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The Capitol under attack

Orthodox Jewish Trump supporters decry violence but not the movement that fueled the mob

By Shira Hanau

(JTA) – Heshy Tischler, the pro-Trump provocateur of Orthodox Brooklyn, wasn’t at the U.S. capitol when a mob stormed it Wednesday – but not because he didn’t want to be.

Tischler was one of a throng of Orthodox Jews who traveled down to D.C. to join mass protests of the election results Wednesday, Jan. 6. He had left the city before the protest turned into an insurrection that drove members of Congress and the vice president into hiding, and in which a woman was killed. 

But that afternoon, unaware that his compatriots were now occupying the Senate chamber and its environs, he said that he, too, would like to take his complaint straight to the halls of Congress.

“We want to be there,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We just can’t get in.”

On his show Wednesday night, he condemned the violence, and said he would have handled the situation differently. “If I was actually in the front I wouldn’t have stormed, I would have walked in the doors,” he said.

Much of the Orthodox community had lined up behind Trump ahead of the election. Polls showed Orthodox voters supporting him by overwhelming margins. In the same week that mobs of young Orthodox men burned masks in the streets of Brooklyn in October, crowds of the young men carried Trump flags in their protests against lockdowns. 

And on Wednesday, some Orthodox Jews took their support for Trump to the next level, traveling to Washington to participate in the Trump rally that turned into a mob.

Security forces respond with tear gas after the US President Donald Trump’s supporters breached the US Capitol security in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Some of the Orthodox Jewish Trump supporters who attended even traveled to the rally on specially chartered buses from Orthodox Jewish communities, some of which were organized in special WhatsApp groups. One person who attended the rally said there were at least eight buses to Washington organized by Orthodox Jews.

Groups were formed for people from Monsey, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey, two areas with large Orthodox populations. Two buses were reportedly chartered from Brooklyn.

Orthodox Jews were present at the rally where President Trump spoke Wednesday, telling the crowd to “walk down to the Capitol” and that “you will never take back our country with weakness.” But many Orthodox Trump supporters condemned the violence that followed when protesters stormed the capitol.

For some Orthodox Jews, it appeared to be a moment of reckoning that made them reconsider their support for the president. But many claimed, without evidence, that the mob was the result of meddling by Antifa or of people who were not really “conservative” co-opting the movement. Others compared the mob to the Black Lives Matter protests last year. 

It was a shameful day, they said, but it did not make them regret their support for Donald Trump.

“Had John Roberts heard that case and legitimately heard that case and Trump would have lost, I probably wouldn’t have gone today,” Nachman Mostofsky said, referring to a petition to the Supreme Court to hear a case over alleged election fraud in the 2020 presidential election. The court rejected the petition. 

Mostofsky, who serves as executive director of Chovevei Zion, a politically conservative Orthodox Jewish advocacy organization, was in Washington for the opening of the new session of Congress and extended his stay to attend the protests. He said he left before the storming of the Capitol, and condemned the violence that took place there.

He was also one of a few Orthodox Jews who, speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, appeared to compare Wednesday’s events to the racial justice protests that spread across the country last year.

“No conservative will condone what happened today, the actual storming of the Capitol…it was unpatriotic,” he said. “But we heard for months during the summer when people don’t feel heard, this is what happens.”

Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew who represented the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park for decades in the New York State Assembly, said he was horrified by the violence and, although he himself questioned the results of the election back in November, called the president’s claims about election fraud “malarky.”

“Biden won by 7 million votes,” he said, noting that virtually all claims of voter fraud brought by the Trump campaign were found to be without evidence. “Every single case was almost, without exception, the courts ruled against Trump.”

While Hikind said there was no point in continuing to claim that Trump won the election, he defended the rights of Trump supporters to protest in support of the president. He said Wednesday’s events went far beyond that.

“What happened today was very different, the violation of laws, taking over the Capitol. I mean my god, the irony of this is that the Republicans are the ones who talk about law and order,” he said. “What a contradiction, what hypocrisy.”

But he also said it was hypocritical to speak out about violence at the Capitol after the racial justice protests turned, in some instances, violent. 

“As much as what we saw today was an absolute horror especially because it happened at the Capitol, but it was only a short while ago that you had violence all over this country,” Hikind said. “My party, the Democratic party, was not so vociferous and so outspoken in terms of that violence.”

Eli Steinberg, an Orthodox writer who lives in Lakewood, New Jersey and who voted for Trump, called the violence “an awful moment.”

“It’s sad and scary and I’m kind of grappling with what does it mean that we’ve gotten to this point, and what does it mean for what comes next,” Steinberg said.

But he also didn’t see the episode as reason to regret his support for Trump.

“It bothers me that this moment has to be seen that way,” he said. “Seventy-four million people voted for him. 74 million people were not involved in this moment and did not agree to this moment.”

Agudath Israel, an advocacy organization for haredi Orthodox Jews, did not issue a statement. The Orthodox Union, an organization representing Modern Orthodox synagogues, joined the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations, of which it is a member, in issuing a statement condemning the violence Wednesday. On Thursday, the Orthodox Union issued its own statement condemning the violence. “We call upon President Trump to do all that is in his power – and it is indeed in his power – to restore that peace,” the organization said.

The National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox synagogue association that has been outspokenly pro-Trump in the past, also “strongly condemned” Wednesday’s events, saying in a statement that “the violent protests and wanton attacks that we witnessed today are deplorable and a dangerous assault on the very foundation upon which this nation is built.”

The Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, which are generally more liberal than Orthodox organizations, both condemned the mob’s actions.  

On social media, some Orthodox leaders denounced the violence. Chaskel Bennett, a leader of Agudath Israel, called the violence “reprehensible and frightening.”

Others seemed to downplay it.

Yossi Gestetner, who runs the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Committee, told his followers to “relax” and called the rioters’ actions as entering “a building unauthorized.” 

“After 5 years of they and their leaders being violently attacked and also abused by the State via prosecutions, the same side can’t even enter a building unauthorized without being denounced by their own side,” he tweeted. 

He tweeted again later, seeming to question whether there were any alternative to violence as a remedy to a “stolen” election. ”What if 30 years down the road the POTUS elections are clearly stolen and nobody (Secs of States, Legislatures and the Courts) wants to stop it and/or they enable it. What’s the remedy? Is that a democratic remedy Who decides when those actions can be triggered?”

Michal Weinstein, a pro-Trump Instagram influencer who organized a pro-Trump rally in her Orthodox community on Long Island in October, declined to comment on the violence. “I don’t want to be part of something that’s going to paint Trump supporters as evil and bad,” she said.

But her co-organizer of the October rally, Gila Jedwab, went to Washington for the rally, posting a photo of herself in front of the Capitol to Facebook. “We took back our house today,” read the caption.

The WhatsApp groups created to organize travel and meetups for Orthodox Trump supporters at the rally were divided. Some members condemned the mob, but others thought the violence was worth it. After one person wondered what the rest of the world must be thinking, another responded: “You gotta fight for freedom.”

Some alleged that the violent protesters belonged to Antifa, a loose network of anti-fascist activists who sometimes dress in all black and engage in street fights with right-wing extremists. Trump and his supporters have sought to portray Antifa, often without much evidence, as a threat to public safety. 

One member sent a screenshot supposedly showing an announcement to Antifa members to show up for “election day” wearing Trump gear. One claimed in a voice message, “I bet you right now that people who started the rioting part was Antifa.”

Mostofsky said that even if he didn’t support the violence, the grievances that caused the protest – over what Republicans have baselessly claimed is widespread election fraud – couldn’t be ignored and wouldn’t go away.

“The country is being gaslit by the media and by the courts and by the Democratic Party and by some in the Republican Party,” he said. “What you saw today was frustration, I don’t condone it … but I understand where it came from.”

He added: “This is going to get worse, it’s not going to get better.”

 

Jewish groups respond to DC violence with ‘outrage,’ ‘disgust,’ criticizing Trump

By Ron Kampeas

(JTA) – AIPAC hardly ever pronounces on any issue that does not relate to Israel. It’s also loath to criticize a sitting president.

But the preeminent pro-Israel lobby did both on Wednesday after rioters supporting President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop the count of electoral votes that would formalize Joe Biden’s win.

“We share the anger of our fellow Americans over the attack at the Capitol and condemn the assault on our democratic values and process,” AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said in a statement posted to Twitter Wednesday evening. “This violence, and President Trump’s incitement of it, is outrageous and must end.”

The statement, crafted during an emergency meeting of the lobby’s executive committee, was among a host of extraordinary comments on American democracy by Jewish groups, many of which typically steer clear of partisan politics.

AIPAC was not the only mainstream Jewish organization to speak out on an extraordinary day that resulted in what once was unthinkable: police spiriting into safe havens hundreds of lawmakers while marauders roamed and looted the Capitol. Its statement, crafted during an emergency meeting of the lobby’s executive committee, also was far from the only one to criticize Trump explicitly.

Trump invited protesters to Washington, D.C., and earlier Wednesday urged them to march on the Capitol. As the situation grew tense, he simultaneously urged his supporters to disband and told them that he “loved them.”

The Anti-Defamation League also named Trump. “The violence at the US Capitol is the result of disinformation from our highest office,” it said in a tweet. “Extremists are among the rioters in DC supporting President Trump’s reckless rhetoric on America’s democratic institutions.” ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called on social media to suspend Trump’s accounts; a number of platforms eventually heeded those calls.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy bodies, also named Trump. “This was a direct assault on our democratic process, and nothing less than an attempt to disrupt the peaceful transition of power in a presidential election and an act of sedition,” it said in a statement. “We urge in the strongest possible terms that President Trump and others immediately cease incendiary rhetoric and restore order.”

A pro-Trump mob enters the U.S. Capitol as tear gas fills the corridor on January 6, 2021. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Two legacy groups were cautious and condemned the violence while not directly blaming Trump. The American Jewish Committee called on Trump “to call for an immediate end to the riots and respect the certification process currently underway,” without noting that Trump started the fire, as many others had – including some leading Republicans.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella foreign policy group for the Jewish community, did not name Trump at all, although its statement was forceful. “We are disgusted by the violence at the US Capitol and urge the rioters to disperse immediately,” it said in a statement. ”Law and order must be restored, and the peaceful transition of administrations must continue.”

The Orthodox Union weighed in at first by endorsing the Presidents’ Conference statement, but on Thursday morning issued a statement pointedly aimed at Trump and with a tone of relief at the prospect of Trump’s term ending and a new administration incoming.

“We are deeply saddened and shaken by yesterday’s violent events at the U.S. Capitol that have badly upset our sense of peace and security,” the statement said. “There is no place for the kind of outrageous incitement that fed that assault on the pillars of our democracy. It must stop. We call upon President Trump to do all that is in his power – and it is indeed in his power – to restore that peace.”

It concluded: “We pray to the Almighty that He grant strength and wisdom to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect [Kamala] Harris as they lead this great country forward in unity, peace, and security.”

Agudath Israel of America posted on Twitter a statement by its longtime Washington director, Rabbi Abba Cohen. 

“The U.S. Capitol is more than a majestic building,” Cohen said. “It is the true house of the people and the home of democracy. It is the hope of the nation. You feel it when entering its doors and walking its halls. Today, it was a place of shameful violence and tyranny. Stop or we are lost.”

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly called on Trump “to defend and uphold the constitution of the United States,” but did not blame him for what it called an “attack on democracy and its institutions.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center was less shy, saying, “The fact that today’s events were encouraged by the President of the United States who has refused to accept his electoral loss is equally terrifying and heartbreaking.”

Liberal groups like the RAC have throughout Trump’s presidency had an adversarial relationship with him, criticizing both his policies, including his anti-immigration policies, and his expressions of bigotry.

It was no different on Wednesday. “Earlier today, an armed seditious mob stormed the Capitol at President Trump’s behest, with the aim of preventing elected Members of Congress from certifying the presidential vote in the Electoral College,” said the Israel Policy Forum, a two-state advocacy group. (A staffer describes his experience during the tumult here.) “We unreservedly and wholly condemn this.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, said, “The president repeatedly incited far-right thugs to subvert our democracy, and now they’re trying to do just that.” 

“I’m heartbroken for our country,”  National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz said on Twitter. Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, alluded to Trump, saying that “The criminal behavior and events of this afternoon are abhorrent, as are attempts to disrupt democracy with incitement to violence. As Jews, we know the power of words and demand our elected leaders raise the level of discourse and lead with civility.”

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, a group known for its support for Trump’s Israel policies, said on Twitter that the marauding in the Capitol was “thoroughly unacceptable & intolerable” but went on to say, baselessly, that the FBI was investigating a claim that the marauders belonged to Antifa, a catchall term for leftist protesters.

The Republican Jewish Coalition’ on Thursday morning congratulated Biden on winning the election, and in its statement included a plea for a peaceful transition to power.

“After the abhorrent mob attack yesterday on our Capitol, our elected officials went back to work, fulfilled their duty under our Constitution, and certified the results of the 2020 election,” the RJC said. “Now is the time for the same peaceful transition of power that the U.S. has carried out for over 220 years,” the RJC said. The statement made no mention of Trump. 

The Jewish Democratic Council of America was scathing, calling for Trump’s removal from power. “President Trump has abused his power, endangered American lives, and undermined our democratic institutions,” it said.

“Today, he intentionally jeopardized security at the Capitol to further his depraved autocratic agenda, risking the lives of the Vice President and Republican and Democratic lawmakers,” the JDCA said. “Donald Trump was impeached by Congress for abuse of power one year ago, and today he should be immediately removed from office for sedition, insurrection, and abuse of power.”

 

“This is our worst fears realized”

Extremism watchdogs, after months of warnings, watch the violence in DC

By Ben Sales

(JTA) – They warned us. And warned us. And warned us.

Extremism watchdogs said there could be violence in the streets. They said minority communities – Jews among them – could be put at risk. They said that the incessant, false claims of a rigged election, of a fraudulent vote, of a conspiracy to bring down the president, could all lead to violence on or after Election Day.

All year, and especially after President Donald Trump said he would not accept the election results in November, people who monitor the far right in America warned about where America could be headed. Officials and analysts worried openly about attacks on police or threats to synagogues or polling places in Black neighborhoods.

One dire document, produced by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, predicted, among its more extreme scenarios, that conspiracy theorists may “threaten and target federally elected representatives [and] government institutions.”

That language came to life on Wednesday when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Congress, in the middle of a hearing about the election results, escaped into hiding. Extremists, carrying the symbols of their hate, sat at the dais in the Senate chamber and peered into government computers, abandoned by staffers who fled in haste. The vice president was rushed to a secure location while the president said “we love you” to the people who forced him to flee.

And someone – so far unnamed – was shot and killed in the middle of a crowd that was forcibly occupied the halls of government.

“Yeah, this is it,” said Heidi Beirich, who’s been monitoring extremists for 20 years, when asked if Wednesday’s chaos is what she worried about before the election. “This is our worst fears realized.”

Riot police push back a crowd of Trump supporters after they stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC on Jan. 6, 2021. (Roberto Schmidt AFP via Getty Images)

“Everyone in my world has been warning of this exact thing,” she added.

Watching their predictions come true on TV, people in the anti-extremism world on Wednesday all said they got no pleasure from saying “I told you so.”

“This seems to be a logical conclusion to so much of what we have seen throughout the year, whether it’s reopen protests and efforts to delegitimize state governments, whether it’s conspiracy theories,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “These things have consequences. People pay attention, and they animate those who could care less about their democracy.”

The chaos at the Capitol resembled what happened when white supremacists marched on  Charlottesville, Virginia three years ago. That  event inspired Joe Biden to run for president, because he didn’t want to live in an America that tolerated “the same antisemitic bile heard across Europe in the ‘30s.” Both were rallies with a lot of extremist groups that included violence. Someone was killed then, too. Back then, Trump called the extremists “very fine people.” Today, in a video also urging the mob to disperse and “go home,” he told them, “We love you.”

But the analysts said they should not be equated. After all, said Michael Masters, the CEO of the Secure Community Network, a Jewish security agency, “why the protest is occurring is different.” In other words: Neo-Nazis marching with swastikas and chanting “Jews will not replace us” is somewhat different than pro-Trump extremists (including neo-Nazis) storming the Capitol and fighting with police officers. They’re both really bad, according to these watchdogs, but they’re each bad in their own way.

What unites them, Segal said, is what unites all extremists: a sense of grievance. They feel that something has been taken away from them, and they want to fight the people who took it. In Charlottesville, the neo-Nazis wanted to fight the Jews for taking away their imagined white societies. On Wednesday, the mob wanted to fight the government for “stealing” Trump’s (imaginary) victory.

And unlike Charlottesville, the violence at the Capitol wasn’t really about the Jews – though Orsini said Jews might be more attuned to it than other people. “This resonates more so because we’ve seen this uptick, this rhetoric of antisemitism. We’ve seen violent attacks,” he said.

The difference now is that Wednesday’s mob affected everyone in the country.

“What folks are seeing today, it’s not just a problem for Jews, it’s an American problem,” Segal said.

Extremism researchers aren’t sure what comes next. They want order to return to the Capitol, and they want the new administration to do what this one has not – to urge calm, to call out hate unequivocally.

But mostly, they want people to listen.

“I hoped I’d be out of a job years ago,” said Beirich, who co-founded the Global Project against Hate and Extremism only at the beginning of 2020, after a long career studying hate. “I didn’t want this to keep metastasizing and growing.”

Main Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

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