Thinking about the threats to our democracy

Thinking about the threats to our democracy

Protesters gather on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan 6, 2021. Pro-Trump protesters entered the building after mass demonstrations. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Protesters gather on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan 6, 2021. Pro-Trump protesters entered the building after mass demonstrations. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

This week, in these pages, we are doing something that we haven’t done in years.

We are living in a time where large numbers of people are doing things that have never been done — carrying a Confederate flag into the Capitol building, say, or impeaching a president for the second time — or things that haven’t been done for centuries — invading the Capitol, for the first time since 1814.

Given those monumental firsts, we feel comfortable changing our usual format to give you a selection of opinion pieces — many of them sent to us unsolicited by our remarkably smart and well-informed readers — and news reports about the ongoing crisis in Washington — and indeed the entire country.

We know that you’re all deluged with such reports, but we offer a look at the nightmare unfolding around us in specifically Jewish terms.

We understand that our readership has been divided in its feeling toward President Trump. Many of our readers are traditional progressive Jewish Democrats. Overwhelmingly, they loathe him. Opinions are far more divided in the Orthodox world; many people believe that what Trump has done for Israel, which they think of as unalloyed good, outweighs everything else he’s done. Among other Jews, who are strong Zionists, alarm at the way in which Israel has been made, if not purposely been sharpened to become, a wedge issue, sharply dividing us even farther, is predominant.

People are entrenched in those opinions. It will benefit no one to rehash them here. Maybe it would be different, had we world enough, or time — but we do not.

What’s been happening now, however, is something entirely different.

As Abe Foxman, among many others, both in these pages and beyond, tells us, the idea that the election was fraudulent and that Donald Trump won it is not true. It is a lie. Elected local and state officials have told us that truth, often at great professional and personal risk to themselves. Court after court after court, judge after judge after judge, have told us that.

The story of how we have become so divided that we no longer believe in abstract truth but rather in what we are told, particularly if we are told it often enough, is so well known that we need not repeat it here either. The truth is that Joe Biden won the election. That is why he is president-elect, and that is why he will be sworn into office on January 20.

But there is something that we not only as Americans but also as Jews should take very seriously.

When people are encouraged to hate, and then to turn that hatred into action, as they were on January 6, both they and the innocent bystanders they encounter can get hurt. Sometimes they get killed. And it is naïve for us as Jews not to understand that often that hate is directed at us.

As Abe said, we are the universal scapegoats. Sort of like universal blood donors, we are the world’s O+ for blame. Which might be very convenient for everyone else, but it’s not so great for us.

We must not let that happen. Perhaps one way to try is to look around us.

There are some striking stories that came out of the siege of the Capitol. One is a Jewish story of loss and fierce love, as told by the Atlantic.

Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Democrat and a professor of constitutional law, went to the Capitol for the Electoral College vote the day after his son’s funeral. Tommy Raskin, a student at Harvard Law School, a beloved son, brother, and friend, suffered from depression. He fought it, but depression won, and he killed himself. Mr. Raskin, he said, brought Tabitha, one of his two daughters, and his other daughter’s husband with him to Congress for the Electoral College, after Tabitha had asked him to stay home. He couldn’t, he reported having said, because this was too important, but he thought that they should go together. He wore the torn black ribbon that symbolized his grief to the House session.

When the siege began, the elected officials were hustled away, so Mr. Raskin was separated from Tabitha and his son-in-law, Hank. But his chief of staff, Julie Tagen, took them to her office. “A group of rioters repeatedly attempted to enter the room,” the story in the Atlantic tells us. “Tagen stood guard next to the blockaded entrance, clutching a fire iron. ‘I asked her to protect them with her life, and she did,’” Mr. Raskin said.

Mr. Raskin is one of the authors of the impeachment article.

The other story is not Jewish in its particulars, but in its emotional power it might as well be. Also, it’s New Jersey.

Andy Kim is the 38-year-old Democrat who represents the Third District in far southern Jersey. He’s the son of Korean immigrants. After the rioters left the Capitol, Mr. Kim looked at the foul mess that had been left behind, and then this second-term member of Congress got some garbage bags, got down on his hands and knees, and began to clean. He worked for about an hour and a half, filling bag after bag with detritus.

According to news reports, this is what he said, later, when he was asked about it — we know about it because someone took a video, and it went viral. “I feel blessed to have this opportunity as a son of immigrants to be able to serve in Congress,” Mr. Kim said. “Democracy to me is this place of opportunity that is affording me a chance to do something extraordinary.”

It might well be true that the children of immigrants are willing to do dirty jobs that we grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants would never think of undertaking. He still is able to marvel in democracy and is willing to do the unglamorous, smelly work of cleaning up after it.

There is much real danger ahead. First, there are physical threats. There are credible reports that insurrectionists plan to do violence in the name of the lie that animates them on the days leading up to the inauguration, and then at the ceremony itself. We must hope that our defenses are strong.

And then there are the metaphysical threats to our republic, which we must overcome if we are to continue.

Maybe we can take heart and hope from Officer Eugene Goodman, who, as we can see from a terrifying video, singlehandedly steered a mob away from an unguarded door that led to the Senate. He’s an Army veteran and clearly a man of both iron nerves and great ingenuity.

There are heroes to thanks. And there is a country to protect, and ideals to live up to.

Let’s hope that we can do those things in the days ahead. And what a bonus it would be if we could do them together! —JP

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