Last Wednesday, a mob of thousands of angry protesters led by White supremacy groups and goaded to action by Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in a futile attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Rioters wore shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Camp Auschwitz” and other antisemitic phrases. A newly-elected congresswoman named Mary Miller also gave a speech in which she quoted Hitler approvingly in full view of the riot. Meanwhile, inside the Capitol, a curious thing occurred – a Jewish man from Midwood, Brooklyn, named Aaron Mostofsky gave an interview in which he alleged voter fraud.Surrounded by White supremacists from across the country, the bearded and bespectacled Mostofsky proclaimed that the election was stolen from Donald Trump in New York State and elsewhere. Without citing a single source, he falsely claimed that Donald Trump received 85 million votes, rather than the 74 million votes on record. Mostofsky responded to a series of questions from an unknown individual while dressed in a fur body suit covered by a bulletproof vest, carrying a wooden staff, and holding an illegally commandeered Capitol Police riot shield. These events took place in a highly restricted area right next to the Senate Floor, where Senators engage in democratic debate and cast votes on the highest matters of our day.While Mostofsky’s storming of the Capitol in tandem with White supremacists was more reminiscent of a scene from the Woody Allen film Bananas than violent insurrection, perhaps the most shocking part of Mostofsky’s participation is his lineage. Aaron Mostofsky is the son of Kings County Supreme Court Judge Steven (Shlomo) Mostovsky, who previously served as president of the National Council of Young Israel for more than a decade. Aaron’s brother Nachman also currently serves as executive director of the ultra-conservative Chovevei Zion organization and has denied any illegal action by his brother, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Following the insurrection, Aaron made it back to Midwood, where he was arrested several days later on four federal charges, including stealing government property.Although Mostofsky’s participation in the insurrection was extreme, it is in some sense a natural extension of the views of many within his community. As a Ramaz graduate who previously served as legislative director and counsel to members of Congress representing Central Brooklyn and South Florida, I am familiar with the frustration that many within the American Orthodox Jewish community, such as Mostofsky, feel toward Democrats and government. I have taken meetings with them, visited their homes and attended places of worship with them. For many of these meetings, extreme views and rhetoric were not atypical. I often encountered hostile responses to Democratic positions on religion and state, Israel, women’s rights and similar issues. On one notable occasion, my job was to explain to a group of constituents why one of the most progressive members of Congress would not refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria.Yet, as the product of an Orthodox education, I am not surprised by any of this political extremism. One need look no further than a few recent cases within this community to understand the pervasiveness of this political extremism. For example, the day that Mostofsky illegally entered the Capitol building, Orthodox activists reportedly organized at least eight buses to travel to Washington to protest the election results, even though the meeting that day in Congress was largely ceremonial. Some of those who traveled on those buses stormed the Capitol, while many others simply expressed support for such insurrectionist efforts after they had taken place.The extreme views that motivate Orthodox American Jews to support insurrection are given voice through media, cultural, scholarly and political elites within the Orthodox community. For example, this past summer, popular recording artist Yaakov Shwekey performed a song before approximately 100 Orthodox teenagers, in which he whipped them onto their feet with religious fervor. The lyrics praised Donald Trump and drew a direct line between his reelection and God’s command by stating that the president was heaven-sent. A modified studio version of the song currently has more than 90,000 views on YouTube.Similarly, last November, Orthodox New York City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch, who represents Midwood, ran against my former boss to represent Central Brooklyn in Congress. In so doing, Deutsch released a divisive campaign advertisement that featured images of rioters fighting against police officers in the streets along with armed soldiers standing guard in Washington during the Black Lives Matter protest. Although Deutsch is technically a Democrat, the racial dog whistles in his campaign harkened back to the hostility of the 1991 Crown Heights Riot and were more in keeping with the themes of Donald Trump’s law and order campaign than the points raised by Deutsch’s all-Black field of Democratic primary opponents. During the campaign, Deutsch also stated that he expected to be attacked for being Jewish.
AS ONE final example, many Jewish organizations condemned Wednesday’s armed insurrection in real time or soon thereafter. However, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of 53 organizations formed in 1956 at the behest of President Eisenhower, fumbled its response. Rather than unambiguously condemn the insurrectionists, it called upon them to disperse. This stands in stark contrast to the Republican Jewish Coalition, AIPAC, and other right-of-center Jewish organizations that responded to the insurrection that same day with strong support for the authorities. It is also out of line with the statement issued by President George W. Bush, the only living former Republican president, and even the commentary of controversial Orthodox commentator Ben Shapiro from that same day. The Conference’s leadership, in whose name the statement was issued, is more right wing and more religious than the general American Jewish population. While this may simply have been a flub on its part, the Conference has yet to retract its call for rioters to disperse, rather than surrender.These data points are markers of growing extremism within the American Jewish community, sympathy toward such extremism, or else failure to take decisive action to counter extremism within its ranks when needed. The Greater New York Area, and Brooklyn in particular, are certainly bastions of such extremism, as are Los Angeles, Miami and elsewhere. The worst-case scenario would be political violence such as that which we saw from Brooklynite Meir Kahane, Yigal Amir and others. However, there is reason for hope.On Friday, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, the head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of centrist Orthodox Judaism in America, issued a strong rebuke of many within his community. In an article for Yeshiva University’s student newspaper, Rabbi Schwartz clearly stated that there were too many Orthodox Jews who participated in the rally, sympathized with it or failed to condemn it entirely. He rightly called for uncompromising condemnation and communal recalibration of its moral compass. In so doing, Rabbi Schwartz relied on scripture and civic values to make his point, which left no room for ambiguity.Yet, this is no longer a matter for Jewish communal institutions alone to address. The courts will now be tasked with punishing those who violated the law on Wednesday. Congress too can play a role by allocating resources to combat extremism within the Jewish community in a manner similar to that which many Jewish leaders call for in fighting extremism against Jews in the United States and abroad – for extremism knows no bounds. Congress can also condition benefits to Jewish institutions on expanded civic education activities for members of the Jewish community, elevating democratic voices within its midst.With the violence having been quelled, it is now clear that the great irony of Aaron Mostofsky’s illogical participation in this armed insurrection is that the election was certified in accordance with the law and that Jews will be better placed under a Biden administration than at any time in American history. The Departments of State, Treasury and Justice are all expected to be headed by Jews, as is the position of White House Chief of Staff. The country is also poised to witness its first ever Jewish spouse of a president or vice president. For the first time in history, a Jewish individual, from Midwood no less, is also expected to lead the United States Senate. As if that were not enough, it is also entirely possible that both the House and Senate may be headed by Democratic leaders from Brooklyn within the next four years, not to mention that an Orthodox Jewish woman is set to serve on the National Security Council under the Biden administration. Yet, rather than embrace these facts, Mostofsky, the son of a Jewish jurist, allied with White supremacists and will now likely be prosecuted by a Justice Department headed by the esteemed Merrick Garland, himself of the Mosaic persuasion. The writer previously served as legislative director and counsel to members of the House of Representatives.