I’ve been told to go back to where I came from.
It happened, heartbreakingly, in the state of Israel, in the city of Jerusalem. I was in the super Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, indeed I was at the very heart of it, which is called Kikar Shabbat or, as pronounced by those who live there, Kikar Shabbos.
It was a Thursday night and I was there to do some food shopping for Shabbat, which is how I pronounce it since that is how Israelis say it and I much prefer to speak like the free people of the sovereign Jewish state do, than mimic the way the Jews of Europe’s ghettos spoke 70 years ago. Those still alive to speak, unlike my bubbie and zayde.
Anyway, as does not happen infrequently, there was a demonstration going on, having to do, as it often does, with the idea of drafting 18 year old super Orthodox men into the Israeli army, just like every other 18 year old Israeli man and woman are drafted.
When news breaks that the law might be changed to draft the super Orthodox, a demonstration breaks out in Mea Shearim, consisting of huge trash bins being dragged into the middle of the main street with the garbage then set on fire, and young super Orthodox men screaming at the top of their lungs such phrases as “it is better to eat pork than go on the internet.” I kid you not.
I stood there as the dozen or so fires spread throughout the street burned, and watched as a young mother desperately clutched her newborn baby to her chest, trying to prevent the baby from inhaling the very strong clouds of smoke the fires were causing. Then I saw an old super Orthodox man holding a handkerchief to his mouth, coughing horribly because of the smoke, which was so strong it almost made me choke.
It was when I saw that old man and that young mother that I snapped. And so I went over to the mob of black coated protestors and asked them if they realized their temper tantrum was not only making it impossible for cars to navigate the main street, made it almost impossible for people to do their Shabbat, or Shabbos, shopping, but worst of all was endangering the health of little babies and old men. Super Orthodox little babies and old men. Jews of their own kind.
What, I asked, is the point of burning garbage? When the scenes are shown on the nightly news do you think non-Orthodox Israelis, who are 90 percent of the population, will be more likely to support your cause, will feel more sympathetic to you, or will they think not only less of you but, more tragically, less of the Torah.
If you want to protest, I said, why not go march in front of Netanyahu’s residence or in front of the Knesset or in front of military headquarters. At least that would make some sense. Instead you are destroying your own neighborhood, causing havoc among Jews just like you.
Once I finished, in my admittedly broken Hebrew, the guy who seemed to be the leader of the mob, looked me right in the eye and angrily and dismissively said to me, in his broken English, “go back to America.”
There it was. I am a Jew, Israel is my homeland and yet this Jew was saying no, it’s not. If I dare question how the super Orthodox express their views, then I should go back to where I came from.
I must admit it stung. More than I would have thought it would.
There is just something so ugly about that. He could have engaged me in a discussion, we could have disagreed agreeably, shared our different points of view, but no, if I didn’t like how things were being done, than I should just go back to America.
I think part of why it stung is that Jewish history is replete with stories of Jews being told to go back to where they came from, even if they were from the country they were living in, that they just didn’t belong, no matter if they were citizens, that they were just not like ‘us,’ not part of this country.
My mother and her parents and her siblings, who were from Poland, were told to go back to where they came from, which is why they spent several years in a Siberian labor camp. My father and his parents and his sister were literally dragged one day out of their home in Hungary and told to go back to where they came from, which is why my bubbie and aunt were incinerated on the day they arrived in Auschwitz and why my father and his father spent time in a couple of concentration camps.
I don’t want this to be just another me bashing Trump while all those Jews who love Trump because he killed the Iran deal, because he moved the embassy to Jerusalem, because he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, look past all his moral and ethical failings and declare him the greatest president ever.
I am hoping they as Jews can see when a line has been crossed that Jews must never ever be okay with.
I know it’s hard for them because they love him so, and hard because it’s hard to be terrified and disgusted by what he said about those four congresswomen of color because, let’s face it, the members of ‘The Squad’ are very hard to like from a Jewish point of view.
Even I, a Democrat and, in Israeli parlance, a leftist, find the four tough to stomach. They have said too any anti-Semitic things, supported too many abhorrent things like the BDS movement to not see them as very misguided, to be charitable.
But that, my friends, is exactly the point. Values and freedoms we should all cherish need to be defended even when they involve people we can’t stand. If you have freedom of speech, you have to put up with a lot of people saying a lot of things you don’t like. But doing that is far better than limiting anyone’s speech because one day it’s speech you don’t like so you’re okay with that, but history shows that once you start down that path eventually it robs you of your own speech.
The United States is a democracy unlike any other and Jews most of all should be most grateful for that. The values and rights enshrined in our constitution have been literally a godsend for Jews. It has meant us being taken in when we had nowhere to go. It has protected us to be fully ourselves, no need to be afraid to express our Jewishness for all to see, it has made us fully American, as American as anyone else.
Indeed, though we’ve had good times in some places, we were never fully of the place, never a Frenchman or a Spaniard or a Russian or a German. Yes, sometimes we were tolerated but we were never one of them. Only in America are we fully accepted, for in America everyone is from someplace else and so all of us have an equal stake and an equal claim to being an American.
And since that truth has been so good for us, we must be among the loudest to ensure it is the right of all Americans, even those we don’t like. We might not like Ilhan Omar and what she says, we may not like Rashida Tlaib and what she advocates, but we must never ever allow anyone to tell them to go back to where they came from, allow anyone to deprive them of the right to speak their minds, feel fully American. For to rob them of that is to endanger ourselves somewhere down the line.
What Trump is peddling is nativism, is nationalism, indeed is white nationalism and nativism and nationalism have never, ever been good for the Jews. Whenever those strains have been tolerated in a society, no matter the country, no matter the point in history, it has ended badly for the Jews.
America, uniquely in Jewish history, has allowed us to be both fully American and fully Jewish. At no time and in no place has that been true for us. And that is because America is unlike any other place at any other time. Here we believe all men are created equal, even those whose politics we hate, whose views we can’t stand, and that we all have been endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, no matter the country of our birth or our religion or the color of our skin.
The Chasidic Jew in Brooklyn who speaks only Yiddish is as fully American as the blueblood in Rhode Island who speaks with a Brahmin accent. While the ancestors of both came from some other country, there is no other country they should ever be told to go back to. America is their country and no one ever, even the president of the United States, has the right to tell them to go back to anywhere.
And so yes, as much as we might despise their politics, we must stand with Omar and Tlaib and AOC, for if we do not, we are helping to strip America of what makes it what it is, and if we do, somewhere down the road, as hard as it is to see, we will pay the price.
One other thing. We must not allow ourselves to be Trump’s human shields as he vomits out his anti-American rubbish. Have you noticed that literally every time he talks about The Squad, he tries to justify why he is right to say they should go back to where they came from by invoking the Jews? Each time, after calling them Communists who hate America, he always adds that they hate Jews or they hate Israel or have said anti-Israel and anti-Semitic things.
Indeed, at a rally in North Carolina, Trump said Omar “has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic creeds.” That statement led the crowd to chant “Send her back!”
Do you really think those at that rally, at all Trump rallies, all those who are his base, love Jews? Can you not imagine them telling us to go back to where we came from?
Trump is using us, trying to pretty up his evil ugliness by saying somehow it’s okay to rob The Squad of their Americanism because it’s protecting the Jews and Israel. It is a cynical effort to have us do his dirty work, to make it seem like it’s noble to tell American citizens to go back to where they came from because it’s good for the Jews.
We’ve seen this movie before too. “As Jews, we are all too familiar with this kind of divisive prejudice,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s national director. “While ADL has publicly disagreed with these congresswomen on some issues, 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. He should lead by example, stop politicizing these issues and stop smearing members of Congress.”
All Jews, even if they love Trump, need to second that emotion.