Overlooking Antisemitism: The Capitol Riots and Nazi Symbolism
Updated: Jan 19
By: Victoria Dozer
For most American Jews, hearing a phrase like “the United States has an anti-semitism problem” is no shock. In just the last few years, the US has experienced massive spikes in synagogue and cemetery desecration, hate speech, and neo-Nazi organization. In just the last year, US universities and colleges have experienced surges in antisemitism, including the vandalization of college Chabad centers in Delaware and declaration of anti-Jewish sentiments by California professors. Even the emergence of Covid-19 seems to have stirred antisemites, providing a scapegoat for the contagion’s spread. The most recent of such blatant antisemitic displays: the riots in the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6.
In an attempt to prevent the confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral votes, supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol, forcing Congress to evacuate their chambers. Rioters waved Blue Lives Matter and Trump flags and refused to wear masks as they pushed their way through not-so-determined security. But, more notably, many in the mob also donned Nazi symbolism.
Antisemitism at the Capitol
One man, photographed in Portland, Oregon at a conservative protest during the riots, waved a KeK flag. The symbol on the flag mimics that of a Nazi war flag and is supposed to represent the fictional country of “Kekistan”. The country was fabricated by a white nationalist group that believes in the deity KeK, which is essentially a cartoon frog illustrated in the likeness of Donald Trump. The religion surround KeK is seemingly semi-ironic, a joke on liberals, but also a symbol for the chaos and self-prescribed intellect of the alt-right. The complexities of KeK are supposedly lost on "normies", allowing the group to feel superiority over their political foes. The deity and his "meme magic" are credited with Trump's political success and there are even prayers recited in allegiance. For most, the KeK flag is a disgusting replica of Nazi symbolism and a totem of ignorance, but the religion's alt-right members think it is a clever disguise for their hate.
In reports from inside the Capitol by ITV News, a man was filmed wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. The writing on the front read “work brings freedom”, the English translation of the German phrase “arbeit macht frei”. The German slogan was formed in metal above the gates of Auschwitz and is a notorious symbol of Nazism, not to mention a tremendously traumatic utterance for Jewish people.
The Anti-Defamation League took to Twitter during the Capitol violence to expose yet another antisemitic rioter. While an Israeli reporter spoke in Hebrew to his cameraman, a conservative man harassed the both of them, yelling over the journalist and pushing his way in front of the camera. The man accused the reporter of being a liar and grossly misused the term “goy”, as well as called the reporter “cattle”. The language is vile and aggressive.
Even conservative representatives joined in. Congresswoman Mary Miller of Illinois gave a speech at the US Capitol for the conservative group “Moms for America” containing the phrase “Hitler was right about one thing”. The Republican representative has since issued a statement apologizing for her remarks, but the conservatives in attendance did not seem to have any qualms about them.
There were also allegations of rioters wearing "6MWE" shirts, a slogan for "6 Million Wasn't Enough" in reference to the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. While Proud Boys and other white supremacists have been documented wearing the shirts, there was never confirmation of their presence at the Capitol. With this antisemitic symbol, politicians were quick to condemn. However, it is hard to misinterpret or ignore such a violent message.
Still, there were many more known neo-Nazi individuals and antisemitic organizations present at the Capitol riots on January 6. A member of a group pushing towards the Capitol appeared to do the Nazi salute, as caught on video by The Washington Post. Joining in the mob, prominent neo-Nazi Tim Gionet livestreamed from within the Capitol and many members of QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy group, were proudly present. The members of QAnon follow the conspiracies “exposed” by the anonymous “Q”, who posts racist, white nationalist, and antisemitic content such as this image of a Jewish man with a knife, first reported by Insider. Many other right-wing organizations seen at the Capitol follow similar trends in rhetoric.
Why Aren’t We Talking About It?
Well, we are. Or, at least, Jewish people are.
Sure, there has been some media coverage concerning the “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt and the presence of QAnon in the Capitol. For most, there is no denying that these occurrences were scary. However, the discussion of antisemitism and Nazi symbolism during the riots is largely absent from non-Jewish spaces. Much of recent media attention seems to focus on the violence and political divides, excluding Jews from the narrative altogether.
There seems to be a few reasons why.
Jewish people in the United States often benefit from white privilege. Though there are a multitude of Jews of Color around the world with equally valid identities and Jewish heritage, the average American Jew is ethnically Jewish and racially white. This whiteness is a large part of the Judaic public persona. White Jews experience a social duality: they suffer from harsh discrimination, enduring generational PTSD from years of persecution and genocide, but also retain white privilege and can aid the oppressive systems that perpetuate racism. This makes many liberals and leftists hesitant to label Jews as an oppressed group.
Still, all Jews are part of a complex ethno-religious group that is hard to define and therefore hard to defend. Even when Jews are acknowledged as a minority group, some find it hard to fit them into the conversation. It is especially disagreeable when we feel that speaking on Jewish issues is taking away from conversations about systemic racism, most prominently racism against the black community. In an attempt to bring important issues to the forefront of discussion, Jews are often pushed aside. Some even refuse to acknowledge antisemitism altogether. But, when addressing many systemic issues - such as the prevalence of both vehement racism and antisemitism in white supremacist groups at the Capitol - antisemitism can be addressed without diminishing the urgency and importance of other issues. No other issue is devalued when antisemitism is confronted, but excluding Jews from conversations of neo-Nazism would be a grave injustice.
Non-Jews Hold Misconceptions About Antisemitism
A large percentage of non-Jewish Americans do not believe antisemitism is a problem. Whether they strongly believe it does not exist or simply do not experience it, antisemitism is not a prevalent issue for the general public. In research conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in October of 2020, it was found that 88% of American Jews believe antisemitism is a serious and relevant issue, while only 63% of non-Jews held the same sentiment. Despite the public’s inattention, 37% of Jewish Americans had made efforts to conceal their Jewishness and 37% said they had been “victims of antisemitism over the past five years”.
On the other end of the spectrum, many alt-right Americans believe in “Jewish Privilege”, the misconception that Jews are economically and socially advantaged only because they are Jewish. However, the concept is largely rooted in antisemitic sentiments. Still, it is indicative of the general public’s perception of American antisemitism.
Jews are Unpopular on the World Stage
The stereotype of the "power-hungry Jew" has been around for ages. And, some of the human rights violations committed by the government of Israel do not help with this narrative. Of course, the liberation and self-determination of Palestinians is of great importance. However, because of Israel’s standing on the world stage, these issues come with additional implications for Jews. Voicing any connection to historical Judea or need for safe land is often equated with colonization of Palestinian territory. Jewish self-determination, in coexistence with that of Palestinian peoples, is harder to grasp without an understanding of never-ending Jewish persecution. So, it is very easy to cast the blame for Israel’s misdoings on all Jewish people, rather than hold the Israeli government accountable for such atrocities and acknowledge the troubled history of occupied land. This narrative portrays Jews as powerful oppressors, rather than a persecuted minority. But, for many Jews in America, confrontation with Nazi symbolism and antisemitic attacks are a daily reality that they have no power to stop.
We Have Redefined Nazism in the US
Particularly over the past presidency, Americans have become blinded to what Nazism really is. We have forgotten our Holocaust education and conversationally redefined the word altogether. When we discuss Trump’s fascist leaning and the actions of white supremacist groups, we call them Nazis and thus redefine the title. But, it must be noted that Trump’s now-suspended Twitter feed is not the only dictionary for Nazism. And realistically, Nazism is not nearly so casual. Violent antisemitism is a staple of Nazi and white nationalist ideology. There is a deep-rooted hatred for Jews within white supremacists, just as there is a deep-rooted hatred for numerous other minority groups. When we forget this component of white supremacy, we forget the dangers facing Jews as well.
Why Should We Be Talking About Antisemitism?
Like that of any other minority group, the targeting of Jews is dangerous. Jewish people are real people and they face the effects of Nazism every day. Whether simply seeing Nazi symbolism on TV or being confronted with personal synagogue vandalisms and bomb threats, antisemitism fosters very tangible fear and danger for the Jewish community. And, as history has taught us, when antisemitism goes unaddressed and allowed, Jewish lives pay the price.
As Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out in a recent statement about the riots, allowing such hatred is a slippery slope. Schwarzenegger grew up in Austria amid World War II and has some firsthand knowledge of the dangers of fascism. The former California Governor compared the Capitol riots to Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, in 1938 when Nazis destroyed Jewish homes and businesses throughout Germany and Austria. While potentially a dramatic comparison, any such similarities are worrying.
It is apparent that addressing antisemitism is crucial in combating neo-Nazism. If we do not fully acknowledge the different aspects of Nazism and American fascism, we cannot properly take action against it. We need to call it what it is and hold modern Nazis accountable for all their bigotry. If antisemitism is not actively discussed as an identifying trait of American Nazism, we allow neo-Nazis to get away with the continued spread of hatred.