This past Friday, a small platoon of men in khaki pants, white dress shirts, and baseball caps lined up beside Glenn Youngkin’s campaign bus. Youngkin is the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, running against the Clinton confidant, former governor, and erstwhile Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, and Youngkin’s uniformed fans were chanting “we’re all in for Glenn.” They were also carrying tiki torches, seared in the collective consciousness as the modern neo-Nazi’s accessory of choice.
Immediately and in unison, the national guardians of our civil virtues started howling, reminding us all of the steely mantra of their class: Everyone who disagrees with me is racist. “To my fellow Virginia residents,” tweeted NBC’s legal analyst, Glenn Kirschner, “please vote against this blatant display of racism, hatred and intolerance. Please vote FOR a kind, welcoming, diverse Virginia. Please vote @TerryMcAuliffe for governor. Because #JusticeMatters.”
It was a perfect pearl of virtue signaling, down to the bombastic hash-tagged slogan. Too bad it had to be deleted shortly thereafter, when the white supremacist torch-bearers turned out to be—drumroll, please—members of the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project and, according to Vice, low-level Democratic operatives.
Not since Jussie Smollett has anyone attempted these vile political theatrics on such a grand scale. And you’d think that since the cosplay perpetrators this time involved not generic MAGA bros—in Smollett’s prank, for which he now stands trial, they hilariously turned out to be two brothers from Nigeria—but downright Hitlerites, American Jews would take notice. With a whopping 60% of all religiously motivated hate crimes in America now directed against Jews, who make up roughly 2.4% of the overall adult population, it isn’t just a stupid trick when people dress up as neo-Nazis to score cheap partisan points; it’s a dangerous one, too, blurring the line between real hate and fake news. The next time some crop-topped Aryan goes parading down the street, after all, how are we to know if he’s there to roast the nearest shul or merely score a photo-op on Twitter and embarrass some conservative politico?
This sort of messing with the reality principle is bad, bad news for Jews. You don’t need more than the Reader’s Digest version of our history to know that our survival—literally, not metaphorically—often depended on our ability to spot very real dangers and take action before the beast pounced at our doorsteps. Take away our ability to tell apart the SS from the Smolletts, and you are putting us in danger. Which is precisely what the low-level Democratic operatives did last week in their desperation to keep from losing a very tight race.
As did the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which on the same day as the tiki torch hoax proudly admitted on social media to partnering with the Lincoln Project. And then, in a Jussie-sized blunder, the JDCA published a tweet (since deleted) calling on Youngkin to denounce the tiki torchbearers dispatched by their own partners, or else risk being called a Jew-hater. “Unless you denounce this gross behavior,” read the tweet, “it’s an implicit endorsement of the antisemitism and hatred it represents.”
How did mainstream organized American Jewry respond to such revolting manipulations? When contacted by Tablet, Laura Frank, a spokeswoman for the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “There is simply no place for Nazi imagery or antisemitic symbols of any kind in American life. These symbols are hateful, hurtful, and harmful in all contexts. We would hope any candidate would distance themselves from this kind of imagery whether it was used this week or four years ago.” Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s chief policy and political affairs officer, concurred. “Campaigners against antisemitism and racism don’t need dirty tricks to make their point,” he said in a statement. “In fact, they discredit themselves—and undermine the cause of washing hate out of the political bloodstream.”
But among those you’d expect to be most engaged, there was silence. The Anti-Defamation League, which took great care to remind you to please refrain from cultural appropriation or perpetuating gender norms when selecting a Halloween costume, had nothing to say about this far more troubling instance of appropriation, and did not return Tablet’s request for comment. The same goes for the American Jewish Congress and the Conservative movement.
A self-respecting imperiled minority with healthy survival instincts and a solid sense of self would’ve demanded more, much more, of its self-professed leadership. It would’ve demanded that the soulless clowns who orchestrated this gag be held accountable, and that the story receive as much national prominence as that of a fading actor fabricating a late-night lynching in Chicago. It would’ve used whatever real political levers it had to make sure the candidates it supports come out strongly against such perilous partisan hackery. None of the above has happened. No matter who wins tonight in Virginia, the Jews have already lost.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.