WASHINGTON — David Mittleman has accepted the fact that COVID-19 has upended his life. His son was supposed to get married two weeks ago but had to postpone the ceremony until it’s safe for groups to gather once again. His daughter is slated to get married in July. That, too, will likely be put on hold.
“If we get through this only having to rearrange two weddings, we’ll feel blessed,” he told The Times of Israel.
Yet Mittleman has also had something else occupying his mind. He lives just a few miles from where far-right extremists have repeatedly protested Michigan’s stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of the virus. Some have donned swastikas and Nazi insignia, others have hoisted Confederate flags and nooses.
On April 30, the demonstrations went a step further: Militant activists again stormed the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, but this time, they were armed with automatic weapons. The display made national headlines and sent a chill down the collective spine of the local Jewish community, which has ramped up protective measures in recent years amid an uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes.
It’s not clear whether more protests such as these are planned for the future. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday she wanted to ban guns from the State Capitol, ostensibly in case the demonstrations continue.
“There are legislators who are wearing bulletproof vests to go to work,” Whitmer said. “No one should be intimidated by someone who’s bringing in an assault rifle into their workplace.”
That same thought is echoed by the Jewish community. “I personally have contributed to our congregation’s increased security,” said Mittleman, a prominent attorney who negotiated the settlement between Michigan State University and the victims of school physician Larry Nassar — the largest ever reached in a sexual abuse case involving an American university. “And that’s directly related to activities like this,” he added, referring to the protests.
Something else drove his donation.
While Mittleman has lived in East Lansing for more than 40 years, he grew up in Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where a gunman opened fire on the Tree of Life synagogue in October 2019, killing 11 worshipers in what the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on American soil. “Anti-Semitism is on the rise in this country and we’ve seen where that takes us,” he said.
Disconcertingly, Mittleman added, US President Donald Trump endorsed the protests, which have included members of the Michigan Liberty Militia, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as an extremist anti-government group, and the Proud Boys, which the SPLC designates a hate group.
The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 1, 2020
In a tweet, Trump called the participants “very good people,” echoing comments he made in 2017 about the white nationalist rally goers in Charlottesville.
“I am worried,” said Mittleman. “The fact that the president encourages this behavior is frightening.”
Using the pandemic as a platform for hate
According to Carolyn Normandin, who directs the ADL’s Michigan Office, the far-right protesters in Lansing have been using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to amplify their ideology.
“These are people who are using the situation as a platform for hateful rhetoric,” Normandin told The Times of Israel. “Any time there is a big problem, people look for others to scapegoat and blame — and Jewish people have been blamed throughout history, with all kinds of myths and conspiracy theories, especially during crises.”
The ADL’s Center for Extremism has found that conspiracy theories are spreading among the dark corners of the internet that Jews created the virus.
“People are watching the news and they’re reading as much as they can,” Normandin said. “People who don’t know history or don’t understand that this is a common anti-Jewish sentiment can wind up taking this seriously.”
At the same time, extremists across the country have increasingly compared the governors issuing shelter-in-place orders to Adolf Hitler, in a bid to spark chaos, according to experts.
One woman in Lansing recently held a sign that said, “Heil Whitmer,” referring to Michigan’s Democrat governor. Others have made posters of her wearing a Hitler mustache.
“To compare our governor to an evil man who wanted to wipe out an entire people is both ridiculous and frightening,” Rabbi Amy Bigman of East Lansing’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek told The Times of Israel. “The recent uptick in anti-Semitic acts here and elsewhere is also frightening. ‘Jew as scapegoat’ is not new, of course.”
The novel coronavirus has already killed more than 4,000 Michigan residents and overwhelmed Detroit-area hospitals. In response to the outbreak, Whitmer issued a series of stay-at-home restrictions to flatten the curve of infections.
“It’s never okay to use Holocaust or Nazi reference,” Normandin added. “Calling someone Hitler should only refer to Hitler. It’s not helpful to demonize politicians who are trying to keep communities safe.”
The far-right demonstrations have been just miles away from Michigan State, one of Michigan’s largest public universities. According to one professor, they have impacted the community, even as the school has moved to online learning.
Yael Aronof, who directs the college’s Jewish Studies program, said these protests were traumatizing for students to see on the news, especially as they have followed a series of anti-Semitic incidents on campus.
“It’s like, you know they are out there and you know they exist,” she told The Times of Israel, referring to anti-Semites. “We’ve have had swastikas on flyers on campus. But these people are now more visible. Over the last couple years, they have come from out of the woodwork and feel like they can publicly be emboldened. Students are concerned — and concerned that it’s happening in their own backyard.”
‘I just believe that we will get through it’
While some members of the Michigan Jewish community are not worried that the protests pose a danger to them personally, they are worried about what they could lead to.
“In the lockdown, most people are just sitting in their homes,” said Mike Serling, an attorney who chairs MSU’s Jewish Studies program and sits on the board of both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the ADL. “I did not fear any concern for my safety because of that.”
“I feel more concerned about what’s coming in the election and what’s going to happen when we reopen to whatever degree,” he told The Times of Israel. “Is it going to become violent? Of course, there could be more anti-Semitic incidents.”
Indeed, the ADL’s research has shown anti-Semitic episodes to have been on the rise since 2016. A recent survey conducted by the Jewish civil rights group found that two-thirds of American Jews feel less safe than they did 10 years ago.
Nevertheless, Serling said he lived through other dark periods — in the US and in Israel — and doesn’t think the current tumult will become a permanent fixture of American life.
“I’m optimistic about the future and believe that America will still be a wonderful place for Jews to live in for generations to come — for my grandkids, my kids,” Serling said. “I just believe that we’ll get through it.”
In the meantime, however, the Michigan Jewish community is dealing with an added layer of complication as it tries to persevere through a pandemic, combating a movement of ideologues bent on using the COVID-19 crisis to spew its hatred.
“They are definitely sowing discord,” said Normandin, the ADL’s Michigan office director. “Anybody using fear tactics makes it fearful for everyone.”