“My God! A parent gave a Nazi salute to a school board because he thought the policies were oppressive,” Cruz yelled at Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was answering a series of questions from senators Wednesday.
Republican senators focused on a recent memo stating that the Justice Department would investigate “harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” directed at school boards.
Cruz’s comments were intended to show that the department’s involvement in monitoring school board meetings is not warranted. “Giving a Nazi salute to an elected official, is it protected by the First Amendment?” Cruz asked Garland, who is Jewish.
“Yes, it is,” Garland replied.
In recent months there have been multiple incidents of Nazi salutes at school board meetings as school boards have emerged as a battleground over COVID-19 prevention measures and Holocaust analogies have taken hold between critics of such measures in the United States and abroad.
A greeting at a school board meeting in Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, made national news when it took place in August. Cruz was referring to a different incident from August, when police removed a man from a school board meeting in Birmingham, Michigan, for using a Nazi salute and yelling “Heil Hitler” to protest a student mask mandate.
That incident was listed, among others, in a letter from the National School Board Association, which identified such incidents as “domestic terrorism.” The association later apologized for using the term, which some Republican lawmakers have cited as evidence that the justice department’s scrutiny of violence at school board meetings is just an effort to silence parents’ criticism of the COVID-19 rules. (The Garland memo did not use the term or list specific incidents.)
Several liberals and Democrats in Congress criticized Cruz, arguing that he was defending the Nazis and pointing out that the exchange occurred on the third anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre, the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. .
“Ted Cruz just casually defended the Nazis in a congressional hearing,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has been plagued by separate allegations of anti-Semitism.
Cruz responded: “I was defending the right of citizens to denounce authoritarian policies. In other words, OPPOSE the Nazis (or petty tyrants), not support them. “
In another tweet to a liberal journalist, Cruz said: “The father was giving the Nazi salute because he called the authoritarian school board Nazis: evil, bad and abusive.”
Various Jewish organizational leaders and Holocaust scholars have objected to Nazi metaphors to describe current political tensions, saying they diminish the Holocaust.
“Nazi greetings may be protected by free speech, but that does not mean they are not offensive symbols of hate,” the American Jewish Committee said in a tweet in response to Cruz. “Defending them at any time, let alone on the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, is deeply insensitive and inappropriate.”