New Winds Blow In
by Nadine Epstein
Washington has had unseasonably warm weather, with leaves clinging to branches and roses blooming into the first weeks of winter. But the winds of political change have also blown into the nation’s capital.
Alt-reality descended on my pleasant, quiet neighborhood in Northwest Washington. Everything is in walking distance—cafés, restaurants, movie theaters and shops. It is a community where families raise their children and live for decades despite changing administrations. Like most of the city, it is a reliably liberal bubble, but not completely. It is also a neighborhood where restrictive covenants helped to keep Jews and blacks from buying homes for many decades. I can never quite forget that, and as I walk around, I often marvel at the fact that today seemingly nearly every other house is home to a Jew.
Shortly after the election of Donald Trump as the United States’ 45th president, a white nationalist victory celebration, sponsored by neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, took place a few blocks from my house. It was held at Maggiano’s Little Italy, a restaurant that is part of a national chain, where local teenagers dine before proms. At least one reveler at the party posed for a photo making a Nazi salute and tweeted it out to the world. The neighborhood (and city) was aghast. Maggiano’s quickly explained that the event had been a last-minute booking made under a different name and pledged to donate the night’s profits to the DC office of the Anti-Defamation League.
Meanwhile, another drama was unfolding even closer to my house at Comet Ping Pong, a hip pizzeria that serves upscale pies to throngs of adults and kids. Comet became the target of a bizarre web-based fake news campaign generated by white supremacists and Trump supporters—including the son of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, the man Trump has appointed as his national security advisor—who claimed it was a front for a child sex trafficking ring linked to Hillary Clinton. The owners and employees of Comet and other establishments on the block were under attack on social media and fielding crazy calls and death threats. On December 4, the situation escalated. A North Carolina man, armed with a loaded assault-style rifle and a handgun, charged into Comet shortly before 3 p.m. to search for nonexistent underground tunnels in which he had read that child slaves were being held captive. Thankfully, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch didn’t open fire until all the employees and patrons had fled, and he surrendered peacefully after finding no sign of tunnels or child slaves. One of Moment’s editors had stopped by Comet with a date and was on her way out when the gunman came in.
The vintage neon Comet sign that hangs above the pizzeria’s door once hung on a deli and liquor store in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. I knew its amiable and opinionated proprietor, Sid Drazin. Drazin, who was Jewish, died in 2005, and I am sure he would be incensed by these incidents, by the spike in hate crimes (including swastikas scrawled on the walls of elementary schools, on sidewalks and on telephone poles in the DC area) that has occurred since Trump’s election, and by Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his senior adviser and chief strategist. Until recently, Bannon presided over Breitbart News, a website that he himself has described as the platform for the “alt-right” and that is clearly an outlet for white supremacists.
Both Trump and Bannon are admired and respected by white supremacists. It is farfetched to call Trump personally anti-Semitic, but it’s not farfetched to say that he has unleashed forces of bigotry, prejudice and hate and that he has not resolutely disavowed them. I hope he will realize that the forces he has brought into the mainstream are dangerous and will renounce them with conviction—loudly and repeatedly. The situation demands Trump’s point-blank condemnation both before and after the inauguration. But even this might not be enough to banish the neo-Nazis from the streets of the nation’s capital and from American discourse.
Washington may be the focal point of change at the moment, but sadly, anti-Semitism is also on the rise throughout the country (see our story on Whitefish, Montana on page 32) and the world (see our story on Poland on page 24). Over New Year’s weekend, my husband made an unusual find: anti-Semitic flyers claiming, among other things, “GOV’T JEWS MURDER 20 MILLION,” on the street near our house. From our vantage point at press time, it appears that it will not be an easy task to cram these anti-Semites, Islamophobes, hatemongers and assault weapon toters back into their dark corners. Yet that is what we—whether we lean politically right, left or center on other issues—must do. It must be our first domestic priority.
How can we do this? At this time, we need to have our critical-thinking hats lashed on tighter than ever. If your email inbox and social media feeds are anything like mine, then you are being inundated with artfully spun and sincere-sounding pleas for your attention. We all need to know who is sending us what, and to understand their biases. The internet is a great equalizer: Small innovative fringe groups can have equal or greater influence than large ones, and sources can be difficult to identify. Today’s information torrent is not easy to navigate, even for seasoned travelers.
To complicate matters, we all receive messages from media sites that are associated with or funded by agenda-driven organizations or individuals. We are also regularly courted by non-media organizations, such as lobbying groups, producing what masquerades as news but is really content tailored to promote their agendas and arouse alarm. This applies to the Jewish world as well. Even those of us who think we know the ABCs of Jewish organizations need to tread carefully. The landscape of Jewish power in the United States is shifting, and the terrain is new and uncertain.
Speaking of leadership, our new president appears likely to continue to practice his unusual management and communication style, which includes surrounding himself with some senior advisers who are anathema to the majority of American Jews. We need to pay attention to who in Trump’s coterie has his ear on matters of religion and minorities. A Jewish son-in-law and daughter—and a handful of loyal Jewish lawyers with new official and unofficial government portfolios—is not a wide enough circle.
Let us not waste our precious time and energy on depression or fear. During this time of flux, we Jews need to be doing everything we can to proactively help weave together divergent parts of our country and protect the rights that have made the United States so hospitable to Jews and other minorities.
Meanwhile, assume that we are in for some unexpected gusts, and not just in Washington. Moment is standing by, and will be here for you.