GOP embraces Trump's 'America First' slogan, ​despite Jewish ​concerns

​Jonathan Sarna, historian and author of ​American Judaism: A History, said that "America First" is a term remembered "for its use of anti-Semitism to advance the cause of isolationism."

July 18, 2016 21:05
3 minute read.
GOP Convention July, 2016

GOP Convention July, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)

CLEVELAND – The Republican National Convention in Ohio, which began Monday, will devote an entire day this week to “making America first again,” signaling a formal embrace by the GOP of a 1940s isolationist slogan that has long made Jewish Americans uncomfortable.

The phrase became popular in 1940 among those who opposed intervention in World War II on behalf of Great Britain.

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Leadership of the America First Committee, as it was known, blamed Jewish Americans for pushing the country into the conflict.

Trump’s campaign has used the phrase primarily in economic terms, promising trade deals that better prioritize the American worker. But Trump has now successfully brought the phrase – for which he has received sustained ire from Jewish groups – into the Republican Party Platform, and to the convention itself in a highly public, thematic way.

In a speech offered on September 11, 1941, Charles Lindbergh, a leader of the America First movement, accused Jewish groups of leading the US into war.

“Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences,” Lindbergh said.

('America First' merchandise sold at the RNC. Photo by: Michael Wilner) ​

“Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”

Jonathan Sarna, historian and author of American Judaism: A History, said that “America First” is a term remembered “for its use of anti-Semitism to advance the cause of isolationism.”

“With the attack on Pearl Harbor, the whole ‘America First’ movement disappeared, but by then the relationship between ‘America First’ isolationism and anti-Semitism was firmly cemented in the American Jewish mind,” Sarna said. “Hearing the slogan repeated so many years later inevitably brings back ugly and unhappy memories.”

The Anti-Defamation League has expressed concern with the Trump campaign’s use of the term. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in contrast, has not yet commented on its reemergence.

“America has always been an exceptional nation,” reads the RNC program schedule, released on Sunday.

“Our Founding Fathers created a system of government that has protected our liberty, allowed American ingenuity to flourish, and lifted people out of poverty by creating the conditions for opportunity and prosperity. Unfortunately, years of bad policies and poor leadership have weakened our position in the world.”

Several guests slated to speak on Wednesday are decidedly interventionist, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Both figures lost in their primary campaign fights against Trump.

“In the past, when people have talked about ‘America First,’ it has created a mentality of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” said Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“And Jews have not been welcomed in the ‘us,’ historically. I have great concerns with issues related to anti-Semitism within the Trump campaign, and that is in no way my suggesting that the presumptive nominee is anti-Semitic. But it’s clear he’s drawn support from anti-Semitic groups.

And he’s been slow, if responding at all, to disassociating himself with that voter base.”

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