Should American Jews be scared these days?
When a Tennessee school district can ban Maus, the seminal graphic novel of the Holocaust, the answer is yes.
When a governor – Ron DeSantis of Florida –outrightly refuses to condemn a Nazi rally in his state, the answer is yes.
And when a high-profile Jewish candidate for mayor in our own city is the target of an assassination attempt, the answer is yes. (Although the motive for the attack is still not clear.)
These are terrible times.
So, what’s to be done?
I hear this question often; I even ask it myself.
Every day, we’re bombarded with chilling news reports of myriad ways our country is skidding towards authoritarianism, but rarely do they include ways to fight back.
It’s frustrating. At least, for me.
The question popped into my head again on Jan. 29 when I saw Ossietzky: A Peace Play at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. Carl von Ossietzky, a journalist who won the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize while held prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp – he was not Jewish – used his newspaper to speak out against the horrors of the Third Reich, including antisemitism. It was only after the Reichstag burned in 1933 that he realized his cause was lost. By then, though, it was too late. He was arrested shortly after the fire and died in captivity in 1938, never having been allowed to travel to Stockholm to accept his prize.
Who wants to wait for the Capitol to burn? We have already seen it assaulted by a violent mob intent on a coup d’état. That was enough.
I decided to answer the question myself. How can we fight back?
• Don’t be silent; speak out. Use your voices, your clubs, your bimas, your social media (your newspaper columns). Shout it to the proverbial rafters; you see what is happening and you won’t stand for it. Form a loud and proud groundswell of resistance.
• Don’t let your friends, your relatives, (your plumbers, your waiters, your cashiers), anyone, parrot lies about stolen elections and peaceful Capitol demonstrators without challenging them. A lie only gets stronger when it goes unchallenged.
• Don’t support vendors who sponsor TV shows that spew hate rhetoric. Hatemongers have First Amendment rights, but that doesn’t mean we must subsidize their speech.
• Go to Frankfort. Go to Washington! Put your faces in front of your representatives, even those who disagree with you. Demand that voting rights be protected, that teachers be free to teach this country’s history without fear of backlash, that women’s reproductive rights be protected. If these leaders don’t listen to you, support candidates who will, even if they don’t seem to have a chance at the polls. (Upsets do happen.)
• Don’t stop with your elected officials. Lobby your civic leaders, your charitable groups, your community organizations. No entity should be silent.
• Jews must speak with one voice whenever possible – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and of no affiliation. This is not merely a question of religion; democracy is under assault.
But if we do all this and the country continues its slide into authoritarianism, much like Germany’s Weimar Republic did in the ’30s, what then?
Let’s look at history again. Some German Jews saw the signs in time to get out. Will we feel the need to flee? Will we know when the time is ripe?
I truly hope it never comes to that, but the warning signs are ominous. What’s more, a growing number of American Jews are, indeed, making contingency plans to get out.
JTA reported in a sobering 2020 story, just after Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacists during a presidential debate, that immigration attorneys in Canada were noticing a marked increase in interest by Jews in moving there. “In my life,” one lawyer said, “I have never seen what I’m seeing.”
Maybe it will happen; maybe American Jews will flee, just as some German Jews did, more than 80 years ago.
Maybe it’s baked in by now. Maybe the dye is cast.
But not without a fight. Make that your mantra.
Not without a fight.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)