Late on the afternoon of Jan. 6, the Associated Press called the Georgia Senate race for documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff. Just a few hours earlier, Donald Trump had incited an insurrection that saw his followers—a number of whom openly and proudly displayed vile anti-Semitic signs and language—violently take over the Capitol in an attempted coup that would have spelled the end of our democracy. A single, solitary minute separated the AP’s call and Trump’s issuance of a post-takeover video in which, although he told the rioters to go home, he also said he loved them, told them they were special, and restated the lie that his “landslide” election victory had been “stolen from us.”
No single 24-hour period of the Trump presidency so effectively encapsulated the contrast between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to Jewish Americans: Defending (as opposed to threatening) our physical safety, protecting our rights and our full membership in the American national community, and promoting the broader progressive values that are so important to the overwhelming majority of us.
Beyond the broader white supremacy and fascism displayed by the pro-Trump mob, there were specific anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi elements that merit sustained attention. Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history Jonathan Sarna broke down what he saw and connected it to the hatred of Jews that’s so widespread among adherents of QAnon, white nationalists, and other members of the far right.
One of the many horrifying images from the Jan. 6 rampage on the U.S. Capitol shows a long-haired, long-bearded man wearing a black “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, and under it the phrase “work brings freedom” – an English translation of the Auschwitz concentration camp motto: “Arbeit macht frei.”
These and related images, captured on television and retweeted on social media, demonstrate that some of those who traveled to Washington to support President Donald Trump were engaged in much more than just a doomed effort to maintain their hero in power.
As their writings make clear to me as a scholar of American anti-Semitism, some among them also hoped to trigger what is known as the “Great Revolution,” based on a fictionalized account of a government takeover and race war, that, in its most extreme form, would exterminate Jews.
Jews were rightly horrified by the embrace of genocidal hate shown by some among the Trumpist mob—violent hate that reflects ideologies expressed by the white nationalist far right both before and throughout the Trump era. When people say that they want to kill all the Jews, history has taught us not to dismiss it. For those who tried to downplay the anti-Semitism that runs deep on the right—both among elected Republicans, as well as those carrying tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us”—let me just say the following: “I told you so.” Separate from the anti-Semitism on display, the overwhelming majority of us felt utter revulsion for the insurrection itself—for the overthrow of democracy and rejection of the expressed will of the American voters that it proclaimed as a goal.
The Jan. 6 putsch in Washington, D.C. to install Trump as leader for who knows how many more years ended in failure. That was a great relief, but not exactly something that inspired joy for Jewish Americans. For that emotion, we had to look down south, to the truly inspiring win by underdog Jon Ossoff. Yes, Joe Biden had won Georgia two months earlier, but Ossoff had come in second in his race. Also, this was a January runoff election—where Democratic candidates usually fall short of the support they had earned in the general. Yet Ossoff exceeded his Nov. 3 tally, something Democrats had never done, except for one extremely low turnout race in 1998.
During the campaign, Ossoff’s Republican opponent, Sen. David Perdue, ran a blatantly anti-Semitic television ad. First, the Perdue spot paired an image of Ossoff with that of another Jewish politician, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and stated “Democrats are trying to buy Georgia.” As Daily Kos’ Laura Clawson noted at the time: “putting two Jewish politicians together with text potentially tapping into longtime anti-Semitic slurs about Jewish people buying power” was bad enough. The ad went further—it took Ossoff’s nose and made it bigger, so as to “other” him even more. Presaging his debate performance, where he forcefully hit Perdue on insider trading as well as COVID-19, Ossoff held nothing back in his response to the ad.
Ossoff spoke proudly of his Jewish heritage and how it informs his progressive politics in an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, published about two weeks before the runoff: “I’m descended from Ashkenazi immigrants who fled pogroms in the early 20th century, and I grew up among relatives who were Holocaust survivors. So my Jewish upbringing instilled in me a conviction to fight for the marginalized and oppressed, and also to be vigilant where there’s the risk that authoritarianism may emerge.” As an expression of that connection, Ossoff carried his ancestors with him as he took the oath to become a senator.
What Ossoff did touched me deeply. I’ve learned much about my own ancestors—as a young child, I hocked my father to do research and create a detailed family history. I don’t believe we have the manifests, but I know that my Great-Grandfather Morris and Great-Grandmother Hanna came across in 1907 on the ship Caledonia, and my Great-Grandfather Max arrived in 1910 on the Litvania.
American Jews—most of whom are Democrats—take great pride in Ossoff’s election. For most, I believe that it’s about much more than electing a Jewish senator—Ossoff’s far from the first; Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has now reached a higher ranking political position than any Jewish American ever has, another source of pride. We also revel in the fact that Ossoff played a key role in Schumer becoming the Majority Leader, thus enabling the Biden-Harris administration to, hopefully, enact far more progressive legislation than looked possible before the Georgia runoffs.
It was especially sweet for such an important win to take place in a state that was, until now, most notorious in terms of Jewish history for the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank—an act organized by, among others, former governor Joseph Mackey Brown and other high-ranking elected and law enforcement officials. As Steve Oney, author of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, wrote in The Washington Post: “Anti-Semitic incidents have increased in the state in the past few years, as they have across much of the country. Yet Ossoff’s triumph suggests that in the South a new day has come. The lynching of Leo Frank will not be forgotten, but just maybe it will loosen its grip on the psyche of the region’s Jews.”
In addition to his Jewishness, Ossoff also discussed another significant aspect of his background with Haaretz.
I’m reflecting on the first meal I ever shared with [the late Georgia] Congressman John Lewis. He wanted to talk to me about the alliance between Jews and Blacks in the civil rights movement, and how he had marched alongside rabbis and Jewish activists for civil rights in the South in the mid-1960s. He stressed how important it was to sustain this alliance. […]
And that the standard bearers in these historic runoffs are a young Jewish son of an immigrant, mentored by John Lewis, and the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a Black preacher who holds Dr. [Martin Luther] King Jr’s pulpit and who pastored John Lewis, is a continuation of this tradition.
That pastor, of course, is Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, who also was elected to the Senate on Jan. 6, in a Georgia runoff of his own; together, the two cemented a Democratic trifecta.
Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and widely acknowledged expert on the Reconstruction Era, looked back on that day with The New Yorker.
[It] was an interesting day from a historical point of view, because it began, if you remember, with people talking about the victory of these two candidates in Georgia, a Black man and a Jewish man, and realizing that’s an amazing thing for Georgia. Georgia has a very long history of racism and anti-Semitism. That’s how it began. Four or six hours later, you have an armed mob seizing the Capitol building. You have these two themes of American history in juxtaposition to each other. And both of them are part of the American tradition, and we have to be aware of both of them, not just the more honorable parts. […]
I mean, Georgia, like much of the Deep South, had a long history, first of all, of slavery. It was one of the major cotton-producing slave states. In Reconstruction, it had a very active Klan, which was very brutal and violent toward African-Americans and toward whites who coöperated with them. Later, it disenfranchised Black voters for a long time. In the middle of the twentieth century, you have leaders like Herman Talmadge there who were just absolute outright racist. You also have the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Georgia in the early twentieth century. So anti-Semitism was also pretty well entrenched.
I’m giving you a litany of bad things, but what’s actually important is that people are able to overcome this. That with that history hanging over you, you still can elect a Black man and a Jew to the Senate from Georgia. So I think that’s cause for optimism. We teach history, but history is not determinism. We don’t have to just relive our history over and over again. It’s possible to move beyond it, and I think what happened in Georgia is a little step in that direction.
While Jewish and Black Americans have a shared history of finding themselves in white supremacist crosshairs, they also have another shared history, one of working together against those same forces. To be sure, there have been some bumps along the way. These include tensions deriving from, for example, economic exploitation of Blacks carried out by some Jews (Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. neatly summarized the situation), or violence against Jews committed on occasion by individual Black people, including recently.
Yet the relationship between the two groups has, for the most part, been a fruitful partnership—one that has, over the past century, centered on cooperation in the successful effort to advance progressive goals, particularly civil rights.
Jewish Americans are also the second-most reliably Democratic voting bloc among all ethno-cultural groups, behind only African Americans. We recognize the threat to Jews in the U.S. from the Trumpist right, and I’m not just talking about the events of Jan. 6. Virtually all non-Orthodox Jews—who are 90% of U.S. Jews—supported Biden-Harris, and Jews consistently deliver around three-quarters of their votes to Democrats in presidential elections. By comparison, the votes of non-Jewish whites over the past few decades clock in at barely one-third for Team Blue.
Jewish Republicans, of course, do exist, and College of Charleston professor of Jewish Studies Joshua Shanes has examined in depth the shift toward Republicans and Trump among the Orthodox. The tiny number of Jews found at Trump’s failed coup are Orthodox. It’s not that the President Who Tried To Overturn An Election He Lost didn’t attempt to get more Jews to vote for him—he did, by insulting them. His “outreach” failed, as both pre- and post-election polls indicate.
As I wrote in 2019, if President Charlottesville “really cared about Jews, he’d resign and just go away.” Unfortunately, he stayed in office to the bitter end—and scuttled gracelessly away without attending his successor’s inauguration. If there were any Jewish Americans out there still on the fence, wondering which of the two major parties have the back of their community, the naked anti-Jewish hate we saw at the Camp Auschwitz Insurrection of 2021 should have answered that question. On Jan. 6, Robert Keith Packer, the Trumpist rioter wearing Nazi hate across his chest, symbolized what the Republican Party has to offer Jews. By contrast, Biden laid out his record and proposals on matters of importance to the Jewish community on his campaign website; Jews can hold him accountable if he doesn’t deliver.
Meanwhile, watching Ossoff and Warnock campaign together—triumph together—reminds us all of the power of what Blacks and Jews can achieve when they lock arms and work in concert toward making real the values of justice and equality that unite the two groups. “They campaigned together effectively as a ticket,” stated Michael Rosenzweig of Atlanta, who is an active participant in his state’s Democratic Party. “And they were very very open, very explicit about the importance of the fact that we had a Black pastor running alongside a young very proud American Jew.”
And it was important. Jews demonstrated that they are loyal Democrats long before Jan. 5, but Jon Ossoff’s victory, secured on that day, was an important expression of the allegiance of the Democratic Party and Democratic voters to Jews and our progressive values. The alliance remains as strong as ever as we move forward from the horrors of the last four years.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)
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