It wasn’t March 31. Nor May 16. Not Sept. 29, either. Certainly not Nov. 9. But Jan. 6 had a horror all its own for Jews.
The first four – among many others – were dates that shall live in infamy, especially for Jews. Ferdinand and Isabella issued their order of expulsion aimed at practicing Jews on March 31, 1492. The Nazis put their bloody finishing touches on the suppression of the Jewish uprising in Warsaw on May 16, 1943. The massacre of Jews at Babi Yar began on Sept. 29, 1941. The German anti-Jewish rampages known as Kristallnacht occurred on Nov. 9, 1938.
Then, on Jan. 6, 2021, armed marauders conducted a siege at the Capitol to stop the counting of electoral ballots, prevent the ascendancy of Joe Biden to the White House, and maybe lynch Vice President Mike Pence. It was a moment of high drama and high danger, democracy itself in the balance. Insurrectionists stormed the symbol of American political culture, and in living rooms across a virus-sequestered country, sober, serious men and women cried – to borrow a phrase from Alan Paton and his 1948 novel based in South Africa – for their beloved country.
Ordinarily we don’t think of civic events in American history as being particularly Jewish moments, except perhaps when Louis Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916, or when the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in 1939 turned away the liner St. Louis with its 937 Jews fleeing certain death in Europe. Maybe when Harry Truman recognized Israel in 1948, or when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Ala., in 1965, or when Joseph I. Lieberman was nominated for vice president in 2000.
And yet in a special way – and by “special” I do not mean the word in its happy sense – Jan. 6, 2021 was an important marker for Jews.
Not for the obvious reason: The presence of 28 Jewish members of the House of Representatives and nine in the Senate – including soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – on Capitol Hill that day, all of whom scrambled to find safety as the security barriers were breached. The first two Jews in the Senate, David Levy Yulee of Florida and Judah Benjamin of Louisiana, actually were, in a way, insurrectionists themselves. They both resigned from Congress in 1861 when their states left the Union and joined the Confederacy.
The reasons Jan. 6 has resonance for Jews are manifold, and manifest:
Because Jews did not come to America for the kind of country these corsairs of democracy tried to build (where bullies resembling Cossacks possess the approbation of national leaders); nor for taking politics into the streets (which never has rebounded to the benefit of Jews); nor for replacing fact (the election of one man) with fiction (the notion the election was stolen from another); nor for violence in the political arena (the memories of that from Nazi Germany are fresh, still); nor especially for the creation of cults of personality (which have had the tendency to promote state-sponsored antisemitism).
The tragedy of Jan. 6 gave perspective to the Jewish experience in America. It underlined why this country was for generations a bright beacon to Jewish immigrants, and it emphasized why Jews consider the United States a safe haven. It did all those things by undermining all those things.
From the start, Jews flocked to the United States because of its openness – to new ideas, to immigrants, to diversity, to the rule of law, and above all its acceptance of Jews themselves, no matter how bedraggled, no matter how poor, or how oddly they looked, or how long they clung to Yiddish or to a special recipe for shlishkes.
Jews here faced antisemitism, to be sure. They heard lacerating epithets and were summarily barred from colleges and clubs, often not even the best ones. At times they felt marginalized, though even the margins of America often seemed more felicitous than the centers of the Old Country. At times they were demonized, or preoccupied with their own demons. But seldom did they feel alien, or alienated. Jews may have written “White Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Easter Parade” for people of other faiths, but I have always thought “This is My Country” (lyrics by Don Raye and music by Al Jacobs), was written for Jews, with this reprise line:
This is my country! Land of my birth!
This is my country! Grandest on earth!
It is true that on Jan. 6, one rioter wore a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt and that the crowd was filled with followers of QAnon, some of whom believe that “the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles,” which to their minds of course includes Jews. But there were no anti-Jewish signs at the East Front of the Capitol on Jan. 6, no anti-Jewish chants at the West Front. As the rioters sought to replace Joe Biden as president-elect there was no war cry of “Jews will not replace us,” the hate-laced slogan the Rebels’ spiritual cousins barked in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.
This is not to excuse or pardon the inexcusable and unpardonable. It is merely to say that even if an ugly episode is not freighted with anti-Semitism, it can be an affront to Jews, a hurt than cannot heal. For it is incontrovertible that many of the fundamental values of Jews were under siege during the Capitol siege:
Thoughtful discourse. Disciplined dissent. Reverence for the institutions of democracy. Respect for the wisdom of the people, peaceably expressed. Devotion to a sense of community. Appreciation of established rules. Commitment to honesty. And of course tikkun olam.
Now, as we mark the anniversary of that cursed afternoon, we – non-Jews and Jews like – are more in need of tikkun olam than perhaps at any time of our history since Reconstruction following the Civil War. We need to repair our world.
Historians have debated the causes and consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction for a century and a half. They may debate the causes and consequences of Jan. 6 for just as long, perhaps disagreeing about whether the rebellion was a dangerous insurrection or a coup attempt; perhaps arguing about whether Donald J. Trump instigated the rioting or merely took peculiar solace from it; perhaps seeing it either as the first step in dismantling democracy or simply a diversion in democracy’s great movement forward.
But no one will minimize it. Jan. 6 will not disappear into a colorful historical footnote, like another of one of America’s numberless populist upheavals such as the much-forgotten “Oleo Wars” of Iowa and Wisconsin in the 1880s and 1890s, when farmers fomented an uprising to prevent labels from suggesting oleomargerine was a dairy product. Jan. 6 will remain central in our memories, a wound on our conscience, a blot on our history – and the saddest Jewish moment of our time.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.