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The Long Shadow of Kristallnacht Hangs Over the Pittsburgh Shootings

As the mourning for the 11 victims of the assault on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh continues, the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht is upon us. On November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi storm troopers led a wave of violent attacks on Jews throughout Germany that foreshadowed the coming of the Holocaust.  During the “night of broken glass,” as the attacks were called, 91 Jews were killed and 195 synagogues were burned. In Vienna, Austrian Nazis, determined not to be outdone, set fire to the city’s 21 synagogues.

The Tree of Life murders were not state-sponsored terrorism. That is a crucial difference between now and then. But behind the Tree of Life murders are social forces with historic roots that should alarm us. The 11 deaths in Pittsburgh come at a time when the Anti-Defamation League notes that anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 percent in 2017, the first year of the Trump presidency.

The Tree of Life killings reflect the bias against immigrants that the Trump administration has encouraged. It is no coincidence, as Masha Gessen observed in The New Yorker, that Robert Bowers, the accused gunman in the Pittsburgh slayings, was obsessed with the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).

Hours before his attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, Bowers made clear his rage at the society by posting on the social network Gab, “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t stand by and watch my people get slaughtered.”

Bowers’ language was not very different from the anti-immigrant language that Donald Trump used at the start of his presidential campaign when he said of Mexican immigrants to America, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Since then, the president has not stopped campaigning on the premise that immigrants are a menace. He has never used the term the Nazis used for Jews—“vermin”—but his description of immigrants at our Southern border about to “infest” our country carries with it the clear implication that we are dealing with those who are less than human.

In the days before the midterm elections, the president campaigned by redeploying his original anti-immigrant language to stir up his base. An ad that the Trump campaign pulled off television only after widespread protest targeted the Central American migrants—the caravan, as President Trump labels them—currently working their way to America through Mexico.  “Who else would Democrats let in?” the ad asked before concluding, “President Trump and his allies will protect our borders and keep our families safe.”

“I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th-century civilization,” President Franklin Roosevelt observed in a press conference he held five days after Kristallnacht. FDR responded by extending indefinitely the stay of thousands of Germans and Austrians in America on visitor’s permits, declaring, “I don’t know, from the point of view of humanity, that we have a right to put them on a ship and send them back to Germany under the present conditions.”

But Roosevelt’s overall response to Kristallnacht was cautious and limited. He did not try to lift the quotas on immigrants to the United States that under the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act imposed a limit of 150,000 immigrants a year. As Jean Smith argues in his massive biography, FDR, Roosevelt felt politically vulnerable at a time when anti-Semitism in the United States was running high and a Fortune magazine survey showed fewer than 5 percent of the country was willing to raise immigration quotas to accommodate more refugees.

At the time of Kristallnacht, FDR was still smarting from both his failed attempt in 1937 to increase the size of the Supreme Court with appointments of his choosing and the 13-month recession that from mid-1937 to 1938 gave the New Deal a temporary setback, sending unemployment soaring from 14.3 percent to 19 percent. By 1939 the story that epitomized American attitudes towards Jewish refugees was that of the government’s refusal to admit the Jewish refugees aboard the German liner St Louis after the refugees’ Cuban visas were cancelled.

What will be the parallel story in our time remains an open question. But at present the ties between anti-immigration sentiment and anti-Semitism grow stronger. The rumors that Jewish philanthropist George Soros, himself a Hungarian immigrant, was financing the immigrant caravan that Donald Trump has decried are easy to dismiss as a hoax. But not easy to dismiss are the motives for linking Soros to the caravan and the willingness of even some members of Congress to perpetuate the Soros story. Behind this linkage is an ever-widening definition of who nowadays constitutes the “other” in American life. In the case of Soros, the linkage has come with an image of refugees in Guatemala supposedly climbing into a truck with a Star of David on its side.