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The Alt-Right and the Jews

How should Jews respond to the rise of the alt-right? A dive into the Tablet archives comes back with startling insights.

Liel Leibovitz
August 14, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

For the past year, Tablet has been covering the hateful movement known as the alt-right. In light of this weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, we are reposting a few of our most relevant pieces throughout the day. Having examined the intellectual origins of the alt-right and a few of its key players, we now turn to look at what all this means for the Jews:

A few days after Trump’s election, I wrote about my grandfather, Siegfried, who had fled Vienna shortly after Hitler’s rise. What lessons can we learn from this survivor? First and foremost this: “Treat every poisoned word as a promise. When a bigoted blusterer tells you he intends to force members of a religious minority to register with the authorities—much like those friends and family of Siegfried’s who stayed behind were forced to do before their horizon grew darker—believe him. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t lean on political intricacies or legislative minutia or historical precedents for comfort. Don’t write it off as propaganda, or explain it away as just an empty proclamation meant simply to pave the path to power. Take the haters at their word, and assume the worst is imminent.”

Most Jews, however, weren’t as fortunate: they stayed behind, and, as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote, were forced to become accomplices in their own murder: “At almost every step of the way, the Jews were forced into cooperating with the very plans drawn up to exterminate them. The Jews, the Germans thought, could provide the manpower the Nazis lacked only if they could be persuaded that if they went along with the program they would be put to productive work. Knowing that the Jews were simply trying to live, the Nazis would dangle the possibility of survival before Jewish eyes at every turn. Thus would the Jewish communities of Poland and Eastern Europe be forced into obeying Nazi orders to herd themselves into ghettos, administrate their cordoned-off ghetto communities, and board their families at the threat of rifle butts and bullets onto cattle-cars. The Nazis would bring these Jews to their deaths all by exploiting their most elemental desire for them, and especially their families, to live.”

Even in defeat, and even in America, Hitler’s spirit looms large. We American Jews, wrote Tablet’s editor, Alana Newhouse, “did not safeguard particularly Jewish thinking, and we did not—for some completely understandable reasons—demand that our fellow Jews stand guard over their inheritance and their communities, and strengthen their Jewish sense of self. Instead, many of us ran—into secularism, into America—having come to believe that no matter what we knew or did, we would always, essentially, be Jewish. We believed that because Hitler told us so.” Which leads to our current predicament: “From the very beginning,” Newhouse wrote, “there was a tacit agreement made between this country and its Jews: You, America, give us liberty and freedom from the extreme degradation and oppression we experienced everywhere else and, in turn, we Jews, will gift you with our … Jewishness. With Jewish thinking, and Jewish reflexes. With the ideas and impulses, honed over thousands of years, that could help a country create an unmatched economy, unparalleled creative industries and artistic and literary cultures, social and civic organizations, and more. America, at least so far, has kept its side of the bargain. But we have not.”

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.