In mid-August, while I was returning from a family vacation in Santa Fe and enjoying life, the world got darker. A candidate for President of the United States appointed the leading promoter of White Supremacists to head his campaign. Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart News, as CEO of his campaign. If Trump wins, the Ku Klux Klan will have an office in the White House.
When conservatives get power, they try to limit gay rights, minority voting rights, and abortion rights. But Bannon in the West Wing will mean women’s rights and even civil rights are in peril. Every genocide begins with the group in power taking human rights away from minorities. Next the party in power takes away minority citizenship, next those in the minority become refugees or die. It is a large and terrible sign that Trump began his campaign by saying illegal immigrants are not people like us. Trump’s use of “They” and “Them” is straight out of every dictator’s playbook. And Trump loves Vladimir Putin.
Speaking of Russian dictators, my paternal grandparents escaped the Holocaust by escaping from what is now Odessa, Ukraine, (They called it Russia.) when killing tens of thousands of Jews was Russian government policy. Millions of Jews who escaped death in Ukraine and went to America survived. Those who stayed in Ukraine were very likely to have died in the Holocaust. My family never talked about the Holocaust and it was not much discussed in my school that I can remember. Since only my father was Jewish, I am not actually a Jew, even though I had a Bar Mitzvah. But I am culturally Jewish, and to a Nazi, I have more than enough Jewish blood to be condemned.
Five years after my Bar Mitzvah, I was in the Air Force. I had “Jewish” on my dogtags. If I was part of a small minority in Stoneham, Jews were simply non-existent in the military. I was the first Jew my basic training bunkmate had ever seen “up close.” Leonard “’Bama” Norwood was fond of saying he was “from Sawyerville, Alabama, population 53.” Not a lot of Jews in Alabama.
Recovering from a missile explosion the following year, I began to believe in God, then become a Christian. So when I re-enlisted in the Army in 1975, I had “Christian”on my dogtags. Because I was an American soldier, I was free to identify myself by my religious preference. There was no genetic test, no blood test, no religious requirement to my military service. So I could identify as a Jewish missile technician in the Air Force, then as a Christian tank commander in the Army. A decade later I was out of the Army and in college full time. In my classes I first read the poetry of Dante Aligheri and Chretien de Troyes and fell in love with the Medieval World in Western Europe.
I did not think much about being Jewish until 1994. That was the year of the genocide in Rwanda. Kids hacked to death in Churches or left mutilated in agony by their former neighbors was so wrenching I could not look away.
At the same time as the Rwandan Genocide, I helped a family of survivors of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to settle in America. Vladislav and his daughter Branka escaped first, then Branka's mother Borka followed them two years later. The story is here.
At this time my view of mass murder started to shift from millions of people murdered to millions of murders. Vladislav, Branka and Borka Semeunovic were refugees. They escaped slaughter because America took them in, just as America had taken in my grandparents 94 years earlier. The Holocaust had seemed remote before, but now refugees and mass murder victims had faces and families.
Every Jew killed by the Nazis had a life and a family. Every Rwandan hacked to death by a neighbor had a life before that neighbor took a machete and cut her to pieces. Every Serb, Croat and Bosnian Muslim in the former Yugoslavia could have been killed in the chaos of the 1990s. More than 200,000 were killed.
Then in 2001 nearly 3,000 Americans were the victims of murder. It was a mass murder but each individual died in their own agony within just a couple of hours.
And now a candidate for President of the United States has named a Neo-Nazi as head of his campaign. I have Jewish daughters and African-American sons. Before Bannon, I thought random gun violence was the greatest danger they faced. With Bannon in the West Wing, the U.S. Government itself could become a threat.
Most of my life has been devoted overcoming obstacles and full of very American optimism that I could do anything I worked hard at. I am not a fatalist by belief or temperament. But a Trump victory will reduce everyone to their tribes. Jews have long been victims of the whims of dominant cultures, as have all people of color. German Jews who were combat veterans of World War One became victims of Holocaust.
We Jews, by the many ways Jewishness can be defined, and all people of color will find America a very different place if Trump wins. And even if Trump loses, his campaign has made real evil mainstream. Refugees look like danger and evil to Trump. To me refugees look like my grandparents, like the Semeunovic family, like people who need help. America is already great.