On Thanksgiving, I’m thankful my ancestors left Europe, and that America took them in

“I’ve got something I’d like to say.” That’s what I usually offer up as a preamble, as I try to get the attention of my kids and other family members gathered around the Thanksgiving table. It usually takes a couple of attempts, but once we’re all on the same page, I offer words of thanks for my ancestors. I talk about how brave they must have been to leave the communities of their birth—which were at least familiar, despite the hardship, discrimination, and all-too-common violence they faced—and come to a land where they didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the culture, and, in many cases, didn’t know a soul.

In this offering, I mention the family names of the people who came and the places they came from. We’ve done quite a bit of genealogical research—on my side and my wife’s side of the family—and are lucky to have as much information as we do. My goal is to give my kids a sense of who their ancestors were, and what they went through to give us a chance to have the life we do. One branch of my father’s family came from Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania; another from Riga, Latvia’s capital; another from Minsk, capital of Belarus; and the last from Odessa, now in Ukraine. Growing up, I had learned that all my father’s ancestors were “Russian.” It turns out none of them came from places that are now in that country (at least as of this writing).

The story is similar on my mother’s side. One branch was described to me as Austrian; in fact they came from Skole in today’s Ukraine. The other was Hungarian, and came from Sighet (Elie Wiesel’s hometown) in Transylvania, now a province of Romania. During my Thanksgiving meal talk, I also thank my wife’s family, who came from Vienna, Poland, and Russia. In reality, the primary point of identification in terms of culture and identity for all these people was not the country of origin on their passport, but the fact that they were members of the Jewish people, irrespective of any particular level of belief or religiosity.

In addition to being Jews, the family ancestors I’ll be acknowledging were also, of course, Americans. And that’s the other part of the thanks I’ll give on the holiday. I’m thankful that my ancestors had a place to go, that they could become Americans and make a life here.

The last of them got in just under the wire, arriving a few months after the First World War and only a couple of years before a series of immigration “reforms” severely limited the number of immigrants our country accepted from outside the British Isles and northwest Europe. My wife’s grandmother’s family got out of Poland in 1937—and only because the youngest child had been born here (it’s a long story), one of the oldest living “anchor babies,” I’d surmise. Very few Jews were able to find refuge here at that point and immediately afterward—during the years when they needed it most.

I make sure my kids know about these restrictions on immigration, as well as the fact that Asians had almost no chance to emigrate and become U.S. citizens until the early 1950s. We also talk about how—although their ancestors and other Jewish immigrants certainly didn’t have it easy—they at least had opportunities that America denied to the large numbers of African Americans and American Indians who had arrived long before our family. America didn’t treat everyone living here equally, either on paper or in practice. Certainly, we’ve still got room for improvement on that front as well, to say the least, although we have come a long way thanks to those heroes who fought and bled to get us as far as we have come.

Right now, the current occupant of the White House is making the process for coming here far more difficult, far more treacherous, for today’s refugees—from places like Syria and elsewhere—people who are so desperate to find refuge in our country, or at least someplace safe where they too can make a new home. He has made repeated attempts—resulting in the final version that took effect just under two years ago—to block those traveling to the U.S. from certain countries, attempts that have nothing at all, according to the undoubtedly sincere protestations of backers from Trump on down at least, to do with those countries being overwhelmingly Muslim.

Trump and his allies have also demonized the group of Honduran and Central American refugees who traveled across Mexico, fleeing the desperate straits they faced back home. Republicans placed this group of people at the center of their fearmongering in the days leading up to the 2018 midterms, only to forget about the so-called “caravan” once the polls closed.

On a more welcoming note, this Monday the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Pennsylvania organized a Thanksgiving event in Philadelphia specifically for immigrants—the 11th year they’ve done so. Over 100 people shared the holiday meal:

Vanessa, who declined to give her last name, says the event is exactly what she and her family needed after being under the threat of deportation.

"We couldn’t miss it today, because recently my parents were in deportation court," she said.

Vanessa says she's thankful her family can stay together just in time for the holiday.

If that organization sounds familiar, it might be because of the wonderful work it does on behalf of immigrants, or it might be because the terrorist who killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh specifically mentioned HIAS in a post just a few hours before committing that mass murder:

A couple of hours before opening fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, Robert Bowers, the suspected gunman, posted on the social network Gab, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” HIAS is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and Bowers had posted about it at least once before. Two and a half weeks earlier, he had linked to a HIAS project called National Refugee Shabbat and written, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” Another post that most likely referred to HIAS read, “Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”

So while I’m thankful to our country for taking in my family, and so many others, I am aware that not everyone approves of America’s generosity. There’s another person, whose family is also Jewish from Eastern Europe, who expressed a sense of gratitude that reminded me of my own. This person did so in the context of coming forward to testify in an impeachment inquiry focused on Donald Trump. He has faced anti-Semitism from Trump and his allies in retaliation for stepping forward and telling the truth. Here are the words of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, words that make me proud to share my heritage with this man:

Next month will mark 40 years since my family arrived in the United States as refugees. When my father was 47 years old he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives. His courageous decision inspired a deep sense of gratitude in my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service. All three of us have served or are currently serving in the military. Our collective military service is a special part of our family’s story in America.

I also recognize that my simple act of appearing here today, just like the courage of my colleagues who have also truthfully testified before this Committee, would not be tolerated in many places around the world. In Russia, my act of expressing my concerns to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions and offering public testimony involving the President would surely cost me my life. I am grateful for my father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for mine and my family’s safety.

Dad, my sitting here today in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.

Thanksgiving—at least in the form we celebrate in this country—is an American invention, and also a holiday about each of our relationships to America, and to our fellow Americans. It means different things to different people, depending for some on how their ancestors were treated. For me, America is my home, the only one I’ve got. It is the place that made my life and my family possible. My membership in the American people, the American national community, is central to my identity.

We are living in a time when, once again, demagogues are playing on our deepest fears to argue against taking in people fleeing oppression in their homelands, just as was the case in 1939. Demagogues are also casting doubt on the loyalty of Jewish Americans who were born elsewhere, just as was the case in the Dreyfus Affair over a century ago. I am truly grateful for what America did for me—taking in my ancestors when they needed a place to go. I know there are many others who will end up being far less fortunate. They are the ones we have to fight for now.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).

This is an updated version of a piece I have posted the last couple years on Thanksgiving.

Right-wing hypocrisy run amok: Lt. Col. Vindman, Rep. Omar, and the anti-Semitic ‘dual loyalty’ slur

Shameless. Republican hypocrisy this week reached a new level of shamelessness. That was true on multiple fronts—how shameless do you have to be to pretend that Trump saying “I want no quid pro quo” after he already knew he had been caught demanding one means he’s in the clear? However, the hypocrisy I want to focus on here relates to Republicans and anti-Semitic rhetoric, in particular the use of the anti-Semitic slur of “dual loyalty” against Jewish Americans.

One of the most powerful witnesses to appear this week as part of the House impeachment inquiry was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Vindman, who is Jewish, was born in Soviet-era Ukraine, and fled for the United States with his family at the age of three. For weeks now, Republicans and their allies have been attacking Vindman, hurling charges of disloyalty.

John Yoo, a high-ranking attorney in the George W. Bush Administration who helped draft the so-called “Torture Memo,” actually accused Vindman of “espionage,” and Fox News’ Laura Ingraham claimed Vindman was “advising Ukraine,” and working “against the president's interest.” During his House testimony, Vindman faced similar charges of disloyalty from Steve Castor, the Republican lawyer who questioned him—in other words, from the people officially charged with defending The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote in the impeachment inquiry.

In sum, Republicans and their right-wing allies in the media have been claiming that Vindman is somehow more loyal to Ukraine than to the United States, the country he has served as a soldier—earning a Purple Heart in Iraq in 2004—and a high-ranking security official for decades. This slander falls under the category of “dual loyalty,” and is a particularly notorious form of anti-Semitism. Rightfully, many have called out those who perpetrated it.

One of the most powerful condemnations came from GQ journalist Julia Ioffe. Like Vindman, she is a Jew born in the Soviet Union (Moscow, in her case) who fled that country for the U.S. as a child. Her insights and experience are thus particularly relevant here.

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Here’s more from Ioffe:

While Trump has a history of attacking anyone who questions his power, there is a particularly insidious history to questioning the loyalty of Jewish émigrés. According to a source who knows the family, Vindman’s grandfather died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II. After the war was over and the state of Israel was founded, Stalin unleashed a bloody and ruthless campaign against Soviet Jewry. He called them “rootless cosmopolitans,” a wandering people who had no real roots in the Russian soil, and therefore no loyalty to the Soviet state. The campaign continued even after Stalin died, with harsh quotas imposed in universities. Politically sensitive jobs were closed to Jews because their loyalty could not be trusted. In everyday life, Soviet Jews, whose ancestors had been living in Russia for centuries, were told to “go to your Israel” or to return to their “historic homeland.”

This constant harassment and discrimination, combined with Western pressure, triggered a mass exodus, with millions of Jews leaving the Soviet Union because it had decided that they were second-class citizens and not to be trusted. The Vindmans were part of that exodus. [...]

Then 2016 came around, bringing to power [in the U.S.] a set of people all too eager to remind us of a thought we’d left in the old country: No matter what you do for this country, even if you give it your life and limb, you will always be foreign, suspect. And if, like Alexander Vindman, you dare to flag the president’s deeply problematic behavior and talk about it to congressional Democrats trying to impeach him, none of your service to your country will matter. There will be an effort to discredit you—you won’t be suspected of being secretly loyal to Israel, as your parents once were in the Soviet Union, but to Ukraine—any country but the one you actually serve.

The “dual loyalty” attacks on Vindman evoke an earlier episode in history, namely the Dreyfus Affair. Here’s Matthew Rosza at Salon making that connection and more:

There is a long history of accusing Jews of being disloyal to the countries where they reside, which is a form of anti-Semitism. In the 1890s, a French captain named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of being a German spy and publicly disgraced despite exculpatory evidence. The dual loyalty slur appeared more recently when Trump claimed that American Jews who vote for Democrats, whom he in turn claimed were anti-Israel, were “disloyal.”

There’s been even more right-wing anti-Semitism on display during this whole Trump Ukraine scandal, as numerous figures have brought up the supposed mastermind behind everything: George Soros. We heard some discussion of this Thursday, during Fiona Hill’s House testimony:

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On Dr. Hill directly, here’s Trump loyalist and convicted felon Roger Stone from two years ago speaking on Infowars, hosted by Alex Jones: “We here at Infowars first identified Fiona Hill, the globalist, leftist, George Soros-insider who had infiltrated [Former United States National Security Advisor H.R.] McMaster’s staff.” Globalist is another term with strong anti-Semitic connotations.

I began this post talking about the shameless hypocrisy on the right regarding anti-Semitism and “dual loyalty.” Earlier this year, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar or Minnesota made statements that employed the “dual loyalty” canard about American Jews and Israel, and I called her out for it here. However, a couple of weeks later Omar wrote a piece for the Washington Post that showed she had learned a great deal from the previous incident, and I praised her for what she wrote:

Omar explicitly endorses a two-state solution, which means she acknowledges the right of Israel to exist as a state alongside a Palestinian state. She speaks of the need for “self-determination” and a “sanctuary” for each of the two peoples, and speaks of “the Jewish people’s connection to their historical homeland,” as well as recognizing their need for “security,” while noting that Palestinians have similar rights, needs, and interests, as well as their own connection to the land.

Omar also shows real empathy for Jews by highlighting the “urgency of establishing a nation” after the Holocaust and “centuries of anti-Semitic oppression leading up to it.” This is not the language of someone who hates Israel, or who denies the right of Jews to have a homeland in the land of their forefathers. One can, without question, call out Israel when it is wrong and advocate for the right of Palestinians to have their own state, yet still show respect for the rights of Jews as individuals and their collective rights as a self-identified national group. That’s exactly what Rep. Omar does here.

Furthermore, Rep. Omar has refrained from using language that connects to anti-Semitic tropes in the months since. She made real progress in convincing folks that her intent was not to inflame hate against Jews.

And let’s get something else clear, Jews in our country face far more danger from hatred coming from the right than anything coming from the left. To take just the most blood-filled example, the Pittsburgh terrorist murderer who killed 11 Jews in a synagogue hated Jews because, in his mind, they were helping immigrant “invaders.” This is hate inspired by the right-wing, not the left.

Regarding the dual loyalty language, the right-wing harshly criticized Rep. Omar. Most of their criticisms left little room for the possibility that she was anything but a through-and-through Jew hater. This did not change even after her Washington Post article. As I wrote then:

From the right, however, the reaction to her Washington Post piece was a different story. Right-wing media published attacks (see here and here, for example) that, in sum, argued that Omar is a liar, and still an anti-Semite: “Omar has already shown us who she is.” Why do they make these claims? Because for much of the right wing, including, of course, Individual 1, the issue is not sincere concern about anti-Semitic rhetoric but rather fostering division among Democrats. The difference between the response from Democrats and Republicans to Rep. Omar’s Washington Post article speaks for itself.

This is the larger point, the larger hypocrisy. If Republicans actually cared about anti-Semitism, and they actually believed it was wrong to throw the charge of dual loyalty at Jewish Americans without any real evidence to back it up, they wouldn’t be doing it themselves.

It is fitting, but hardly surprising, that this hypocrisy rears its head in relation to the defense of President Individual 1. We have all watched, shaking our heads or screaming at the television, as his Republican defenders shred any notion of truth or principle in the name of defending their chieftain. Anti-Semitism is one of the most important problems we face in America. For the Ever-Trumpers, however, it’s just another tool in their bag of dirty tricks.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (foreword by Markos Moulitsas).