Co-authored with Douglas Kindschi, director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute
They went to Charlottesville, they said, to peacefully protest the removal of a statue of Confederate War General, Robert E. Lee; they were simply exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. Western civilization itself, they said, was at stake. So they rallied defenders of our culture, our country and our heritage.
Yet the actual “protest” was curiously quiet about the removal of a statue. And when you saw their Nazi symbols and KKK hoods, read their hate signs and tweets, and heard their vicious chants, it became abundantly clear that this was not intended to preserve a bit of history.
This was anti-Semitism pure and simple.
Again, and to repeat, the rally was not about the preservation of monuments, it was about Jews. Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists alike chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” (the English translation of the Nazi slogan “blut und boden”). They carried banners with swastikas; one sign said, “Jews are Satan’s children.” Nazi websites called for the burning of the Charlottesville synagogue. In interviews, one the protestors asserted that, “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers.” Others complained that Jews control the media, American politics, and the worldwide financial order. Under cover of the constitution, their flags, confederate and Nazi, were as much or more weapons of anti-Semitic hate as symbols of the white race.
While much recent hate talk is aimed at Muslims, anti-Semitism is sadly on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League’s most recent audit reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents for three straight years (2014-2016). They reported a shocking 86% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the first four months of 2017. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2015, more that 50% of all victims of religious hate crimes are Jews. From bomb threats to toppled tombstones, anti-Semitism is on the rise.
The Anti-Defamation league reports the following recent incidents of anti-Semitism:
- In February, a contractor who requested payment for a job he completed received anti-Semitic voicemail stating that he should be killed and that Hitler should have killed all the Jews.
- In March, swastikas were drawn on the sidewalks in front of three different synagogues in Clearwater, Florida.
- In February, swastikas and the phrase “Kill all Jews” painted on a Las Vegas public park.
Yesterday, Brandeis University, a Jewish institution in Massachusetts, closed its campus in response to a bomb threat.
The protestors were right, of course, about what was at stake—our country’s heritage and culture. They were wrong, however, about our culture, our country, and our heritage. To them “our” country is white and Christian. So they offered their cramped and self-serving vision of “our” country while leaving out America’s overwhelming commitment to respect all people regardless of race or religion. Our culture, our country and our heritage is not white, European, Christian; our country is one that increasingly realizes its promise that “all men are created equal.”
I say, “promise,” because our bigoted forefathers restricted “men” to white, protestant males. But their idea of radical equality was bigger and better than they were; bigger and better than they could even grasp. It would take centuries to realize this promise.
Catholics, early on, were discriminated against; centuries later, anti-Catholic prejudice would rear its ugly head during the election of John Kennedy, the first Catholic President in US history. It would take more than a century for women to gain the right to vote and even longer for them to gain social and economic equality with men. It would take a civil war and a civil rights movement for the promise to blacks to be realized. And it would take a holocaust for western Europeans to consider Jews as more than scapegoats.
Such promises, never fully realized, are always works in progress. And, given human nature, always subject to regress. We seem almost as racially segregated as we were in the 1950s, Islamophobia is on the rise, and, as Charlottesville reminds us once again, anti-Semitism has never gone away. And so, we must guard that great promise carefully and redouble our efforts to realize its promise.
According to Elie Wiesel, in accepting his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. … Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
With hatred in its various guises on the rise, the counter forces for compassion and peace have quickly mobilized. Last week, over 40,000 people in Boston gathered peacefully to reject hate and xenophobia. Such responses send a clear message that we as a society are on the side of compassion and inclusion.
We must also resist the hate that animates our opponents. One of the founders of the nonprofit organization, “Life After Hate,” dedicated to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other extremist groups, tells of the experience that planted the seed that eventually led to his leaving his own white nationalist organization. As reported in Sojourners, he “was being served at McDonald’s by an elderly African-American woman who saw the swastika tattooed on his hand. She looked at him, and said, ‘Oh honey, you’re so much better than that.’”
I am deeply concerned that after the women’s suffrage movement, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and the holocaust, we have allowed our country to regress so dramatically in the realization of its promise of equality. Let us, then, take the side, as Wiesel advised, of the persecuted woman, Muslim, black and Jew. Let us speak with wisdom, act with bravery, and be motivated by compassion. For all.