Capitol invasion conjures up dark memories for Jews throughout the region

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather outside the U.S. Capitol before some break into the building on Jan. 6, 2020. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Richard Friedman

As Americans were shell-shocked watching the invasion of the U.S. Capitol unfold on Jan. 6, many Jews across the Deep South were anxious, connecting the violent insurrection they were witnessing with dark times from Jewish history.

“As an American and as a Jew I was appalled by what I witnessed,” said Birmingham’s Edward Goldberg, a past Birmingham Jewish Federation president. “The events of that day made me feel as if I were in Nazi Germany 80 years ago.”

Barbara Kaplinsky, a New Orleans Jewish community activist, had a strong reaction.  “When large groups in the population exhibit antisemitic prejudices and activities in violent protests, all I can think about is the rise of fascism in Germany. Those despicable actions that occurred in Germany are familiar to all Jews.  If we continue down this path, I think such things could happen here.”

In an overview of the day’s events, the Associated Press observed, “The presence of antisemitic symbols and sentiment at the Capitol riot raised alarms among Jewish Americans and experts who track discrimination and see it as part of an ongoing, disturbing trend.”

Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told the AP that the attack on the Capitol was “not so much a tipping point” for antisemitism but rather “the latest explicit example of how it (antisemitism) is part of what animates the narratives of extremists in this country.”

This publication reached out to nearly 100 Jewish community members in four states, many of them volunteer or professional leaders, to assess how the riots at the Capitol affected them as Jews. Those contacted reflected a broad range of political views.

Some did not want to comment.  Others offered to do so but did not want their names used.  Many were forthright in stating their views and willing to have their names used.  This article includes responses only from people willing to be identified.

“Watching the news coverage made me even more aware of the rampant antisemitism and White supremacy that is taking place all over our country,” said Isa Dorsky, this year’s BJF Joanie Plous Bayer Young Leadership Award winner.

“It’s very scary knowing that thousands of people with these beliefs came together that day, and also knowing that there are likely many, many thousands more around the country who believe the same ideologies,” added Dorsky. “Even though I don’t want to believe it, I know they are in our backyard and it’s very concerning what will happen in the coming weeks.”

Chattanooga’s Alison Lebovitz, a national Jewish leader, said, “The blatant, unapologetic and celebratory nature of antisemitism that has become more prevalent and mainstream, and was evident during the attack on the Capitol, is a horrifying reality.  It also is a much-needed reminder that our work to build a more loving, understanding, inclusive and respectful society has never been more critical or urgent.”

Not Be Lulled

Kenneth Hoffman, executive director of the New Orleans-based Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, also was anguished. “Jews have good reason to be fearful of mobs — from medieval church-sponsored riots to pogroms in Russia to Brownshirts in Germany, and to our own homegrown antisemites,” said Hoffman. “While we can’t live in fear, we should also not be lulled by the phrase, ‘It can’t happen here.’”

Jack Aland, who, with his wife, Barbara, just finished chairing the 2020 BJF Campaign, had strong words.  “As a Jew, I am familiar with the events leading to the Holocaust. Watching the ransacking of the Capitol building immediately brought to my mind the Nazi-led burning of the Reichstag in 1933, with the Proud Boys taking the role of the Nazi Brownshirts.”

Added Aland, “Up until that day I had never realized how fragile our democracy is here in the U.S.  Many Jews living in 1930’s Germany were similarly complacent.”

Richard Bodziner, a retired physician in Savannah, whose family has been heavily involved in Jewish life for decades, shared this:  “While watching the storming of the Capitol, I did not think at all of my Jewishness; I thought only as an American and was deeply offended and disturbed.”

However, he added, “Once I became aware of the significant role of QAnon and Proud Boys and other known White nationalist groups, it brought back memories of our past history as Jews Somehow we are always hated, whether by the far right or far left. Antisemitism lives and is thriving.”

Louis Tuck, a former president of Birmingham’s Levite Jewish Community Center, said, “It concerns me in that those willing to commit these acts of violence are always looking for a scapegoat to blame for their own failings. Unfortunately, Jews continue to be an easy mark.”

Atlanta attorney Alan Lubel, who has been involved in his city’s Jewish community, had strong opinions.  “Sadly, President Trump has enabled and encouraged racist and antisemitic bigotry. We saw this after Charlottesville when David Duke praised Trump. We saw the tee shirts worn by rioters at the Capitol — one said ‘Camp Auschwitz,'” said Lubel.

“Americans fought and died in World War II to defeat Hitler and this Nazi hatred, to keep it from our shores, and now President Trump invited this hatred into our nation’s Capitol. My friends who supported Trump should be ashamed,” he added.

Birmingham’s Esther Levy, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said, “I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the history of Hitler’s rise to power and our current situation.  I continue to ask that people study history in order not to repeat it.”

Added Levy, “It is incumbent upon American citizens to make sure that we hold fast to our democracy. We do not owe our allegiance to a man, but to the principles this country was founded on.”

Rebecca Gilbert, who is from Georgia and who is a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow involved in Israel education at the University of Alabama, noted that antisemitism on the far right and the far left has increased over the past few years.

Referring specifically to the Capitol attack, she said, “While the events at the Capitol were not an antisemitic attack, some individuals who took part associate themselves with antisemitic ideals that are worrisome. As a Jew, it is upsetting to see that groups such as the ones that invaded the Capitol exist, and that many Americans were unaware of how pervasive antisemitism is until it occurred violently right in front of them.”

Birmingham Jewish community volunteer leader Cynthia Tobias, who grew up in South Africa, offered this: “That the U.S. is one of the world’s largest democracies and we were now watching potential anarchy as the result of instigation by the country’s leader, was alarming. The crowd effect was remarkable.”

Continued Tobias, “We saw those groups with neo-Nazi leanings in the forefront of the mob violence and this was chilling to watch as a Jew.  It gave me the sick feeling that the world has come full cycle since the 1940s.  Even though I had recognized this over the past few years, I now realized that the danger was real and close.”

“Then I had the sinking feeling, not a new one, that we are caught right in the middle, hated by both the extreme right and the extreme left,” she said.  “This makes me wonder if this is simply our destiny as a Jewish people. Thank G-d there now exists the State of Israel as a safe haven. It is imperative that she continues to exist in safety.”

Briann Shear, president of Hadassah New Orleans, was unnerved as well: “The invasion of the Capitol was extremely upsetting to me as an American and as a Jew. The level of viciousness and hate that was displayed in recorded videos was very distressing. As an American Jew, I felt painful memories of mass violence against Jewish communities in Europe.”

Added Shear:  “While there have been terrible demonstrations of hate by small groups or individuals such as swastika-painting on cemeteries or even the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the images of a large group on a violent rampage in our nation’s Capitol brought a different reaction. As sad as I was to mourn the murdered individuals at Tree of Life, I could tell myself they were murdered by one hateful, deranged individual. There is something different in seeing a large out of control mob engaged in hateful violence — something that echoes in the Jewish soul.”

Most of the others who responded reflected views similar to those expressed above.  However, there also were some who disagreed.

Fed Up

“I believe too much is being made of the ‘storming’ of the Capitol. I think we are talking about some individuals who got out of control in the heat of the moment and things got out of hand,” said Birmingham’s Scott Stein. “The Capitol stormers, I think, just wanted their voices to be heard.  Their president, who was duly elected in 2016, has been persecuted by the left since he announced his presidential run.”

“Conservatives are fed up with the liberal media — also with Twitter, Facebook and Google as well as the Democrats who have kept this turmoil going for over 4 years,” said Stein.  “Conservatives no longer trust the system. At this point I am more frightened by the lack of freedom of the press than I am of right wing crazies.”

Another Jewish community member who expressed a different point of view was  Birmingham’s Phil Teninbaum. “It was quite disheartening to watch an assault on our Capitol, but it was equally concerning to me that the news media immediately labeled this as a ‘riot by White supremacists’ and stated it was racist. In actuality, anyone who has kept up with the election results can easily see these Trump supporters were unhappy concerning voter fraud,” he said.

“Voter fraud,” Teninbaum continued, “is a real concern to a huge portion of Americans — 70+million— as there looks to be a lot of evidence regarding this.  But no one will address their concerns.  Maybe if there had been some transparency and investigation of their concerns, a lot of questions might have been cleared up… I saw no evidence of antisemitism — except on a stupid shirt — or racism.”

Added Teninbaum, “It is a proven fact that Trump has been the most pro-Israel president that I can remember and I cannot find any event that he supported that was antisemitic.”

In the wake of the violence, heads of Jewish agencies are pondering the implications. Disruptions and possibly violent rioting may continue and even spread, particularly as Inauguration Day nears.  This has many concerned.

“I work daily combating hate, racism and antisemitism.  I’ve always known they exist.  I’ve personally felt it in both my personal and professional life.  To see it live on TV, Facebook and Twitter, felt like a gut punch,” said Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga.

Added Dzik, “White supremacists and antisemites are no longer hiding, fostering hate in secret or in the dark.  We witnessed this hate live, broadcast across America and around the world, for everyone to see.  At that moment I felt sad and ashamed.  My resolve to build respect, understanding and peaceful dialogue is now only stronger.”

Arnie Fielkow, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, was as disturbed as his colleagues.  “I am sickened by what occurred at the Capitol last week. Confederate flags, Nazi signage, and other expressions of hate inside the building that arguably more than any other represents our democracy were disturbing and, honestly, frightening,” said Fielkow.

“Regrettably, as we have now all witnessed, many of our current federal public officials are not the leaders we expected nor needed during this difficult time, and I truly hope all of us will remember their actions, or lack thereof, in the future.”

“I watched the events at the Capitol in utter disbelief,” said Danny Cohn, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation. “I was more disturbed as an American than as a Jew. I watched as the seat of government was stormed, and, as an American, I thought to myself this is not my country. This is not the country that my grandfathers fought for in World War II or my great-grandfather fought for in World War I,” said Cohn.

“As a Jew, and particularly as a Jewish professional, it is inherent that I worry about our people regardless of what is going on in the world around us. It was in the aftermath of the events at the Capitol with the images showcasing antisemitism, that as a Jew those realities set in on top of the other feelings from that day,” he said. “I am still coming to terms about the future of Jews in the America that we have witnessed as of late.”

“Antisemitism is on the rise and shows no signs of diminishing. But out of this concern comes the necessity to act,” said Cohn. “Communities large and small must find resources to offer more training and education to teachers and students, as well as to law enforcement and the general community. No one else is going to do this for us.”