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The Capitol insurrection: A moment of reckoning for Jewish Republicans

Dan Coleman
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Published: 8 February 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

DAN COLEMAN: Although some are still in denial, pro-Republican Jews now face an unavoidable decision: call out the extremists in their party or be counted as one of them

FIVE MONTHS AGO, US Rabbi Alan Sherman appeared in a political ad draped in a prayer shawl and blowing a shofar “as a wake-up call to all Jews, to wake up and vote for Donald Trump.” (Forward, Feb 2, 2021) Last month, rioters stormed the US Capitol, displaying Nazi and Confederate symbols with some wearing “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts. Five people died, including a police officer; 140 officers were injured.

This was another wake-up call, particularly for Jews who have supported Trump and his Republican enablers over the years.

A review of comments from Jewish Republicans to the catastrophic final days of the Trump presidency reveal mixed reactions. Many have been silent, as if hoping the controversy will blow over. While the Republican Jewish Coalition did not sign onto Trump’s lies about a stolen election, they acknowledged the insurrection only in passing in a January 7 news release finally acknowledging the Biden victory.

Some appear to be in denial. Matthew Brodsky, who managed the primary campaign of a Republican would-be challenger to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, told the Forward, “I tend to compartmentalise… When it comes to the issue of the people raiding the Capitol, I don’t see that as a ‘me’ issue.”

Former Republican congressional candidate Brian Leib does not blame Trump for inciting the riot. To the contrary, “I really think that Trump is going to get a Nobel Peace Prize for the Abraham Accords,” Leib said, “and, should that happen, I really think people are going to take another look at him.”

Conservative Jewish writer Bethany Mandel opposed Trump in 2016, supported him in 2020, but now has regrets. She told the Times of Israel, “There’s a feeling among a lot of Republicans that ultimately they got a really good package with Trump, and they were willing to offset some terrible tweets, and I think that was a reasonable position to hold until a cop was killed at the Capitol.”
There’s a feeling among a lot of Republicans that they got a really good package with Trump, and they were willing to offset some terrible tweets - and that was a reasonable position to hold until a cop was killed at the Capitol - BETHANY MANDEL

The “good package” Mandel refers to would include Trump’s policies toward Israel in support the agenda of the Netanyahu government. Trump’s initiatives, such as moving the US embassy and the Abraham Accords were widely applauded among conservative Jews and, as she indicates, allowed for the rationalisation of many ills.

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But former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor may not share Mandel’s view of what is reasonable. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Cantor reminded his fellow Republicans that the problems in Washington “started long before [Trump] descended the escalator in Trump Tower more than five years ago,” referring to the 2015 event launching  Trump’s first campaign.

For years, the Republican Party has expanded its base among right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists, responding to violent, hateful rhetoric and lawbreaking with a wink and a nod. As a recent article in The Intercept, put it, “the Capitol attack was culmination of generations of far-right extremism.”

But all the hand wringing, rationalisation, and appropriate self-reflection beg the question of what has been known about Trump all along and our responsibility to call out the threat of rising anti-Semitism and fascism.

For Republican Jews, it was somehow acceptable for Trump to mock the disabled, threaten protestors at his rallies with violence, separate immigrant children from their parents, vilify Muslims, declare the press to be the enemy of the people, and call the nations of Africa “shithole countries.”

But what about when it gets more personal, when Trump found “good people on both sides” as fascists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”? How about his suggesting that George Soros was funding an invading caravan of Honduran refugees? Or his refusal to reject the support of KKK leader David Duke?

How about Trump’s failure to disavow the virulently anti-Semitic QAnon, telling NBC only “I hear they are very strong on paedophilia.” What about Trump telling the Proud Boys to “stand by” – a Proud Boys leader recently declared “We will confront the Zionist criminals who wish to destroy our civilisation.”

In his famous post-war confessional, German Lutheran pastor Martin Neimöller expressed his regret for his early support for the German Nazis and for not speaking out on behalf of their victims,

…then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

But what if you actually are a Jew, when is it your responsibility to speak out? With a few noteworthy exceptions, Republicans Jews went along with Trump to the bitter end. Many are with him still. Many went along with his lies, provided significant funding both to his campaign and to efforts to overturn the election, and were apologists for his policies and rhetoric.
Earning our way back starts with our own personal behaviour and then extends outward from there to believing a discernible set of principles and crafting policies around those principles - RABBI JONATHAN GREENBERG

Today, it is not clear whether the Republican Party is at a crossroads or if it has already crossed over. In many parts of the country, the extremists, who were once merely coddled, have taken over, as QAnon becomes increasingly mainstream within the party. Controversial QAnon adherent and anti-Semitic Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has been called “the new face of the Republican Party”

Eric Cantor, in asking “how did we end up here?”, concluded that the answer lies in an “unwillingness to speak truth to power”. This is Neimöller’s point as well, that hatred and fascism must be challenged. It is essential to speak out.

Over two centuries ago, Edmund Burke warned that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Surely, like Shakespeare’s Brutus, the Republican Jews are all “honourable ‘men’”. It is time, no, it is long past time, for them to step up and speak out.

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Among those who have done so is Rabbi Jonathan Greenberg, a former Midwest political director for AIPAC, who told the Jewish Telegraph Agency, “Earning our way back starts with our own personal behaviour and then extends outward from there to believing a discernible set of principles and crafting policies around those principles.”

The Republican Party may already be too far gone for Greenberg, who quit the party in 2016. “You know,” he said, “I’m not going to be forced into sitting in coalition with people who scare the hell out of me.” But that moment of decision appears to be upon him.

On February 3, the House Republican caucus convened to consider censuring Marjorie Taylor Greene for her views. As Greene stood up to speak, half of those present gave a standing ovation. It appears that the threat of extremists in the Republican Party is no longer a matter of speculation or of a few bad apples.

Jewish Republicans now face a decision of whether to call out the rising culture of violence, hatred, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy within their party.  As Martin Neimöller learned during an era of vast human tragedy, there are times when one must speak out.

US Senate okays keeping embassy in Jerusalem permanently, in vote of 97 to 3 (Times of Israel)
Only Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Carper oppose motion; Jerusalem council recently approved plans for additional embassy compound

Photo: Donald Trump's supporters stormed the US Capitol building on January 6 (Shannon staples/Reuters)

About the author

Dan Coleman

Dan Coleman is a former member of the Carrboro, North Carolina Town Council, and a former political columnist for the Durham (NC) Morning Herald. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building A Green Society. He lives in Melbourne.

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