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‘Auschwitz Camp’ on a black shirt at the Capitol

The anti-Semitism of groups like QAnon is just the tip of the iceberg. Tracking the unregulated 'dark web' of violent discourse must become a priority
Robert Keith Packer's shirt was one of many hate symbols present at the storming of the Capitol, apparently encouraged by then-US president Donald Trump. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP Images, and screenshot from Reddit)
Robert Keith Packer's shirt was one of many hate symbols present at the storming of the Capitol, apparently encouraged by then-US president Donald Trump. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP Images, and screenshot from Reddit)

A slew of slogans, symbols and other uncommon sights accompanied the violent attack on the Capitol in Washington on January 6: the inscription “Auschwitz Camp” with a skull underneath, a drawing of the Capitol with a red Star of David suffocating it from all sides, the uploading of an image bearing a neo-Nazi code to indicate the takeover of the building.

The American Jewish Congress, which monitored the attack and its aftermath on the unregulated “dark” social networks, revealed numerous blatant demands that America’s Jews leave “our country,” as well as direct threats on people’s lives, a plethora of epithets such as “kikes” and other hateful statements that are intolerable even in the murky domain in which they were expressed.

These harsh images reflect a disturbing phenomenon that we have been witnessing in recent years. Extremist groups, including neo-Nazis and white supremacy adherents, have descended into the dark web, where they communicate with each other unhindered: their sites open and close freely; groups spring up out of nowhere; incitement and outrageous language are the norms. Then factor in COVID-19: Auschwitz has acquired a symbolic status for many extremists who oppose lockdowns and vaccinations and who view the pandemic not as a deadly reality, but rather as a concoction, a conspiracy designed to undermine the regime for which they yearn. 

Prominent in the attack in Washington were members of QAnon, one of the most influential and dangerous factions, which within several years has gained millions of devotees — despite, and perhaps because of, its delusional theories. Members of this group had stated outright their intention to commit violence.

We noted above some of the distressing symbols that relate to Jews and Israel. But antisemitism, with its perception of American Jews and Israel as domineering and manipulating the powers that be, is only one component of these extremists’ worldview. In fact, any person who does not fit in with their model and “vision” for society is deemed by them as unworthy and despicable. They have no place for anyone whose skin color, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or political stance does not match theirs. As such, antisemitism is merely the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it lie racism, persecution of minorities, and a fierce loathing of democratic and pluralistic institutions.

Of course, freedom of speech is a sacred value in the United States, with many battling to maintain it even when it deteriorates into freedom to incite. Others defend with similar zeal the right to organize and the right to keep and bear weapons. 

How, then, can we deal effectively with these complex, destructive phenomena?  Is broad comprehensive action feasible?

It is indeed very hard to monitor this unstable reality, harder still to track down networks of violent and abusive discourse. Gathering data about a network that intentionally hides its plans, preparations and training is particularly difficult. Yet it is possible, and greater efforts and further resources should be allocated to doing so. 

It can also be challenging to join with other groups who are under attack, and yet it is imperative to devote non-stigmatic thought and action precisely to that purpose, thus creating new ties with cooperative potential.

As we consider the attack on Capitol Hill, for generations a symbol of democracy and stable governance, we find renewed confirmation that it is essential to make accessible and disseminate reliable and comprehensive information about World War II and the Holocaust, as well as the antisemitic phenomena that preceded them.

This foundation of factual information will empower us, as we embark on a reinforced struggle against antisemitism, nurture tolerance towards others, and protect minority rights, all the time aware that democracy — worldwide and not just in the United States — is fragile. We can — and must — leverage expert knowledge, provide relevant and accurate insights from history, utilize effective educational tools and apply inspiring moral values in order to shield democracy and ensure basic human rights from forces that gravely threaten them today.

About the Author
Dina Porat is the Chief Historian of Yad Vashem and Professor Emeritus of Modern Jewish History at the Department of Jewish History, Head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, and holds the Alfred P. Slaner Chair for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University.
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