1. Anti-governor protests take a disturbing anti-Semitic tone
First came the incident in Michigan, where a protester outside Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office in Lansing carried a sign reading “Heil Witmer” with a swastika drawn on the right-hand corner. Then a participant in an anti-lockdown protest in Ohio was spotted carrying a sign depicting a rat with a Jewish head and a Star of David, under the title: “the real plague.”
— Rep. Casey Weinstein (@RepWeinstein) April 19, 2020
And over the weekend, anti-Semitic messages crept up again, this time directed at Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who is Jewish. One sign carried by a woman protesting the state stay-at-home orders read “Arbeit Macht Frei, JB,” German for “work liberates”—a reference to the sign posted over the entrance gate to Auschwitz and four other Nazi death camps. Another sign read “Heil Prizker.”
This was one of the signs at the “Re-open Illinois” event today. She assured those that she was not a Nazi, and stated, “I have Jewish friends.” Thank you for representing yourself and your “movement” for what it is. pic.twitter.com/CcIX2SVu6s
— Dennis Kosuth, RN (@Dennis_Kosuth) May 1, 2020
There have also been several other reports of swastikas and Nazi references in protests across the country, most of them aimed at Democratic governors who have refused to ease the lockdown guidelines until their states see a significant decline in coronavirus spread.
Is it a case of ignorance or of anti-Semitism?
It doesn’t really matter: there’s a fair measure of both in these vile expressions.
The argument for ignorance gives some of those using Nazi comparisons the benefit of the doubt. They may think that the state’s rules prohibiting them from going back to work and leaving their homes infringe on their rights, and such infringements somehow resembles the conduct of the Nazi regime in Germany. It’s probably useless to explain to those making these references that Hitler did not lock down Jews in the ghettos and concentration camps in order to stop the spread of a pandemic, nor will it be helpful to remind them that the murderous Nazi regime carried out a systematic and premeditated annihilation of Jews, Roma, LGBTQ people and socialists. It was not about temporarily denying people some of their rights for the greater good.
And still one has to wonder: Of all the oppressive regimes in the history of the world, and of all the incidents of depriving peoples right of free movement, was Nazi Germany the only example these protestors could think of? Was there no other comparison that doesn’t carry hurtful memories to the Jewish people and does not mainstream the Holocaust?
Others cannot enjoy the benefit of the doubt. Those accusing Jews of spreading the plague, or comparing a Jewish governor to Hitler, are not ignorant. They are anti-Semitic.
It is a small minority that is tainting the movement. And that is why the legitimacy of the movement hinges on how clearly and strongly, these anti-Semitic voices are suppressed and condemned.
2. Who spoke out against the anti-Semites, and who didn’t
Yet, as of early this week, organizers of the protests across America didn’t seem to feel the need to take on the issue and make sure their rallies were free of racism.
True, there is no central organizing committee behind the protests (though they’ve been clearly cheered on by Trump and the conservative media), and there is no one address to turn to when seeking condemnation. It is also true that in any mass protest, liberal or conservative, organizers have very little power to control the crowd or monitor each participant and every sign.
And that’s precisely why speaking out does matter. It might not stop the Nazis from showing up to the rally outside the state capital, but it will signal that they are not welcome.
Among those speaking out against the anti-Semitic messages at the rallies were the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, which provided a useful reminder regarding the origins of “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Illinois governor Pritzker who responded to the protestors and Democratic politicians.
“Arbeit macht frei” was a false, cynical illusion the SS gave to prisoners of #Auschwitz. Those words became one of the icons of human hatred. It’s painful to see this symbol instrumentalized & used again to spread hate. It’s a symptom of moral & intellectual degeneration. https://t.co/ZRxja8x6eS
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) May 2, 2020
Among those missing thus far from the list are Trump’s special envoy on anti-Semitism Elan Carr and Ivanka Trump, who in the past has been among the first in the Trump administration to speak out against anti-Semitism.
Trump did not speak or tweet about the anti-Semitic expressions during the anti-lockdown rallies, though he did call protestors in Michigan, among them some who circled the governor’s office while fully armed, “very good people.”
The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 1, 2020
3. Biden walks a thin line on Israel
On the Democratic side, presumptive nominee Joe Biden’s campaign has been putting some thought into issues that concern American Jews.
Last week, on the one year anniversary of the Poway synagogue attack, Biden released his plan to protect faith communities.
The next day, Biden’s advisers joined a call with Jewish Democrats, in which they laid out the Democratic candidate’s ideas regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their bottom line, which was later repeated by Biden himself in a fundraising event, is that if elected president, Biden will not move the U.S. embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. However, Biden does, and will, oppose Israel’s intention to annex parts of the West Bank.
Biden basically conceded that undoing the relocation of the embassy would be all but impossible for practical and political reasons. This is a notion shared by many Democrats, who opposed Trump’s decision to move the embassy and viewed its timing as an impediment for peace, but now see it as irreversible, or at least believe that it is not worth fighting for its reversal.
4. But can Biden stop the annexation?
This is a way bigger question than the embassy move.
Biden and his surrogates believe that there is room to dissuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from moving ahead with the plan to annex the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
They hope that Netanyahu’s new coalition partners, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, will make sure it doesn’t happen and that the weight of a warning from a presidential candidate and the entire Democratic party, will make Netanyahu rethink.
This might have been true in the past. But in the current political situation, it is hard to see Gantz and Ashkenazi blocking Bibi’s move (which they actually support, despite differences regarding the timing and circumstances), and it is even harder to imagine Netanyahu freezing the plan out of fear of losing the Democratic party’s support. That ship has sailed.
5. Roger Stone’s troubling Israel contacts
So, apparently there is an Israeli angle to the case of Roger Stone, Trump’s confidant who was convicted in the Russian election intervention investigation.
The details are sketchy and incomplete since they rely on heavily redacted court documents, but still, it doesn’t look good for Israel. Any reading of the material (which, again, is partial and redacted) gives the impression that officials in the Israeli government wanted to help Trump win the 2016 elections, and may have been willing to play some dirty tricks to achieve this goal.