I first learned of the Holocaust as a young girl, when my father told me that his beloved grandmother and other family members were murdered at Auschwitz.
For years, like just about everyone else, I tried to understand how this could have happened. How did an entire country of seemingly cultured, intelligent, educated people become complicit? How did they come to willingly embrace their deranged dictator and do whatever he told them, to the point of mass murder? Yes, I studied and read and saw the dehumanizing cartoons and the propaganda. I visited Jewish museum after museum, trying to understand. Every article, book, and exhibit talked about the “big lie,” the lie that becomes the truth if it is repeated often enough, but I could never quite process it. I just came to the conclusion that this must have been a unique defect in that particular country and in those particular people.
Unfortunately, now I understand.
A few days ago, I was forwarded an email and asked to forward it on to as many people as I could. The email called on me and all Americans to boycott watching the Biden-Harris inauguration on TV, iPhones, computers, and social media.
Why? “As a protest to the fraudulent and corrupt election of November 2020 and to show the news media our contempt for the way they slandered and defamed the outgoing Trump administration,” it says. It offers no proof, no evidence, just this delusional fact-free pronouncement. This, unbelievably, is circulating in our modern Orthodox community.
It took my breath away. It took me a while to recover. But after the anger and the shock passed, it was as if a window had opened and a light bulb had switched on. I had an epiphany. This is how it happened.
The “big lie” did its work right here in our own country, right here in our own community. We have a president who has lied and lied and lied. Throughout his term, more than 20,000 of his lies have been documented. In the face of these lies, his party remained silent, and right-wing demagogues in the media embraced him, endorsing and spreading his lies. The lies got bigger and bigger. And why not? There never was any accountability. His supporters remained loyal. Public officials who didn’t like it either were fired from his administration or retired from Congress at the end of their terms. Everyone who chose to remain kept silent, afraid of a tweet that would end their careers.
Silence became complicity.
Then came the election.
The absolute truth is that Joe Biden resoundingly won the presidency, both the popular vote and the Electoral College, and that it was a free and fair election. There has not been an iota of evidence to support a claim of election fraud (unless you count Trump’s own thuggish recorded effort to subvert the triple recounted and audited Biden victory in Georgia). But, as expected, immediately came the “big lie”: That the election was rigged. That it was a fraud.
In Trump’s world, true facts aren’t facts. There are “alternative facts” and the demand “don’t believe what you see and hear, just believe what I tell you.” Absolute truth lost all meaning. Trump claimed that he had won a landslide victory.
The most astonishing thing about the email that I received was that it was sent after the events of January 6, when we all saw and heard the president of the United States send his violent army of Nazis, white supremacists, deranged lunatics, and hoodlums to break into the Capitol to stop the ceremonial count of the electoral ballots that would certify Biden’s election. Like the true autocrat he is, he incited this insurrection to keep himself in power, to use any and all means to stop Joe Biden from becoming president.
To my astonishment, even after witnessing all of this, there are those in the modern Orthodox community who simply cannot see the truth, who wholeheartedly buy into the “big lie.”
As I write this, a few days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Capitol necessarily has been made into a fortress. There are 25,000 National Guard troops in Washington to ensure, ironically, a peaceful transfer of power. State capitals around the country also have been fortified against violent mobs.
This is the final piece of Trump’s legacy. And members of our own modern Orthodox community exhort us to support it.
What should our community do going forward?
I would suggest that we undertake a reevaluation and revision of our Holocaust studies programs for both adults and children. These programs should make us alert, aware, and sensitive to the signs of impending authoritarianism. With Trump, it’s perhaps a bit complicated because of the perception that he was good for Israel. But how that plays out in the long run remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, our Jewish values teach us to believe in the truth, to reject hate speech and cruelty, and to denounce wickedness wherever we find it. No good can come from lies, especially the lies of an authoritarian demagogue.
We and our children need to be taught that it’s not just other countries and other people who can succumb to an evil dictator and do evil things. Our community is far more vulnerable than I ever thought it was. It’s not, as I had thought, a unique defect in another people. It is human nature. It can happen right here and to our own community.
Learn from the past. Be vigilant in the present. Beware in the future.
Barbara Teicher grew up in Flatbush and is a graduate of Bais Yaakov elementary school, Esther Schoenfeld High School of Boro Park, and Brooklyn College. She has lived in Englewood and been a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah for 40 years.