As we mark the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, some in our country question the health of our democracy. Can we be sure that people will accept the results of the 2022 midterm elections? Will we see more political violence? A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland revealed that about one-third of Americans agree with the statement “violence against the government can at times be justified.”
Clearly some dangerous lines have been crossed, and our institutions have responded weakly. The health of American democracy seems threatened.
My mother’s German cousins remembered listening to the radio as the new Chancellor greeted the nation. They thought, “Germany is a refined and sophisticated nation; how many weeks will that buffoon last in power?”
My mother’s German cousins got out of Germany in time, or I never would have heard them reminisce about that night.
Should we be concerned that the same thing could happen here, in America?
I sent that question to an assortment of historians, political thinkers, activists and rabbis. Here are the responses I received, edited for brevity and sorted from most reassuring to most unsettling.
Dov Zakheim has held many posts in a distinguished career as military, political and economic adviser, among them Undersecretary of Defense in the second Bush Administration. He is also an Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively on the political challenges faced by biblical figures. His response:
“You ask a troubling question, but I think upon consideration you will see that the situation is nowhere near as dire as some may think.
“To begin with, it makes little sense to compare the U.S. and Germany. Germany had a legacy of virulent antisemitism reaching back to the First Crusades.
“On the other hand, the United States was founded as a democracy where Jews, at least officially, had a rightful place — witness Washington’s letter to the Jewish community of Newport.
“Surely there is antisemitism. It will never go away. But does the government — at any level — support it? Clearly not.
“I happen to believe that God blessed this country like no other. You may not share that belief.
“But American democracy is not in danger — mildly threatened, perhaps, but not more than in the past.
“Nor are Jews in danger.”
Yitz Greenberg, rabbi, author, activist, theologian and historian, currently senior scholar in residence at the nondenominational Yeshivat Hadar, responded: “The United States is not so fragile a democracy as to be drawing the 1930s German analogies at this time. If, God forbid, the democracy collapsed (highly unlikely), there is Israel now, with instant access for any Jew in the world who is threatened (unlike the 1930s).
“It is not time to panic.”
Howard Lupovitch, associate professor of history at Wayne State University and head of the Cohn/Haddow Center for Judaic Studies, wrote: “In my mind, there are two red lines. The first is between violent versus non-violent manifestations of antisemitism — not so much the frequency or intensity but whether we are still protected by law enforcement and government. In other words … when is it no longer possible for us to call on or rely on the police for protection?
“The second is the point where what has hitherto been largely polemical antisemitism becomes more systemic, as in anti-Jewish laws, which we have not seen since the Johnson-Reed Act nearly a century ago.
“I do not in any way dimmish the surge of antisemitism especially during the last five or six years — symptomatic more than anything else of a former president who, for personal gain, advocated violence and peddled hate, outrage and fear; and was aided by the false urgency of the 24-hour news cycle and social media.
“All of the concerns about those undermining democracy by gaming the system notwithstanding, democracy prevailed in the last two elections. Things may look different after November 2024 or January 2025, but, for now, the guard rails are still there.
“In short, I am — and we must be — ever vigilant, but it not (yet) time to panic.”
Marc Kruman, professor of history at Wayne State University and founder/director of the Center for the Study of Citizenship, writes, “I agree that our democracy is in danger. For those of us who are deeply committed to democracy, this is a deeply concerning moment.
“Black and Brown people are more likely to take the hit first in this country. You can see that in the tendency to minimize the power of Black people through redistricting. I don’t see that as crystalizing in a focus on Jews yet.
“Talk about a fraudulent election, endlessly repeated even before the 2020 election, has weakened democracy. Sixty percent of Republicans, according to polls, do not believe that Biden was elected in 2020. That shows the power of a lie, delivered by a trusted source and repeated endlessly by a segment of the news media.
“Should we see the expansion of antisemitism after the elections of 2022 and 2024 (an official celebration of an act of antisemitic violence?), then it may be time to make an assessment. I would first want to see if the country’s democratic institutions hold.”
Charles Silow holds a Ph.D. in psychology, founded the Program for Holocaust Survivors and Families at Jewish Senior Life and serves as its director. He writes: “Are we approaching a 1930s model of Germany now? Some survivors that I know believe we are. They see the handwriting on the wall; they see the rise of the radical right taking over as being similar to the rise of Nazism. Many of the second generation want to make sure that their family’s passports are up to date, just in case. The Jews in Europe were, for the most part, trapped.
“It’s complicated: Many love the former president and think nothing of a risk. Or they see the risk coming from the Left. They see America as becoming a lawless, Socialist country. They are on guard.
“If we see more and more violence and the unraveling of our democratic institutions and a civil war-type scenario, we will see increasing movement of people thinking of leaving.”
Guy Stern is a decorated member of the secret Ritchie Boys World War II military intelligence interrogation team. His recent memoir is titled Invisible Ink, and his response focused on the options people have. “Obviously, the individual circumstances of the would-be emigrant are one of the additional factors. Has he/she been able to decide on the country of refuge and is bound by the restrictions laid down by that nation?
“I would like to add an anecdote, describing the difficulty. An elderly Jew is ready to emigrate and goes to a travel agency to book passage. He points to a country on a globe of the agent’s desk. The agent tells the old Jew: ‘No, that country does not accept emigrants.’ The Jew points to one after another country, but always gets a similar answer. Finally, he turns to the agent and says: ‘Could you please show me a different globe?’
“Of course, one has to distinguish between the past and now. In hindsight, it is easy to judge and say that most Jews waited too long to get out of Nazi Germany. And this is human nature — to wait and see and think, ‘This can’t happen here.’ It can happen everywhere at all times, as we can see.”
Corinne Stavish, professor at Lawrence Technological University and director of Technical and Professional Communication, writes: “My worry for this country’s future is not for my family; it’s for the country to which all four of my grandparents fled and kissed the ground upon arrival. I yearn for ‘The New Colossus,’ but it’s gone.
“We have lackluster legislative leadership, corrupt corporations, eroding education and mawkish media. It is time to go because we who have the history of affecting change realize that what we thought had changed didn’t. It is ‘the unkindest cut of all.’”
Louis Finkelman is a professor at Lawrence Tech and a rabbi at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park.
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