1. A collective trauma and a communal threat
Often, it takes a traumatic event to unite a nation, and the January 6 storming of Capitol Hill was of a magnitude that could do just that. Across the country, Americans, regardless of background and political convictions, sat glued to their screens, watching in horror as an angry mob trampled symbols of democracy.
Hours later, as tense calm was restored to Capitol Hill, more stories and pictures from the chaotic scene flooded the airways and social media, and it became clear that American Jews had been hit twice: not only an attack on democracy but also a just-as-ugly display of anti-Semitism in its crudest form.
I spent the day on the Hill, walking with the protesters from the White House Ellipse, where they heard Donald Trump urge them to march, and later covering the events from the Capitol Hill grounds, interviewing rioters as they walked out– cheerfully–from the building. The only neo-Nazi I encountered was a helmet-wearing guy named Mark who harassed an Israeli colleague of mine standing nearby, using anti-Semitic language he picked up from the Daily Stormer. I did not personally see the rioters who chose to come dressed in “Camp Auschwitz – STAFF” sweatshirts or wave the Nazi flag. But they were there. As were the anti-Semitic leader of Groyper Army and other known Holocaust deniers. I could not help but notice the many Confederate flags, white supremacist symbols and paraphernalia, and the frequent use of the term “globalists,” often an anti-Semitic slur, by protestors in the crowd.
Was this an anti-Semitic event?
Yes and no.
No, because hatred of Jews was not the motivating force behind the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, nor was it the issue uniting the crowd. There is no reason to believe that the masses following Trump’s call and marching on the Hill shared any anti-Semitic sentiments.
There’s no denying that anti-Semites and white supremacists are a part of the Trump camp. Perhaps a marginal part, but a visible and persistent one. We’ve seen them at the sidelines of Trump rallies and in protests, waving Trump banners alongside Confederate flags. They are a minority within a crowd, but a minority that cannot be ignored.
Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites have found a home in Trumpland and have hitched a ride on the massive populist movement that Trump created. Those who ignored them in Charlottesville, on the campaign trail, and on 4chan and 8chan message boards should not be surprised to find them now waving their flags of hatred in the heart of the U.S. Congress.
And that’s why Wednesday’s horrific scenes hurt American Jews twice as hard. Even after the battle to restore American democracy is won, the fight to eradicate anti-Semitic hatred will continue until it is clear that no political movement welcomes them on board ever again.
2. And as if that’s not enough…
The Anti Defamation League posted an analysis of online anti-Semitic conspiracies that have popped up after the storming of Capitol Hill. It’s a garden variety of conspirative nonsense, from accusing Jews of orchestrating the violence to make sure Biden submits to the needs of Israel to claiming that Jewish agents were responsible for the killing of a woman who was among the protesters trying to enter the building.
Sounds crazy? Of course it does. But we’re in 2021, and the fact that something sounds crazy doesn’t mean it’s not a real danger.
3. Breaking point for Republican Jews?
The past four years were quite the roller-coaster ride for Jewish Republicans. They started off politely distancing themselves from Donald Trump during the primaries, describing him as an irrelevant clown, before falling in line behind him when he won the nomination. After he took office, Republican Jews moved from an uneasy defense of the president every time he misspoke or made troubling remarks on anti-Semitism and white nationalism to a full, loving and warm embrace as he moved on to become the biggest supporter of Israel’s Netanyahu government they could have hoped for.
But what happens now?
On Wednesday evening, shortly after the curfew went into effect in Washington, and an hour before shocked members of the Senate reconvened in a chamber that had just been under siege, Norm Coleman, national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), issued a statement. “I worked at the Nation’s Capitol. It’s a sacred place,” wrote Coleman, a former senator from Minnesota. “The insurrection we saw today was despicable. The mob can never be allowed to rule—and sadly, the President whipped up the mob.” In that, the four-year-long love affair between mainstream Jewish Republicans and Donald Trump came to an end. The next morning, the RJC issued a statement recognizing Joe Biden’s election victory. The RJC’s main benefactor is Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has also been one of Trump’s largest campaign donors.
4. Trump and the Orthodox community—it’s complicated
Members of the Orthodox community have been among Trump’s most enthusiastic backers. No wonder that Orthodox activists organized busses from New York to come and show their support for Trump at his final rally in Washington, the rally that devolved into the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
But by the end of the day, what seemed like a solid pro-Trump front in the Orthodox community began to crumble, as demonstrated by this anecdote from Long Island:
The Five Towns Jewish Week, a Jewish publication serving the largely Orthodox Jewish population of the Five Towns (a group of villages on the South Shore of western Long IslandLong Island), featured on its front page a huge photo of its columnist Gila Jedwab, a pro-Trump activist from Cedarhurst, celebrating in front of the Capitol, with scores of protesters in the background.
Two Orthodox synagogues from the area sent stern letters to the paper, taking them to task for their choice of the photo, and making clear they no longer wanted to have the publication delivered to their synagogues. “We strongly object to your posting of Gila Jedwab with her arms extended in a welcoming fashion during the despicable event in front of the nation’s capital together with all its negative ramifications,” wrote Stuart Wagner, president of Young Israel of Woodmere synagogue.
5. ADL takes it one step further
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, an umbrella group aiming to represent the community on policy issues, put out a statement strongly condemning the violence on Capitol Hill and calling for the restoration of law and order and an orderly transition of power.
This is the type of language that all factions of the organized Jewish community can sign off on–standing forcefully against the rioters while ignoring any political motivation or incitement.
This was hardly enough for the Anti Defamation League (ADL), an organization that became a harsh critic of the president and his embrace of extremism, white nationalism, and racism.
On Friday, the ADL went a step further than any other major Jewish group and called for Trump’s removal from office. “In our over 100 years of history, ADL has never called for the President of the United States to be removed from office, but what occurred on Wednesday was inexcusable,” said the group’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in a statement.
Calling for the ouster of the president is not without risk. In recent years, the ADL has been battling accusations from right-wing members of the community that it has become partisan and one-sided, and demanding Trump’s removal will clearly fuel this criticism.
But it’s not as if the ADL had a choice. As an organization focused on fighting anti-Semitism and extremism, the nexus of politics and nationalism presented by Trump has become a key issue for the ADL. In other words, it’s Trump who chose to make these issues partisan, not the ADL.
The group will now have four years to prove that in a post-Trump era, it can move back to the center of the political field.