When Joel Feingold, a housing-rights organizer and editor, was arrested for breaking curfew June 3 outside his Brooklyn home, he expected to be interviewed by cops, as he had been a part of the anti-police racism and brutality protests for most of that day. What he didn’t expect at the 78th Precinct was to be interviewed by a federal agent about his political beliefs.
The questions about the politics of the protest movement were chilling. Eventually, they told Feingold they just wanted him to help them find out who was "hijacking" the movement. Feingold said nothing. "It had a serious authoritarian feel," he told me in a phone interview. "Having a federal agent asking about the politics of the situation felt authoritarian. This is further evidence of the deepening authoritarianism and flirtation with fascism of this government."
Feingold isn’t alone. As activist attorneys have reported, local and federation agents have interrogated several arrested protesters about their political inclinations, including what their stance is towards anti-fascism.
The police interest in anti-fascism isn’t academic. It’s in lockstep with the narrative being pushed by the White House. As the protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd have raged, with as many as 11 protesters dead by police hands nationwide, President Donald Trump announced he would designate Antifa – short for anti-fascist – as a "domestic terrorist organization."
To start with, Trump’s statement about Antifa is absurd on multiple levels. It isn’t clear he has the legal authority to do so. And Antifa isn’t an organization, but a philosophy that guides anti-fascist street organizing. Who is its leader? What is its structure? Where is it based? How do you become a member? These questions have no answers because there are none. But no matter: it's certainly filler for Trump’s campaigning.
Trump’s public statement about Antifa should be terrifying, as any attempt to vilify anti-fascism by nature defends fascism a positive thing. But picking on anti-fascists as the scapegoat and hidden hand of the ongoing unrest is inherently anti-Semitic.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who serially expresses extreme anti-immigrant views and flirtations with white nationalism, blasted Trump for his inaction in response to the protests, blaming the White House’s weakness on Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the administration’s most prominent Jew. Trump’s most recent of many instances of overt anti-Semitism was his praise of the "good blood lines" of Nazi-admirer, eugenicist and infamous anti-Semite Henry Ford.
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Singling out "anti-fascism" as the prime villain in the ongoing anti-police protests is unsettling by itself, bearing in mind least 11 protesters have died during the protests, and the Trump far-right itself is linked to massacres like the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting. No one can link Antifa to the death of a single innocent person.
When the right vilifies Antifa, it should remind Jews of who actually protects them when racists are on the streets. According to several reports, during the infamous Charlottesville rally when white nationalists shouted "Jews will not replace us," local cops refused to protect a synagogue and several churches from potential violence. Activists who identified with Antifa, however, did.
For many liberal and centrist Jews, that Antifa is unquestionably an ideology that sits on the far left, together with images of anarchists in masks marching directly toward columns of riot police, triggers discomfort, if not skepticism. Prominent centrists try to play a "plague on both your houses approach," denouncing both white supremacist militias and Antifa in the same breath.
But, the vast majority of Jews oppose the kind of right-wing extremism that in previous generations has put them in death camps. It might not be taught sufficiently in American Hebrew schools, but fringe left anti-fascist movements have been a defense for Jews when traditional liberal governments have failed them.
As the National Lawyers Guild clarified in their denunciation of Trump’s statement: "The term Antifa originates in the 1930s when progressive activists organized to oppose far-right authoritarianism emerging throughout the world…It is not clear who or what the targets of a federal Antifa investigation would be, and whether such an effort would be lawful."
And right-wing talk of outlawing Antifa often use at as a catch-all for all left-wing politics. It’s an indication that the Trumpian right want to outlaw – or at least vilify – all politics on the left side of the center. Using such a broad brush when deciding who’s a terrorist should care any one: If Jews were every looking for a "first for they came for" moment, this is one.
Mark Bray, a Rutgers University historian and author of ANTIFA: An Anti-Fascist Handbook, has noted that for much of the far-right, the conspiracy theory about Antifa activists being paid by Soros rests on the racist notion that black people could never organize themselves without a puppet master behind them, and who else to pull those strings but International Jewry.
"There would be no anti-fascism without fascism, and the politics that anti-fascist groups developed realized that self-defense needs to be taken seriously because of the horror that have been fascism and Nazism," Bray told me in a phone interview.
"What much of Europe got wrong during the 20s and 30s was not taking fascism and Nazism seriously until it was too late. Even among Jewish communities was the idea that it wouldn’t get any worse, then the unimaginable happened. If we’re serious about ‘Never Again,’ that implies a constant vigilance, but it recognizes that self-defense needs to be one of the tools at our disposal."
Jews do not suffer the kind of intense economic discrimination and state violence that African-Americans do. But we are still within living memory of how fascism in power treated us.
When Trump moves on so quickly from condemning looting to vilifying anti-fascism and "leftist" protest, he is trying to do more than playing to his base’s worst instincts: he is trying to turn cause and effect upside down, to legitimize blaming the victim, to elevate doublespeak, to demonize activism and to confuse the moral compass of mainstream post-war politics that confronting fascism is a fundamental public good.
And this is happening as authoritarian is rising quickly: Trump wanted to use the Insurrection Act to militarily suppress the protests, and a New York court has essentially suspended the constitutional right of habeas corpus.
That’s why every Jew in America should oppose Trump’s attacks on anti-fascism.