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Lizzy Ratner: “Nobody Wanted to Take Us In: The Story of Jared Kushner’s Family, and Mine”

StoryFebruary 02, 2017
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As attorneys and activists continue to fight Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees and nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, a new article takes a sweeping look at history to find what it portends. Perhaps more fascinating is that the story involves the family of one of the senior-most members of the Trump administration. In “Nobody Wanted to Take Us In: The Story of Jared Kushner’s Family, and Mine,” Nation magazine senior editor Lizzy Ratner looks at the journey of both her family and that of Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the husband of Ivanka Trump. Both Ratner’s and Kushner’s grandparents came to the United States as Jewish immigrants from Poland, as the German occupation was ramping up and U.S. borders were closing down. We speak to Lizzy and play video clips of Jared’s grandmother, Rae Kushner.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As attorneys and activists continue to fight Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees and nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, a new article takes a sweeping look at history to find what it portends. Perhaps more fascinating is that the story involves the family of one of the senior-most members of the Trump administration. In “Nobody Wanted to Take Us In: The Story of Jared Kushner’s Family, and Mine,” Nation magazine senior editor Lizzy Ratner looks at the journey of both her family and that of Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the husband of Ivanka Trump. Both Ratner’s and Kushner’s grandparents came to the United States as Jewish immigrants from Poland, as the German occupation was ramping up and U.S. borders were closing down.

AMY GOODMAN: Jared Kushner’s grandmother, Rae Kushner, was born February 27th, 1923, in Novogrudok, Poland, and lost most of her family during the Holocaust. In 1982, Rae Kushner was interviewed as part of a project for the Kean University of New Jersey Holocaust Resource Center and recalled attempts by her family to flee before the German occupation.

RAE KUSHNER: But we felt the anti-Semitism before that is coming something, but we couldn’t help ourselves. The door was closed that time. You know how hard it was to get a visa to Israel to go? Young girls and boys used to sit in a kibbutz for three, four years, ’til one used to go to Palestine. To America, very hard. If you send papers, you need to wait for two, three years ’til you get a visa at that time.

INTERVIEWER: So your family, your father actually was making attempts in 1935, ’36?

RAE KUSHNER: '36, yeah. He had a sister here in United States, my father. And we tried. We heard the times is going to be felt. But we couldn't do nothing. Later, in 1941, beginning of 1941, Germany took over us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rae Kushner, the grandmother of Jared Kushner. She was speaking in 1982. She died in 2004. Joining us now, The Nation's Lizzy Ratner. Her piece, “Nobody Wanted to Take Us In: The Story of Jared Kushner's Family, and Mine.” Talk about why you wrote this, Lizzy.

LIZZY RATNER: I wrote this story because—for a bunch of reasons. With the election, I began thinking about immigration. And I knew—Trump had warned—you know, immigrants were going to be targets, refugees were going to be targets.

My family was enormously lucky. We got to the United States at the end of a period of really rich immigration from Eastern Europe. It was—but it was at the very tail end. My grandfather arrived in 1920. He arrived from Bialystok, Poland, which was not a happy place to be at the time. It was the end of World War I. There were pogroms. There was hunger. And he—

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you mean by “pogroms”?

LIZZY RATNER: Pogroms were sort of attacks on Jewish people that took place throughout Eastern Europe throughout the 19th and early 20th century, possibly before that. And so he came here in 1920. And it turned out to be an enormously fortuitous moment—he had incredible timing—because it was a moment of sort of rising xenophobia in the United States. The United States was not happy about all the refugees coming from Eastern Europe, coming from Southern Europe, and so they passed—the country passed a series of extreme anti-immigrant measures. And I’ve always thought, “My god, my family got so lucky coming here six months before one of the most severe anti-immigrant measures of that period was passed.” If they hadn’t got here in 1920, they might not have gotten to the United States. And what happened to Jews who didn’t get to the United States is that many—but not all, but many—ended up dying in the Holocaust.

So, I was sort of thinking about all of this as the election happened, and I began to wonder. Well, Jared Kushner is a very powerful person in the now Trump administration. I knew that his family, they were Holocaust survivors. And I said, “I bet there’s an immigration story,” because many Jews who came to the United States in the 1920s, and then many sort of people who survived the Holocaust and didn’t survive, had stories of attempts to getting to this country and sort of failed attempts to getting here because there were these immigration laws that really cut the borders off in 1920, '21. So, I just did some very basic research. I did some googling, and I found this remarkable interview with Rae Kushner, who happens to be Jared Kushner's grandmother.

And in the interview—and we just saw a clip of it, but in the interview, we hear her talking about her family’s attempts to come to the United States in the 1930s. As I said, really 1921, '24, these two anti-immigrant measures were passed. And after that, immigration from Eastern Europe didn't completely stop, but it became a trickle. And so you have these numerous stories of Jewish families in Eastern Europe in the 1930s who are saying, “Oh, my god, there’s anti-Semitism rising around us, and we need to get out of here.” And yet, when they tried, they found that the borders were closed. So Rae Kushner was one of them. And we hear in this clip how her family felt anti-Semitism, couldn’t get here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back to Rae Kushner in her own words. Speaking in 1982, she explained the difficulty her family faced trying to gain entry to other countries.

RAE KUSHNER: And we go a little over three-and-a-half years. We wanted to go all over—to Africa, to Australia, to Israel. Nobody opened the door for us. Nobody wanted to take us in. Three-and-a-half years, we were waiting to get a visa. We had family in the United States. My husband had a sister. He had cousins, very fine people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rae Kushner went on to question the role of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.

RAE KUSHNER: We never can understand this. Even our good President Roosevelt, how come he kept the doors so closed to us for such a long time? How come a boat then for exodus for—at the border are returned back to be killed? This question I’ll never know, and nobody will give me the answer. And this man did live a very hard life.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Rae Kushner, the grandmother of Jared Kushner. So, Lizzy, in your research, did you find anywhere Jared Kushner’s mention of his own family’s story of coming to the U.S.?

LIZZY RATNER: Yeah. In August of this past year, there was a big furor—pardon the expression—because Donald Trump tweeted out an image sort of calling Hillary Clinton crooked, and there was sort of an image of a Jewish star and a pile of cash. And it was a moment when many people said, “You know, the Trump campaign has been supported by anti-Semites. It has been engaging with anti-Semites. Is Donald Trump anti-Semitic?” And it was after that that Jared Kushner wrote an article in the newspaper that he owns called the New York Observer_, saying, “Donald Trump is not anti-Semitic. I know what anti-Semitism is, because by grandparents suffered the worst of anti-Semitism. They were survivors of the Holocaust.” And so, that was sort of a moment that he resurrected their story, but in order to justify the man who, you know, arguably was deploying anti-Semitic motifs and who is now, of course, in the White House furthering a regime of—an anti-immigrant regime, which really does echo the anti-immigrant regime that was put in place in the 1920s that ultimately kept out Jews, like the Kushners.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what about the travel ban today, that Donald Trump just imposed a week ago, that led to a revolt all over the country?

LIZZY RATNER: Yeah, well, I think history is really critical here. The present—you know, the present is echoing the past. And we talk about—we just heard a segment about the 1930s in Germany. But we all have our own history here that foreshadows this moment. And our own history is a history filled with strains of xenophobia and hate, which had real consequences for people. So I just want to talk for one second about sort of rhetorical parallels between the past and the present.

When I was researching the 1920s and these 1920 anti-immigrant acts that had such gruesome consequences for people, I was struck by the parallels in language. So, you had Jewish people referred to as “physically deficient,” “abnormally twisted,” “un-American,” “filthy,” “a peril to this country,” sort of a danger in all sorts of ways. Jews were conceived as both a threat to the economy, but also a threat to national security. The idea was that Jews who came from Eastern Europe, which was sort of a hotbed of Bolshevism and radicalism, would come here, turn our country red from the inside out and destroy it. We hear the same or really parallel rhetoric today being thrown against Muslims, people from Muslim countries, who are being sort of described as a threat to our society, a fifth column, Trojan horse. I mean, Donald Trump used the term “Trojan horse.” You could have heard that applied against Jews in the 1920s and the 1940s. And I think we can say, you know, horrible things happened to people. Horrible things were visited on immigrants and desperate refugees who wanted to come here.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Rae Kushner in this interview she did in the Kean University of New Jersey’s Holocaust Research Center.

RAE KUSHNER: Let’s hope it’s not going to happen again. But it can happen, if you don’t watch who comes up. When I came to Washington, the Nazis are going with the swastikas in front of the White House. And they’re going on free. And this scares us. This is very painful.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Rae Kushner, Jared Kushner’s grandmother. Jared Kushner, one of the top aides to Donald Trump in the White House and his son-in-law. Today, you quote the head of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, who says, “The way we describe ourselves is that we used to resettle refugees because they were Jewish; now we resettle refugees because we are Jewish.”

LIZZY RATNER: Yeah, it was a deeply moving comment that Mark Hetfield of HIAS said to me. And I think it captures a sentiment in part of the Jewish community, and that should really be the sentiment of everybody in this country, who was an immigrant and is now assimilated and is here, which is that, you know, there was a time when our ancestors were in desperate need, and some people responded to that need, and many people around the world didn’t. And now we have an obligation, as people who are here now, who have benefited from all the privileges of this country, to keep the doors open for other desperate people. There’s another amazing quote I just want to end with. Mark Hetfield also said, you know, “For us to come here, for us”—and he’s referring to Jewish people at this moment. “But for Jews to say, ’We’re here now. It’s OK to close the doors on other people,’ is morally reprehensible.” And I don’t think I could have ever said it better.

AMY GOODMAN: And the conversation we played with an interview between Jeff Sessions, who was being interviewed by Stephen Bannon—

LIZZY RATNER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —top aide to President Trump, referring to the old immigration laws.

LIZZY RATNER: Yeah, I was just listening to that. So, Jeff Sessions, you know, in this interview you played yesterday, is celebrating the 1924 act, the Reed-Johnson Act—or, the Johnson-Reed Act, which closed the border for Jews and, I need to also emphasize, for millions of people from other parts of the world, too. It wasn’t just Jews., but we know the sort of consequences were catastrophic for Jews. But it’s terrifying to me that Jeff Sessions is celebrating this act that we now know and regard—you know, it’s universally regarded as xenophobic and destructive and baseless and a terrible mark on this country’s history.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Lizzy Ratner, senior editor at The Nation. We’ll link to her article, “Nobody Wanted to Take Us In: The Story of Jared Kushner’s Family, and Mine.”

And that does it for today’s show. A correction: Our headlines on Wednesday included a claim by a man who told WJBK in Detroit that his mother, an Iraqi-American green card holder, died after being denied entry into the United States. An imam in Detroit has since told the station that the woman died in Iraq five days before the ban went into place.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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