In 1917, Russian soldiers entered a small village near the border with Poland in what is now Ukraine. The soldiers ransacked and burned down homes, killed livestock and violently attacked the Jewish villagers. Such pogroms were all too common in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
My grandmother Ida Bernstein, then 14 years old, was helping her mother prepare dinner when a Russian soldier broke down the door and entered their home. After striking my great-grandmother Sadie, he attacked Ida, attempting to rape her. Sadie got up from the floor, grabbed a large cast-iron pan and delivered a series of forceful blows to the soldier’s head.
They did not wait to see if the soldier was alive or dead. The family knew they needed to flee their village and head to the Polish border.
Not long after, my great-grandfather came to America and settled in Chicago, eventually bringing the rest of the family over from Poland.
Ida followed the same path taken by millions of immigrants in those days. Embracing America, she learned the language, got married and raised a family.
Like most Jewish immigrants, she was a Roosevelt Democrat. Ida became active in Chicago politics, even serving as a precinct captain.
My grandmother did not just love America; she adored it.
From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to Harry Truman’s decision to recognize Israel and the national mourning for John F. Kennedy, Ida Miller was the very definition of a resolute Democrat.
But that would change.
In 1976, there was a glimmer of hope in America. With the Vietnam War ended and the U.S. on the mend after Watergate, many believed that a new era had begun with the election of Jimmy Carter as president. But it didn’t take long for Carter’s incompetence to take center stage.
Even though Carter was president when Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David peace treaty, American Jews took notice of his unfriendly attitude towards Israel. Many felt the Jewish state did not have a reliable supporter in the Oval Office.
At the same time, Rev. Jesse Jackson began to rise in Democratic party politics. Jackson had embraced Yasser Arafat, the founder and chairman of the PLO. He helped make Arafat a legitimate political figure and redefined him as a “freedom fighter” instead of the terrorist murderer he really was.
Jackson would later refer to New York City as “Hymietown” and reportedly said after a 1979 visit to Yad Vashem, “I am sick and tired of hearing constantly about the Holocaust. The Jews do not have a monopoly on suffering.”
As the 1980 presidential election approached, Grandma Ida decided she could not vote for Carter. Nevertheless, as a lifelong Democrat, she could not stomach voting for a Republican. Like many Jewish women, she voted for all Democratic candidates on the ballot except Carter, choosing instead independent candidate John Anderson.
This would be the last time Grandma Ida sought to avoid a clear break with the Democrats.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Democrats were silent on anti-Zionism and antisemitism in their party. My grandmother was all too familiar with such silence.
On election day in 1984, my father took my then 81-year-old grandmother to her precinct and assisted her as she cast her ballot. My father assumed she would vote for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, but that was not the case. Speaking in Yiddish, she told my father to cast her ballot for President Ronald Reagan.
When they left the precinct, my father asked her why she voted for Reagan. Her response is etched onto my father’s brain to this day: “I will not vote for the party of the black Hitler. This is not my Democratic Party.”
Was Ida Miller a visionary? Could she see what would become of her Democratic Party 40 years down the road?
Ida Miller was not a scholar or an intellectual. She was not highly educated with advanced degrees. She knew history because she lived it. She understood what could happen when political parties begin to go seriously wrong.
As the 40th anniversary of the 1984 election approaches, my grandmother’s concerns about the failure of Democrats to criticize anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric in their ranks have become universal. With the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, all American Jews received a wake-up call.
When the horrors of Oct. 7 were broadcast all over the world, antisemites across the globe dusted off their Nazi playbooks and renewed the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels. They blamed the victims for the atrocities committed against them, celebrated Hamas’s crimes against humanity and called for the annihilation of Israel and all Jews.
In the U.S., it did seem like there was a rare moment of unity between Republicans and Democrats, as both parties expressed support for Israel. But the progressive wing of the Democratic Party joined the chorus of antisemites who hailed Hamas as Goebbels hailed Hitler.
Liberal and progressive Jews realized they had been stabbed in the back. Their progressive allies such as Black Lives Matter, labor unions and (ironically) LGBT groups were gleeful at the sight of over a thousand slaughtered Jews.
In the halls of Congress, progressive Democrats refused to condemn Hamas. Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib spoke at pro-Hamas rallies and proclaimed that “Palestine” would be free “from the river to the sea,” a thinly veiled endorsement of the genocide of Israeli Jews. When a resolution censuring her for her horrific remarks was brought up for a House vote, only 22 out of 212 Democrats supported it.
Has the Democratic Party that Grandma Ida feared become a reality?