You’d think that having grown up in New York, I wouldn’t feel my heart swell with pride every time I look around and see multiple kipah-covered heads. And yet, as I waited in line to enter the Delecorte Theater in Central Park, I couldn’t help but smile at the obvious number of Jewish audience members.
Julius Caesar is one of my favorite plays, and I waited in line from 5:25 a.m. until the afternoon to get tickets for the closing night of this month’s Shakespeare in the Park production. I couldn’t wait to see whether I still had Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar memorized in full, as required by my freshman year English teacher at LaGuardia High School for the Arts in New York City. Of course, the production had also gained more national attention than most Shakespeare in the Park productions for its depiction of a Trump-like Caesar, with donors pulling funds and a notable lack of support from the National Endowment for the Arts. As a young, liberal, artistic New Yorker, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.
Early in the first act, a man crawled onto the stage. It’s been awhile since I read the play, and I couldn’t really remember who he was playing. He was kind of low to the ground, and stumbled onto the stage like I imagined a soothsayer would. But it was too early on for that, and he was wearing the long-tailed suit coats like Brutus and Cassius. I felt bad for him; his mic obviously wasn’t working. My mom grabbed my arm, “What is he saying?”
The man on stage wasn’t an actor. He wasn’t supposed to be there. The man on stage was yelling “Liberal hate kills, Goebbels would be proud.”
This wasn’t the first time protesters rushed the stage at this production of Julius Caesar. It also wasn’t the last, as during the assassination scene of the Trump-like depiction of the title character, a second man ran past my aisle seat and was apprehended by security. It also wasn’t the first time these conservative protesters recalled the figure of Goebbels.
Two nights before, Laura Loomer, a “Proud Jew” from NYC according to her Twitter bio, rushed the stage, decrying the production for “normalization of political violence against the right” and “promot[ing] violence against Donald Trump.” Her collaborator and co-worker at conservative media outlet The Rebel, Jack Posobiec, yelled “You are all Goebbels.”
What does it mean for far right protesters, some of whom identify with the alt-right movement, to use the name Goebbels? Contrary to Salvatore Cipolla, the protester I witnessed, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, would not have been proud of this production, nor would he have attended.
I sat there, his name hanging over the play, thinking about my Jewish mother sitting next to me, who teaches the next generation of young Jews five days a week as a nursery class teacher at the JCC in Manhattan. I thought about the Magen David hanging around my neck. I thought about the kippot-clad men in the audience. I thought about Joseph Goebbels, who was known for his personal anti-Semitism, who called for extermination of the Jews of Europe and, as Nazi Minister of Propaganda, played a central role in the orchestration of the mass murder of my family members. Our people, the Jews of the New York theater scene’s people. We’re still here, and we are not Goebbels.
This past academic year, at the University of Chicago, where I will return to the fall, no less than four separate instances of neo-Nazi propaganda posters were found on campus, from various neo-Nazi and alt-right groups. Swastikas, images of Hitler, and the promotion of European superiority became common-place, as individuals unaffiliated with the University community trespassed and created an environment where I began to say “there are neo-Nazi posters again” nonchalantly to my friends. For the most part, these posters did not explicitly target Jews. Posters placed on our Center for Identity and Inclusion directly intimidated queer students and students of color for whom the Center provides spaces. Yet Jews are still a target for these associations, as seen by the rise of right-wing anti-Semitism as the alt-right became a legitimized political group. On my campus, posters explicitly targeting Jews were hung. Goebbels would have been proud.
The people rushing the stage aren’t necessarily members of alt-right or neo-Nazi groups, but they are part of the same fabric of hyper conservatives attempting to prevent commentary on how this presidency could lead to increased violence. They belong to a political community that also posters the University of Chicago campus with white supremacist flyers. Contrary to what many of them believe, the Public’s production of Julius Caesar depicts how an assassination of a leader, a clear breach of democracy, would lead to mass chaos, death, and in this production, authoritarianism. The protesters had their own self-imposed role: to disrupt the event, after which they were escorted out and most were charged. But had they defied their role and stayed through the end of the production, they would have witnessed the aftermath of the Trump-like Caesar’s assassination. Marcus Antony wages a war against the people, executing the traitors who assassinated Caesar, their supporters, and anyone who gets in the way of the extremely militarized police force. The scenes following the assassination immediately recalled images of the Soviet Union under Stalin, or, yes, Nazi Germany.
Goebbels would not be proud of the audience, for its presence of Jews and its consumption of non-state-sanctioned art. He would not have been proud of the insinuation that state-sanctioned violence is evil. But would he have been any prouder of Laura Loomer, the far-right protester on stage as Posobiec introduced cries of “You are all Goebbels” into the conversation? Loomer is a proud Jew who, along with many Jewish members of the media, has experienced increased anti-Semitism, and whose journalistic bio states that one of her journalistic passions is anti-Semitism. A rabid anti-Semite, Goebbels would have been no prouder of Loomer’s existence than the many Jews in the audience, reminders that the Nazis’ plan failed. He would have been prouder of Richard Spencer, the white supremacist University of Chicago alum who has condemned Loomer’s actions and made anti-Semitic comments. Did Loomer appreciate her fellow protesters’ likening of theatergoers to Goebbels as members of the far right continue to encourage hatred of Jews?
The alt-right has allowed for an increase in anti-Semitism, with many members proudly stating their hatred for Jews, including for far-right Jews such as Loomer. The protesters’ use of “Goebbels” to condemn audience members of Julius Caesar as Nazis is hypocritical and bizarre. If anything, their inclusion of anti-Semites in their movement has promoted Goebbels as a hero, a hero far removed from the audience members of the Public’s production who are still able to appreciate art, who do not call for the censorship and propaganda Goebbels would have wanted, and for many, whose simple existence is a defiance of his orders. Rather, the alt-right is fulfilling Goebbels’ wishes. The alt-right is not a movement to take seriously, except for the serious risk they continue to represent for Jews and other minorities.