Four hundred years ago, in September 1620, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth Hoe in search of a promised land and a new world. On board, the travellers promised to ‘enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony’.
A year before, the first African slaves had arrived from Angola, part of the human cargo of the Portuguese trans-Atlantic slave trade. A year after, in 1621, the first Jew, Elias Legardo, disembarked from the Abigail and stepped onto American soil.
The ethnic kaleidoscope that became the United States was there at the very beginning. Jews throughout the ages have striven to build a better America, based on Jewish tradition and the moral stand of the founders. In 2020, Donald Trump has worked hard to destroy this American Dream.
During the American civil war, a third of Jewish soldiers fought for the South and Judah Benjamin was Secretary of State for the Confederacy. Loyalty to the South however did not always translate into support for slavery. The late Professor Eli Faber discovered that Jews were hardly involved in the slave trade after researching eighteenth century British Naval records.
Yale Professor David Brion Davis wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1994 that in the South in 1830, there were only 120 Jews out of 45,000 slaveholders who owned 20 or more slaves. In contrast, the nineteenth century philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, funded over 5,000 schools for Afro-Americans. Were Jews therefore simply unable to forget the bitter herbs of slavery in the Egypt of the Pharaohs so long ago? Did Jews, in every generation, regard themselves as if they, themselves, had escaped from slavery to freedom?
The immigration of nearly two million Jews from the Tsarist Empire between 1881 and 1914 emphasised the demand for justice — not just for themselves, but for others as well. Refugees from Nazi Germany added to it — especially when tens of thousands were barred by waspish bureaucrats and left to their fate. During the war years, the Jews showed politically where they stood, 90% voted for Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944 — and the same percentage voted for Truman in 1948, the year of Israel’s birth.
The end of the civil war in 1865 did not mean that Afro-Americans were suddenly emancipated from white racism, from discrimination and prejudice. In 1915, D. W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation. The film was financially successful and racially abhorrent. The Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, viewed it and commented:
And, of course, when all this duly culminated in the inevitable de rigueur assault on a white maiden by an ape-like African, I simply shrugged my shoulders. Equally when the Ku Klux Klan riders appeared on the screen avenging the white man’s humiliation, I did my best to remember that, according to what I had always been taught to believe, they had been nothing but glorified hooligans.
Jews after 1945 understood this imagery only too well, given their twentieth century experience. As history records, they participated in disproportionate numbers in the civil rights movement. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s participation with Martin Luther King in the Selma to Montgomery march, remains both symbolic and iconic.
Since those days, Black-Jewish relations have been less secure. With the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, Jews have been seen by some as ‘white’ rather than ‘Jewish’. In alliance with the far Left, the negative use of ‘Zionist’ as a critical epithet for well-meaning Jewish liberals became more widespread. Some polls have suggested that anti-Semitism is more pronounced amongst poverty-stricken Afro-Americans than middle class whites.
Despite this, American Jews reacted instinctively when President Trump flirted with white supremacism — the Afro-American, like the Jew, was ‘the other’. When the President proudly promoted the Proud Boys — ‘a pro-Western fraternity’ — in his debate with Joe Biden this week, Jews were aghast. Trump saw them as patriotic defenders against the left-wing agitators of Antifa. The Jews saw them as Cossacks, a gang of gun-loving marauders.
The ideological lineage of the Proud Boys goes back to the White Power skinheads in the Britain of the late 1960s. Succeeded by the punk revolutionaries of the 1970s, far Right groups such as the British National Party (BNP) tried their utmost to get them on board. The Jewish community in the UK at that time opposed the BNP’s every move and an Antifa movement arose in British cities to oppose them, appalled by its subterranean racism.
The difference between then and now is that no leading British politician would be seen dead in the company of the BNP. Today however even senior US Republicans such as Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Devin Nunes are happy to have their photographs taken with leading Proud Boys.
In Charlottesville in August 2017, this simmering racism spilled over. A torch-lit march of young men, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ revealed the cesspool that has been legitimised by the culture of the Trump White House. The Jews were seen by the protesters as the manipulating force behind a strategy to replace whites with Afro-Americans.
The liberal Jews, they surmised, were implementing a grand plan to mongrelise different groups to ensure that whites would disappear. Jews were therefore no more than a fifth column – the architects of multiculturalism and unrestricted immigration, the hidden masters of America.
President Trump has encouraged all this by his moral equivalence, loudly promoting the Proud Boys in the presidential debate while silently refusing to mention the name of Jacob Blake —with seven bullets in his back — on a recent visit to Carnosa. In all this, leading Republicans did not flinch from swimming in the mire. Few had the courage to reject the status of their fellow-traveller.
Escaping the Nazis and arriving in America in 1941, Hannah Arendt succinctly observed from tragic experience that authoritarianism flourishes when there is an alliance between the elite and the mob.
In a few weeks, the US election will take place in the midst of uncertainty and threat. A majority of Jews around the world are hoping that the wise words of the founders on board the Mayflower will reach down the centuries to the American voter — and that Trump’s successor will ‘Make America Good Again’.
Plus61j 1 October 2020