Adolf Eichmann at his 1961 trial for war crimes. (Photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Adolf Eichmann at his 1961 trial for war crimes. (Photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

With our nation in peril, fascism demands a Jewish response

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For more than 50 years, my father and his three Jewish buddies debated politics during their Saturday wine group.

The question “Is it good for the Jews?” guided every heated discussion.

Because they all had fought in World War II, unanimity reigned that fascist movements should be strongly condemned, whether of the Nazi/Italian varieties or the antisemitic/white supremacist groups still present in their state of Missouri today.

For me, as a young girl temporarily being homeschooled, the 1961 Eichmann trial sparked extensive reading about fascism. In the 1980s, Dad warned me not to be fooled by the local Council of Conservative Citizens, or by the Zion’s Watchman, a supposedly Christian journal propagating the notion that white people alone were “chosen of God,” while all Jews (regardless of skin color) were descended from Cain and Satan.

“This is what fascism looks like,” he said.

Scholars are reluctant to put the fascist label on political movements. Employing such analogies rests on finding key similarities, even if differences persist.

Classic fascist movements should include the following characteristics: 1, the elevation of “the Nation” above all else; 2, the centrality of a single dominant leader; 3, the exaltation of “the white Christian European race” above all others; 4, the widespread dissemination of conspiracy theories and “fake news” centered around a supposed threat; 5, the presence of enablers who appear as moderate allies;  and 6, the violent suppression, whether in action or hate speech, of opponents — even if they arise within the movement’s own ranks.

The Capitol invasion of Jan. 6 incorporated all of these elements, leaving all Americans at a crossroads.

Motivated by President Trump’s and Republican leaders’ false claims of a “stolen election,” followers claimed “our president wants us here.” Violence was carried out by a mob wearing “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts and abundant MAGA merchandise.

These “StormTrumpers” displayed weapons and the Confederate flag. They erected gallows to symbolize the message from their ultra-rightist bible, “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel that called for the lynching of the “betrayers” of the white race and “a war to the death with the Jew.”

This planned action in Washington could have easily become a massacre — a bloody hunt for traitors, people of color and lawmakers.

Accountability for this fascist action, especially important for all minorities, plays a unique role for Jews.

Unlike U.S. law, Jewish law requires a broad definition of accountability when a wrong is uncovered, and Judaism expressly forbids enabling or bystander inaction.

From the Torah’s “Justice, Justice you shall pursue” through the seven Laws of Noah, justice is not just about courts but also entails the moral responsibility of individuals to contribute to how the world ought to be.

Ethics and obligations are central to Jewish law: Jews are obliged to protect the well-being of all human beings regardless of identity — to “repair the world.” Refusing to help those in peril is a “most serious” offense — one that is not limited to a clear and present danger.

The present crossroads in our country thus demands Jewish action.

Studies show that one in five Republicans approve of violence to keep political power, a key component of fascism. Nine in 10 Jews especially fear antisemitism from the far right, as antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the last two years.

Jews should understand that only widespread accountability can keep safe our communities and those of other minorities.

Taking strong action requires the following: support for the Senate to convict President Trump and ensure that he can never again hold political office, as well as holding trials of those who broke the law.

But the inauguration of President Biden alone cannot make this threat to democracy vanish. Accountability also requires longer-term action: the public rooting out of extremists from the Republican base and from local police forces, and the financial support for organizations committed to the safety and wellbeing of all communities regardless of identity.

The case for this longer-term accountability is urgent: Extremism unchecked can only spread.

My experiences — as a human-rights investigator, as a scholar of justice remedies and as an expert in international and domestic war crimes trials — demonstrate that reconciliation is successful only when it follows truth investigations and practices of accountability, defined in part by trials of former leaders.

Nonetheless, law-breakers and their enablers can be counted upon to argue for a reverse sequence, that is, unity and “healing” without accountability.

New governments, overwhelmed by crisis, often acquiesce in order to avoid recriminations and immediately turn to the people’s business.  This virtually guarantees more and similar violence down the road.

My father, a physician, understood the only sequence that would work. After all, an infected wound cannot heal unless it is first thoroughly cleansed and exposed.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Terry Lynn Karl
Terry Lynn Karl

Terry Lynn Karl is Gildred Professor (emeritus) of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Stanford University, an authority on authoritarian regimes and justice remedies, and an investigator and expert witness in war crimes. Her latest testimony helped convict El Salvador’s former vice minister of security, sentenced to 133 years in prison for his role in the murder of Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989 who were also Spanish citizens.