Jewish Responses to Fascism in the United States

By: Ruth Gopin

January 27, 2021

Faith and the American Insurrection

Watching the lawful rhetoric of dissent transformed into violent insurrection on January 6 brought a rare moment of shared dismay to people across the political aisle. For some groups, the shock was tempered by a resigned sense of destiny—that this was the natural culmination of four-and-a-half years of Trumpism. As a liberal Jew, my circles of friends were certainly among those expressing such feelings. Like many religious groups in America today, there was also confusion and shame that any Jews had participated in or were unwilling to fully condemn the violent aspects of the event, even if they were a small minority of an already minority group.

Some context is necessary to understand the full impacts of the day. For many Jewish families, the story of their time in America begins with a narrow escape from the horrors of fascism in Europe and a genocidal campaign now known as the Holocaust or Shoah. My own family, luckily, had already immigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, escaping anti-Semitic programs in Eastern Europe. The Holocaust still touched us though, as it did most Jewish families worldwide. My grandparents passed down stories of relatives who suddenly stopped writing from Eastern Europe and were never heard from again, and researching the towns that we emigrated from reveals a tragic story of utter destruction. 

With the post-Holocaust slogan “never again” echoing in their ears, many Jews in America threw themselves into preventing atrocities like those they had seen in Europe from ever occurring again. They became fierce advocates of civil rights, and worked to protect immigrants and the impoverished. The images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. became famously celebrated. HIAS grew into one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the country. Globally, Jews stepped up to help build and protect a new era of human rights; the examples are abundant. Simultaneously, scarred from the annihilation of over six million of their brethren, many Jews became fierce protectors of the new country that was established to be a safe haven from anti-Semitism: Israel. 

Fast forward a couple of generations to find Jews today grappling with allegiances and identities in the midst of a fascist uprising right here in the United States of America. 

Fast forward a couple of generations to find Jews today grappling with allegiances and identities in the midst of a fascist uprising right here in the United States of America.

From the minute Trump started his campaign in 2015 by spewing racist, anti-immigration propaganda, many Jewish organizations and individuals stepped up to condemn his rhetoric, warning that it was reminiscent of propaganda used in the early twentieth century against Jews. Holocaust survivors spoke out, recalling painful memories of neighbors turned against them by lies and conspiracy theories. 

After the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, where anti-Semitic symbols and chants were on full display, Jewish groups and individuals spoke out in condemnation. On January 6, Jews watched in shock and horror as neo-Nazis and white nationalists stormed the Capitol Building. The awful, gut-wrenching, terrifying photo of the man who attended the rally in a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt emerged and was immediately shared widely in Jewish circles. It was retraumatizing for a lot of survivors, and survivors’ children and grandchildren. 

Then came the more confusing photos and reports. Several Jews had marched with these blatant neo-Nazis in support of the same cause, and at least one had actually breached the Capitol. Jewish symbols like rams’ horns and prayer shawls being used as part of the demonstration that preceded the storming of the Capitol. Though these were often used—it would later emerge—by Christian evangelicals rather than Jews themselves, it prompted distress from Jews on both sides of the political spectrum to see sacred Jewish symbols associated with the ugliness of many other parts of that rally-turned-riot. 

It prompted distress from Jews on both sides of the political spectrum to see sacred Jewish symbols associated with the ugliness of many other parts of that rally-turned-riot.

Some progressive Jews, on the far-left end of the political spectrum, used it to call for a reckoning with strains of virulent Jewish nationalism, especially, they would argue, when it comes to defending Israel. One Facebook friend referenced the “evangelicalization of Orthodoxy.” On the other end of the political spectrum, particularly among certain Orthodox groups who have indeed allied themselves politically with Trump for a variety of reasons, there was a doubling down of defending the actions of Trump and his supporters from some. 

Others, however, used it as an opportunity to speak out where they may not have in the past. A photo of Gila Jedwab, a Five Towns Jewish Times columnist, standing outside the Capitol Building on January 6, published on the front page of that newspaper (a local newspaper in the predominantly Orthodox neighborhoods of Nassau County, New York), prompted a flurry of controversy and caused two local synagogues to denounce the paper for printing it and the editor to issue an apology. Another notable example of a publication that led to mixed reactions among Jewish circles was the strongly worded essay penned by Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, who works at Yeshiva University (an Orthodox institution), in which he writes “I am deeply disturbed that so many in my community, even if they did not join in person, were sympathetic to the cause and therefore unwilling to condemn the rally even after we witnessed the desecration it brought forth.” 

In twenty-first-century America, we found ourselves trapped at home by a global pandemic, watching in an emotional turmoil as the country turned on itself. The divisions in Jewish communities’ reactions mirror in certain respects the reckonings of other groups that, once united by a shared religion or culture, find themselves grappling with sharp internal divisions in the wake of Trumpism. They also illustrate an important step to come back together: rebuilding the common values we once shared in our own communities. With the presence of symbols commemorating the victimization of minority groups—from the celebration of the Confederacy to the trivialization of the Holocaust—the attack on the Capitol also reminds us to heed the warnings of those who feel the stings of past atrocities. There is much work to be done within and between our communities to move forward together instead of backward and apart.

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