During my junior year of high school, I slammed a door on my fingers. As I was hopping away cursing, the pain was replaced by an awestruck realization: I was swearing in English.
That moment — undignified, indignant, graceless — was one of those precious times that I felt myself becoming American.
Almost every immigrant has at least one common experience: the inevitable reminder that there are people who feel you will never belong in this country.
U.S. media love running photos of naturalization ceremonies, the last step in an arduous process when immigrants swear allegiance to the United States and receive citizenship certificates, as if a single photogenic moment can possibly capture the formation of a bond between person and country. I always smile at those pictures. No ceremony, no matter how moving, can bestow “Americanness,” any more than a wedding vow can generate love.
I was 10 when my family came to the U.S. as political refugees fleeing Soviet anti-Semitism. The process of assimilation lasted years. It came in fits and starts, in quiet little moments you can’t plan or study for. It’s instinctively cursing in English when crushing your hand. It’s discovering yourself calling Team USA “us” and not “them” or “the Americans.” It’s thinking of America as home, a concept you never thought you’d experience again after jettisoning your past life and setting out for the United States.
Of course, immigrants are all different. Some don’t think of themselves as Americans, even after decades of citizenship. Some bristle at the very idea of assimilation. But almost every immigrant has at least one common experience: the inevitable reminder that there are people who feel you will never belong in this country.
For immigrants of color and ones who wear traditional garb, the reminder can come daily. For people like me, white, fluent in the language and culture, it appears less often, but sooner or later it comes, too.
On Monday, the reminder came for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a fellow ex-Soviet Jew who immigrated from Ukraine at the age of 3. Vindman’s congressional testimony about his concern over President Donald Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine led Trump’s defenders to accuse him of being un-American.
John Yoo, a Berkeley law school professor, alleged on Fox News on Monday night that Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, may have partaken in “espionage.” The next day, CNN contributor Sean Duffy mused about Vindman possibly being loyal to Ukraine rather than to America.
It’s hard to imagine someone more American than Vindman: A Purple Heart recipient who bled for this country during his time in Iraq, a Harvard University scholar and a lieutenant colonel in the army who now advises the commander in chief on sensitive national security matters.
But none of that mattered. For Trump’s defenders, Vindman’s testimony was politically inconvenient, and so he was issued his reminder — one that tossed aside his medals, wounds and decades of service, replacing them with a disgusting suspicion of dual loyalty, uttered on national television.
After a thankfully vociferous backlash, Yoo and Duffy backpedaled on their smears, insisting they’ve been misunderstood. But for people defending a president with a lengthy record of accusing immigrants, Jews and native-born people of color of not being real Americans, the frantic backtracking reeks of hypocrisy.
These comments are particularly worrisome, for in addition to the xenophobia, they are tinged with anti-Semitism: the trope of a Jew being disloyal to their country. For centuries, anti-Semites and demagogues have accused Jews of secretly plotting against the very nations they live in to stoke paranoia and justify persecution. Indeed, the disloyalty smear was fundamental to Nazis’ demonization of Jews as enemies of Germany in the prelude to the Holocaust.
But one doesn’t need to visit Third Reich Berlin to find blood spilled on account of the treasonous Jew slur. Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of a white terrorist murdering 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. A few hours prior to the attack, the killer had posted a white supremacist message stating: “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 Jewish refugee resettlement agency that’s currently helping resettle non-Jewish refugees; during the Cold War, HIAS brought my family and other ex-Soviet Jews to the U.S. They included Vindman.
At a time of surging xenophobia and anti-Semitism, when chants of “Send Her Back” echo across stadiums, when Muslim American congresswomen receive daily death threats and the Jews of Pittsburgh mourn community members slaughtered by a man obsessed with Jewish disloyalty, commentators on Fox and CNN felt comfortable enough to spew accusations at Vindman.
The shock of it was hard to absorb, even for someone like me who writes and speaks on immigration for a living. Vindman has dedicated his life to serving America from the time he graduated college — if any one of us, ex-Soviet Jews, can claim to have gone above and beyond to serve this country that gave us asylum and a new home, it’s him. And if his sacrifices and dedication can be wiped away and found wanting, where does that leave the rest of us?
Institutions like the media and academia don’t get to sit this one out, or feel they are exempt from examining the xenophobia in their midst just because they call it out elsewhere.
Unfortunately, CNN has defended Duffy, while neither the University of California, Berkeley, nor its law school has issued a press release about Yoo. That is a problem. Over the past three years, editorial boards, university administrations (including Berkeley’s), communities and civic groups have denounced the White House’s assault on our immigration system. But Trump is a symptom of something far larger. He represents a battle for America’s soul. Indeed, many Western nations, from Britain to Hungary, are having similar battles.
Institutions like the media and academia don’t get to sit this one out, or feel they are exempt from examining the xenophobia in their midst just because they call it out elsewhere. Not when the battle is being waged across the fabric of American society, one in which civic organizations have always played a crucial role.
Immigration is ground zero for that debate in America. It’s immigration that gets attacked by Trump and his supporters, immigration that engenders the most heart-wrenching episodes in the news, and immigration that will ultimately decide what nation we want to become, regardless of who sits in the White House.
The poisonous attack on Vindman is just the latest salvo in this battle. It’s a reminder — and this time, not only for immigrants.