Steve Israel: My grandparents fled anti-Semitism in Russia and Ukraine to find safety in America
They and millions like them believed in America's moral standing in a dark and intolerant world, he writes
Editor’s Note: Former US Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is a political novelist and CNN contributor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
My grandparents, Myron Kuznicki and Raisse Volovitz, arrived in America in the 1920s. At the time, they were escaping anti-Semitism in Russia and Ukraine.
Over a decade after they arrived, they watched from afar as the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews – Nazis who marched through the streets with torch lights, chanting about blood and soil and the expulsion of Jews.
My grandparents raised two children and had five grandchildren. They insisted that the grandchildren understand the precious gifts America bestowed on us. They told us that even if the streets weren’t paved with gold, no one could force us off the streets. Everyone was welcome.
When I was elected to the United States Congress, I took my grandparents’ faded pictures, taken shortly after they arrived in America, and placed them prominently near my desk in the Rayburn House Office Building.
After President Donald Trump’s comments about Charlottesville, I’ve thought a lot about how they would have reacted. Having fled raw bigotry, they would have understood that there’s no way to silence all expressions of hate in a nation. However, they would have been horrified at the remarks of an American President who seemed to give aid and comfort to the haters.
Years after they died, my grandparents remained my trusted advisers. Yes, I had political consultants. But Grandpa Myron and Grandma Rae were my moral consultants. When I had a tough vote, a difficult decision, I’d look at those photos and reflect on their experiences and the lessons they taught me. Then I felt confident that I’d do the right thing. The decision to oppose some popular tax cuts that would slash investments in middle class necessities like education was based on a fundamental value they instilled in me: fairness.
When those photographs were taken, my grandparents never would have thought they’d one day hang in the United States Capitol. But they must have believed it was at least possible in America. Because, they relentlessly taught us, in America anything is possible.
This week, we witness what they would have imagined as utterly impossible. A President who equivocated on the repugnant views that my grandparents fled; a President who lumped together the persecutors and the persecuted; a President who instantly condemns any unflattering comments about himself, but gave the benefit of the doubt to those spewing hate toward his fellow Americans.
Every criticism of Trump’s recent comments understates how tragically wrong they are. In a rational society, especially a democracy, there is no way to measure their depravity when they come from the leader of the free world. Words don’t do justice to their injustice.
To truly understand their harm, lawmakers must feel them for themselves. To soak them in and absorb their pain. To make them personal and use that experience to inform their judgments.
When I hear a racist statement, the way I best understand its pain is to insert the word “Jew.” When I see policies that discriminate against the LGBT community, I extend the policy to my community. When hate is expressed against anyone, I put my grandparents in that picture.
The President’s comments dishonored my grandparents. His words would have wounded the pride and the faith they had in America and its leaders.
They and millions like them believed in America’s moral standing in a dark and intolerant world. Discrediting that belief doesn’t make us great again. It just places us in the dark.