Pope Francis’ compassion toward migrants as well as the poor and other marginalized groups, consistent with the teachings of Jesus, has incurred the wrath of modern-day “America First” nationalists. In his well-financed anti-immigrant movement Steve Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart News and one-time chief strategist for Trump, has denounced Pope Francis for “putting all the faults in the world on the populist nationalist movement.” Bannon addressed Marine Le Pen’s historically anti-Semitic National Front Party in France by saying: Nationalism is “part of a worldwide movement bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary, bigger than all of it.” He praised Le Pen’s vision of nationalism over globalism by saying, "Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.” 

That “badge of honor” has been worn by bigots for centuries. Nationalism, which has historically masked bigotry, should not be confused with patriotism and it should never be based on unwarranted fear. Despite Trump’s claims, I do not believe “Democrats want open borders” or, because of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s odious tweets, that “Democrats don’t care about Israel or the Jewish People” or “hate America.” 

As an American, I was bothered when Trump told two elected members of Congress to “go back to” the countries they came from — while welcoming Viktor Orban, the anti-Semitic albeit pro-Zionist president of Hungary who praised the “excellence” of Nazi leaders responsible for sending  400,000 Jews to Auschwitz. And as a Republican who is a child of an immigrant who fled  persecution, I was ashamed when members of the Jewish Republican Coalition gave Trump a standing ovation when he degraded immigrants and promised to tell those seeking asylum, "Our country is full; can't come in.” That was the same theme sounded by President Roosevelt when he turned around the ship St. Louis sending it back to Europe. 

Historically populist nationalism in this country has targeted specific marginalized groups — Irish, blacks, southern Europeans, Jews, immigrants and the poor. As a consequence, what today passes as nationalism has too often been confused with patriotism, carrying with it claims that true Americans are only some of us, but not all of us. As the Catholic Bishop Robert W. McElroy observed: “If love of country is a virtue and a moral obligation in solidarity, the nationalistic impulse itself has no moral identity.” 

Anti-Semitism, like all oppression — whether it be from racism, or exclusionary anti-immigration nativism — manifests itself in some form of hatred. It sometimes appears in persons whose “best friends are Jews” and even those who profess strong support for the State of Israel. The fact that anti-Semitism endures and continues to grow is not a Republican or Democratic problem. It is an American and international problem that should not be the subject of partisan politics and one that should not be passed off as a “hoax.”

Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York States, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.