U.S. Jewish Groups Alarmed by anti-Semitism, Nazi Symbols in Lockdown Protests

‘When economic times get bad, people everywhere tend to seek scapegoats, and Jews have always been a target of choice,’ warns head of one Jewish organization

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
A protestor with a sign that has Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer depicted as Hitler during an American Patriot Rally on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, April 30, 2020.
A protestor with a sign that has Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer depicted as Hitler during an American Patriot Rally on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, April 30, 2020.Credit: AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – American Jewish organizations are concerned by the use of Nazi, anti-Semitic and Holocaust-related symbols and messages in some of the anti-lockdown protests taking place across the United States in recent days.

Several protests against the measures taken by state governors to slow the spread of the coronavirus have featured swastikas, while right-wing activists and elected officials have compared the measures taken to the Holocaust.

Jewish Center for Public Affairs CEO David Bernstein wrote in response to the incidents that he was “really concerned” about this trend and “what it means to a potential growth in anti-Semitism.”

He warned that “when economic times get bad, people everywhere tend to seek scapegoats, and Jews have always been a target of choice. Americans are no exception. We need to be on the lookout for rising anti-Semitism.”

The protests against the lockdown measures have mostly been organized by local right-wing organizations – from local Republican politicians all the way to far-right groups with clear anti-Semitic messaging.

Bernstein wrote: “The biggest threat, it seems to me, is that as more people become economically disaffected, they’ll participate in the protest movement. In so doing, they’ll join forces with white nationalist groups with explicit anti-Semitic and racist agendas and fall under their influence.

“It’s critical,” he added, “that mainstream elected officials and civic leaders, especially those on the right, call out this hatred and urge others to stay away from the haters and their hateful messages.”

The Anti-Defamation League responded on Monday to one specific incident: a speech by the far-right activist Ammon Bundy, comparing the lockdown measures to the Holocaust and blaming Jews for being complicit in their fate. The organization said: “We are sickened by the comments made by extremists comparing the Holocaust to the current stay-at-home orders in Idaho. These comments are not only historically inaccurate, they also insult the memory of those who perished.”

William Daroff, CEO of the umbrella body The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also responded Monday to one specific incident: the use of Nazi imagery in demonstrations in Michigan. Daroff wrote on Twitter that he was “shocked and appalled by the use of Nazi imagery at protests against lockdown measures.“

The American Jewish Committee also commented on the protests in Michigan, calling the use of Nazi symbols “outrageous.” It accused the protesters who did so of “trivializing the Holocaust and the mass murder of millions of people.”

The protests in Lansing, the state’s capital, have included several documented incidents in which anti-Semitic and Nazi symbols were used.

Detroit Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, wrote in the Detroit Free Press: “It is sad that a serious discussion of how to keep Michiganders safe during this pandemic was perhaps irreparably harmed by a relatively small group of protesters using Nazi and other hateful imagery to criticize Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, social distancing and sheltering-in-place.”

People protest against excessive quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 15, 2020Credit: Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP

The demonstrations in Michigan also led to criticism of President Donald Trump, who endorsed the anti-lockdown protest movement and praised those participating in it. The Jewish Democratic Council of America subsequently released a strong statement criticizing Trump.

The organization’s executive director, Halie Soifer, compared his support for the anti-lockdown protests to his reply after the 2017 far-right violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he said there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who gathered in the city.

“What kind of depraved elected official calls a heavily armed militia classified as an antigovernment extremist group blocking a governor’s office ‘very good people’? The same one who called neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville ‘very fine people’ less than three years ago,” Soifer said.

Earlier this week, an official in the Trump administration warned that the coronavirus has unleashed a “tsunami” of anti-Semitism around the world, mostly online.

Elan Carr, the administration’s special envoy to combating anti-Semitism, spoke to journalists about the situation in other countries around the world, but did not directly address the incidents related to the anti-lockdown protests in the United States.

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