It was April 2007. My mother was visiting Washington, DC, during the same week that former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel announced his 2008 presidential run at a press conference at the National Press Club, an event we both attended. Later that day, supporters and friends of Gravel, ourselves included, gathered at his Arlington, Virginia condominium for a reception. At one point, I glanced over at the couch in the living room to see Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank in a conversation with my mother. Quickly figuring out that my mother was not a deep-pocketed donor to the Gravel campaign up from Florida, Milbank, doing his job as a political columnist, moved on to others in the room. That brief meeting between Milbank and my mother was foremost in my mind when I read Milbank’s October 28 column titled, “American Jews start to think the unthinkable.”
Milbank wrote of his having attended his synagogue’s Yom Kippur service earlier last month, during which his rabbi, Danny Zemel, was reciting the Kol Nidre—Aramaic for “All Vows.” The rabbi’s sermon dealt with the protection of America’s democracy. Milbank wrote of a chilling interlude during the homily when his rabbi paused and looked at the congregation and asked, “How many people in the last few years have been at a dining room conversation where the conversation has turned to where might we move? How many of us?”
Reading that chilling question had me think back to that brief encounter between my mother and Milbank. My mother—born Ethel Simon in Philadelphia—grew up in Maple Shade, New Jersey, which was largely a commuter town for those working in Philadelphia or Camden. She sometimes spoke of the dangers of living in South Jersey during the 1930s, a time when the German American Bund, Ku Klux Klan, Silver Shirts, America First movement, and other pro-Nazi groups were hyperactive in New Jersey. Having a Jewish-sounding name often earned my mother anti-Semitic taunts, including the epithet of “Jew girl,” from classmates at her school in neighboring Moorestown. It was an arson attack on my mother’s family’s home—a suspected Nazi had attempted to start a fire on their wooden porch—and the May 6, 1937 overflight of the German airship Hindenburg—with its swastikas clearly visible on its tailfins—that left a lifelong impression on my mother. Milbank is correct in being alarmed at the current state of affairs in America. But this country also had a close brush with fascist and Nazi rule in the 1930s.
There had been two attempted coups against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One was the Wall Street “Business Plot” against FDR in 1933. It was aided and abetted by leading Wall Street financiers and the American Legion. The plot was exposed by retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, who the coup plotters had wrongly believed was on their side. In fact, Butler revealed the coup plans to Congress. In 1940, Christian Front followers of the infamous pro-Nazi “radio priest,” Father Charles Coughlin, were indicted in Brooklyn on charges of “seditious conspiracy and stealing Federal munitions and property.” The stolen munitions included several Browning automatic rifles from military armories. This second plot to overthrow FDR was linked to Nazi Germany as the head of the Boston Christian Front, Frank Moran, had been recruited as a Nazi spy by the German consul in Boston, Herbert Scholz.
America had two close brushes with falling under a Nazi dictatorship—and that was before the outbreak of the Second World War! Had either one of them succeeded, there is no doubt that a federal government, dominated by Nazis, would have implemented the Nazi racial purity laws, stripping U.S. citizenship from those having four Jewish grandparents. Those having at least two Jewish grandparents, whether or not they were observant Jews, fell into the category of Mischling (of mixed blood). Although my mother was raised Lutheran in a fairly non-religious household, the original patriarch of the Simon side of her family, Joseph Simon, was an observant Jewish immigrant to the American colonies from England. A Lancaster, Pennsylvania storekeeper and founder of the town’s first synagogue, Joseph Simon had also been one of General George Washington’s chief logisticians during the War of Independence. Simon, who ultimately lost most of his wealth due to an unscrupulous business partner, also helped found the Juliana Public Library in 1759 and the Union Fire Company in 1764.
My ancestor Joseph is buried in the cemetery he and his business partner founded in 1747, Shaarai Shomayim, located in Lancaster. It is the fourth oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States. Inscribed on Joseph’s grave is the following: “And Joseph gave up the Ghost, and died in a good old age. An old man, and full of years was gathered to his people. Joseph Simon departed this life the 12th day of the month Shebot, in the year 5565, corresponding with the 24th day of January, 1804, aged 92 years, in a good old age. ‘And he walked with God, and he was not; For God took him.’”
My mother was directly descended from one of Joseph’s grandsons, who had moved with his father from Lancaster to Philadelphia and, as was the case with many early Jewish immigrants to Pennsylvania, converted to Lutheran to avoid nascent problems with growing anti-Semitism. Ancestral conversion to Christianity, of course, would have meant little to the Nazi racial purity police had they taken over the United States in the 1930s.
This family history now has some DNA underpinnings thanks to a “23 and Me” test my sister received a few years ago. There it was: 18 to 20 percent Sephardic Jewish, owing to Joseph Simon’s ancestors having fled Inquisition-era Spain, where their last name was spelled Shimon. The 24 percent Ashkenazi Jewish is from my father’s side. His biological father was Charles Selmer, a Jew born in St. Petersburg in czarist Russia. Selmer had immigrated to Copenhagen, where he met my grandmother. Having DNA that is anywhere from 42 to 44 percent Jewish may not put me in as much danger as many of the congregants of Milbank’s synagogue—most of whom responded to their rabbi by affirming that they had, indeed, thought about the need to flee the United States during the previous year—but it does cause me great concern. Also concerning is the fact that I never thought I’d ever be reading a column with so dire a warning that was contained in Milbank’s piece. This is the America of 2022, not 1932!
Milbank’s rabbi quoted from Michael Holzman, a Jewish scholar, who wrote: “For American Jews, the disappearance of liberal democracy would be a disaster. We have flourished under the shelter of the principles behind the First Amendment, and we have been protected by the absolute belief in the rule of law. Without these, Jews, start packing suitcases.” After Charlottesville (where, what Donald Trump called “very fine people,” paraded with torches while shouting “Jews will not replace us”), the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, anti-Semitic QAnon rallies, and other far-right terrorist attacks now stains on the American body politic, who could blame anyone who is Jewish, African American, Asian American, or a member of another targeted minority for planning an escape route?
But pack suitcases for where? Israel now has the most far-right government, a coalition under Binyamin Netanyahu, that it has seen during its entire history. For liberal Jews, the aliyah, immigration to Israel, is a non-starter. As bad as things were for those like my mother in the 1930s, there was never a reason to flee the United States. FDR remained in the White House and he remained as strong as ever after the two aborted fascist plots against him. Many of the Nazis in the United States had been deported to Germany, had gone to prison, or, as was the case with Fred Trump, Sr., burrowed underground waiting for either a Nazi or Allied victory before making their future moves.
What makes the present so much different from the 1930s of my mother is that there are neo-Nazis and white nationalists either serving in office—Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (with her “Jewish space lasers”), Matt Gaetz, and Paul Gosar included—or are seeking office. Doug Mastriano, the outwardly anti-Semitic candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania—the burial place in Jewish cemeteries of my ancestor Joseph Simon, as well as my sister and my brother-in-law—is but one of many white nationalists running for office up and down the ballot this year. To this add some extremely deluded wealthy black men, including Kanye West and NBA Nets player Kyrie Irving, who traffic in anti-Semitic tropes. This age-old “blood libel” is now being promoted on Twitter, which is now under new management: apartheid South Africa’s most unwelcome export, Elon Musk.
Milbank answered the question of where someone could flee with their suitcase? He correctly wrote, “If it isn’t safe here, it won’t be safe anywhere.” That’s precisely why we cannot allow neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and Christian Dominionists anywhere near the reins of power ever again in the United States. After we secure our own country, the stomping out of fascism and Nazism must proceed to Rome, Budapest, Moscow, and wherever else the political cancer of far-right extremism begins to metastasize.
Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.
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Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist, author and nationally-distributed columnist. A member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the National Press Club. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).