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Go Back To Decency

Go back to where you came from.

Can any insult be more threatening and demeaning to someone whose roots are in another country, no matter how long ago his or her family came to the United States? And historically, can any group of immigrants cite more examples of such discrimination and disrespect than the Jews?

Of the four women of color in the House of Representatives who have been the targets of President Donald Trump’s racially charged insults, none is Jewish. But at a time when the old taunt “America, love it or leave it” is having new, unfortunate popularity, their plight should inspire feelings of solidarity in the face of divisiveness.

Sadly, Trump’s politically calculated tantrum against “The Squad” of four Democratic members of Congress – Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — did not generate the denunciations it deserved.

Instead, as the president addressed a rally of his supporters last week in North Carolina, the chant “Send Her Back” erupted from the crowd. The following day, Trump tried to distance himself from the outburst, saying he disagreed with it and even tried to stop it. But video of the event shows that claim to be untrue, as many of his statements have been since he entered the White House. 

One day later, he called the chanters “incredible patriots.” Two step backwards, then one more.

And too many members of Congress have been just as complicit, either releasing weak, generic statements or saying nothing at all. For hometown examples:

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.: “Just because the so-called squad constantly insults and attacks the president isn’t a reason to adopt their unacceptable tactics. There is plenty to say about how destructive House Democrats’ policies would be for our economy, our health care system and our security. I think that’s where the focus should be.”

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo: “I believe we should call people to their highest and best, not their lowest and least. Democrats need to be held accountable for their socialist policies and seemingly outright contempt for the ideals on which America was founded.” 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.: Not one word.

Compare such profiles in cowardice with the sharp, to-the-point criticism from Jewish organizations. Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that “go back where you came from” has a long history of targeting people of color and those with foreign backgrounds who somehow aren’t as American as people like Trump and his fans.

“As Jews, we are all too familiar with this kind of divisive prejudice,” he said, adding that when the president mixes in support of Israel as part of his equation, he demeans international politics that requires far more nuance and professionalism.

“While ADL has publicly disagreed with these congresswomen on some issues,” Greenblatt said, “the president is echoing the racist talking points of white nationalists and cynically using the Jewish people and the state of Israel as a shield to double down on his remarks. Politicizing the widespread, bipartisan support for Israel and throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism is damaging to the security of Israel and the Jewish community.”

Karen Aroesty, head of the local ADL, put it succinctly:

“Leaders lead. They don’t tear others down”

And Rabbi Howard Kaplansky, President of the the St. Louis regional office of the American Jewish Committee said:

“Our nation’s diverse population relies on the president to lead by example, to be a unifier. Regrettably, the divisive, threatening rhetoric of recent days, notably the targeting of certain members of Congress, contravenes the sacred American values of democracy and pluralism. Ending this kind of hateful public discourse should be a priority for all Americans, beginning with our elected officials.”

Debate in the media and in Congress over whether Trump’s comments make him a racist is a distraction at best. Whether his insults are described as racially charged, racially infused, racially tinged or just plain racist is almost beside the point. What requires attention is what he says, not how it should be described, and what he has said is just plain abhorrent and unacceptable.

St. Louis has many examples of an atmosphere welcoming to immigrants, from the embrace of Jews who were allowed to leave Russia to the continued work by agencies such as  the International Institute to help newcomers find security and peace in their new home. 

The latest flap over immigration may prove to be fleeting, like so many of the tempests stirred up by the White House, running its course once the next controversy arises. Or it could prove to be a preview of the nastiness of next year’s presidential campaign.

Regardless, the rhetoric needs to cool off on all sides. Omar was right when she said that the attention given to her and her congressional colleagues was misplaced, and that “this is not about me. This is about fighting for what this country should be and what it deserves to be.”

But when she added about Trump, “I believe he is fascist,” she did nothing but further roil waters that badly need to be calmed.

With the election coming up, a lot more vitriol will be on tap. It shouldn’t be too much to ask people to appeal to reason and not emotion, to unity and not hate. The feelings of solidarity and fellowship that the moon landing bred 50 years ago are needed now more than ever.