Watching January 6: Bags Packed, Ready to Flee

CNN Opinion: As a Jewish American, I don’t see this country quite the same way after January 6

CNN Opinion by Nathan Wolfson — July 25, 2022

Nathan Wolfson is the deputy digital director and social media manager at J Street, a pro-Israel, nonprofit advocacy group. He lives in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

Each session of the House committee investigating the events of January 6 showed us just how far parts of the country have traveled, unbeknownst to most of us, down a road towards extremism, white nationalism and antisemitism.

We all saw the throngs of protesters storm the Capitol, waving Confederate flags and spewing racist hate. As it turns out, my vantage point was a bit closer than for most Americans.

I live close to Capitol Hill, the neighborhood that abuts Congress and congressional office buildings.

From the window of my home, I watched throngs of mostly white men in red MAGA hats gathering that morning, many of whom I suspect were violently attacking Capitol police a few hours later and hoping to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power. As their numbers swelled in my neighborhood, my wife and I scrambled to pack our bags.

Within a stone’s throw of my front door, I saw men wearing shirts referencing Nazism and the SS. I learned from news reports that one of protesters who breached the Capitol wore a t-shirt bearing the words “Camp Auschwitz.” To see those symbols and messages worn proudly was chilling. Still, I never expected the violence the country would witness that day.

By the afternoon, as protesters clashed with the Capitol police, I had logged off from work to discuss an evacuation plan with my wife. In 14 years living in Washington, I had never actively worried about fleeing the city or being attacked for being Jewish. Now, over the course of just one day, I feared both.

Many of us first took note of the growing prominence of American extremism during the 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia when hundreds of men hoisting tiki torches paraded, chanting “Jews will not replace us!” They were part of a fringe extreme, but they were not a one-off. And my fear is that January 6 was not a one-off either.

On January 6, around the same time that my wife and I could look out our window and see protesters marching through our community, the television in our living room was flashing the frightening headline: “Capitol Building Under Attack.”

As a Jew, I could not help but hear the echoes of fascist violence that my grandparents endured during a surge of antisemitic extremism that led them to flee Europe shortly after the end of World War ll. The violence I witnessed last year led me to ask whether I too might have to flee one day to avoid increasing extremism and white nationalism in this country.

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I was raised on the imperative of “Never Again” — the vow that Jews will never again allow ourselves, or anyone else, to endure the genocidal violence our people faced. It’s a vow to stand up against hatred and bigotry in all its forms.

But in the past year-and-a-half since January 6, it sometimes has felt as if we are in the early days of a terrible morass not unlike that encountered by my forebears, as they grappled with the wrenching decision of whether to stay in Europe or to flee.

I think often these days of my grandmother escaping her village in what is now Belarus, shortly before their neighborhood was turned by Nazi authorities into a ghetto from which Jews were not permitted to leave. I think of her parents, 3-year-old brother and her own grandparents, who perished in the Treblinka death camp. And I sometimes think of the years my grandmother spent in hiding — and wonder which of my Christian friends would hide me and keep my family safe today, if it came to it.

Jews in Europe didn’t just wake up one day and suddenly realize they needed to flee. It was only after a long campaign of vilification and dehumanization by a fascist government that hateful and dangerous rhetoric turned into hateful and dangerous action. These are thoughts that keep me up at night now: worries about what led to terrible events several generations ago on another continent, like Kristallnacht and the unrelenting succession of pogroms. Those atrocities also started with political rallies and protests, before being whipped up into rabid, racist hate speech. Could the same thing happen here?

While my wife and I considered our exit strategy, members of antisemitic and Neo-Nazi groups stalked the halls of the Capitol building. Groups that reportedly stormed the Capitol included the Nationalist Social Club and the Three Percenters, a militia group that marched in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
By early evening on January 6, my wife and I learned that law enforcement had finally started pushing the insurrectionists out of the Capitol. At that point, we decided to remain in DC. But we kept our travel bags next to the door for weeks after.

During much of that time, my wife didn’t feel safe leaving our apartment. Like me, she is also the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, so Nazi symbols are a reminder to us both about ancestors murdered in the name of hate and those who narrowly
escaped.
I don’t want to live in fear that my wife and I will have to flee Washington to escape Nazis in our neighborhood, or that our democracy will be destroyed by officials who swore an oath to protect and uphold it. But a year-and-a-half later, I still can’t bring myself to walk in front of the hotel where I saw the insurrectionists gathering that morning. And I still can’t go to the Capitol grounds without my mind flashing to scenes of smoke clouds and a sea of rioters brandishing Nazi imagery.

Even though I am often reminded of the good that this country stands for, now when I walk the streets of my neighborhood — the same streets that the January 6 protesters marched through — I know that there is an undercurrent of hate and destruction in our society that sometimes threatens to become an undertow.

The work of the January 6 committee in getting at the truth of what happened that day is vitally important in preserving our democracy. But for those of us still traumatized, it is also necessary for the process of healing. Until the whole truth of the events of that day is brought to light, I will keep my bag packed, just in case.

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