Are lockdown protests signaling a resurgence of anti-Semitism?

Those who misuse Holocaust imagery are profoundly inappropriate; still, the rush to label all the protesters as neo-Nazis is wrong.

Protesters in Michigan against current lockdown measures put in place by the governor's office to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Source: YouTube.
Protesters in Michigan against current lockdown measures put in place by the governor's office to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Source: YouTube.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As if American Jews didn’t have enough to worry about.

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic shutdown that is threatening our elderly, as well as the ability of our institutions to survive, according to many in the media, there’s a new mass movement of neo-Nazis threatening our security.

That’s the way the disturbing images of Nazi slogans and swastikas from the lockdown protests that have swept across the Midwest and other parts of the country are being portrayed in much of the mainstream media. Articles about the demonstrations by people who believe that it is time for state governors and other officials to end the stay-in-place lockdowns have led with pictures of people carrying indefensible signs that say “Heil Whitmer” or “Heil Pritzker”—referencing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker—or arbeit macht frei—the words that hang above the gate to Auschwitz and that have disturbed generations with the meaning of “work sets you free.”

Those images, as well as some with Confederate flags, have become the reference points for the protests, and some in the Jewish community have reacted accordingly. The Nazi analogies have not only been rebuked; all those who took part in these demonstrations have been labeled as Nazis.

Some, like the Michigan Jewish Democratic Caucus, declared that the protests were evidence of conspiracy-mongering of the far-right and blamed President Donald Trump for encouraging anti-Semitism. And when Trump, who has given the protesters some support, noted that many of them were “fine people,” it didn’t take long for his critics to link this to the 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va. Trump has never lived down his foolish conflation of those who simply opposed the removal of Confederate statues, whom he also called “very fine people,” with the Nazis.

But as fraught with emotion as these subjects may be, the argument for labeling anyone who took to the streets to protest the lockdowns as a neo-Nazi doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

It’s possible to argue that any protest against the lockdowns is wrongheaded. The notion that the shutdowns intended to halt the contagion were unnecessary is illogical. Though the suspension of civil liberties is troubling under any circumstance, the need to save lives has been paramount. In emergencies, as in wartime, extraordinary measures are needed to be put in place.

However, it is not out of bounds to note that if the initial stated purpose of the lockdowns was to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic and ensure that health-care facilities were not overwhelmed by the sick, then that goal has now either been reached or will be soon. Those who have moved the goalposts on the lockdown, like Whitmer and Pritzker, and seem to be calling for more indefinite closures must now reckon with the costs these measures are inflicting not merely on the economic well-being of the nation, but also on its physical and mental health. We are now approaching the moment when it is fair to at least ask whether they are beginning to do more harm than good. Simply accusing the demonstrators, even if some of them have not used proper social distancing, of wanting to kill the elderly is no longer persuasive.

There is no excuse for the Nazi analogies and imagery. Some of Whitmer’s lockdown rules may seem arbitrary or unnecessary, such as her ban of the sale of home-gardening products. But she is no Nazi. Neither is Pritzker, with the added factor that using that epithet against someone who is Jewish, as he is, is appalling.

Even if the promiscuous use of Nazi imagery is deeply wrong, it doesn’t necessarily follow that those holding the signs are Nazis. To the contrary, they are accusing those who ordered the lockdowns of being fascists.

In understanding this point, those who are sounding the alarm about the protests being proof of a resurgence of anti-Semitism should remember that the lockdown demonstrators aren’t the only ones who throw around inappropriate Nazi analogies.

During the protests against the Iraq war, signs were seen accusing President George W. Bush of being a Nazi. The same is true for the Women’s March protests against Trump. Of course, not all anti-Bush or anti-Trump protesters used such language; only a minority has done so.

The same can be said of the anti-lockdown protests.

As Rich Lowry reported in National Review, it’s an incontrovertible fact that only a tiny minority of the many thousands who have participated in these protests carried inappropriate signs or Confederate flags. Even fewer were actual far right-wing extremists. The allegation that they are all radical extremists is both unfounded and unfair. That the pictures accompanying most articles about the protests invariably were illustrated with a Nazi sign picture is a media smear campaign aimed at delegitimizing their movement.

Who, then, are these people? For the most part, they are just working-class Americans being ruined by the lockdowns. The concerns and fears of small-business owners and service personnel may not resonate with the educated classes who, for the most part, have jobs that can be done remotely. It shouldn’t be that hard to try to understand people who just want to be allowed to go back to work to support their families. But that kind of compassion seems beyond the capacity of many in the chattering classes and others who see people who were also members of the Tea Party or Trump voters as beneath contempt.

Those who thought it an act of patriotism to take to the streets to protest Bush’s war or to demonstrate against Trump ought not to be treating those who are demonstrating now as beyond the pale. Indeed, the accusation that they are being funded by shadowy right-wing sources, which was floated last week in The New York Times, is no more legitimate than the attempt to put down all left-wing protesters as pawns of billionaire mega-donor George Soros, an argument that the left considers anti-Semitic.

They may be wrong about the lockdowns, and those who are making inappropriate Nazi analogies deserve to be condemned. But there are enough real anti-Semites out there, both on the right and the left, to worry about. Unfairly accusing all lockdown protesters of being neo-Nazis is not only wrong, it undermines the struggle against real anti-Semites.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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