Thoughts on Charlottesville

I was a senior in High School when neo-Nazis attempted to march through Skokie, Illinois, home to a large Jewish population, many of whom were survivors of the Holocaust.  Though the march eventually happened instead in Chicago, an Illinois Appeals Court ruled that it could in fact be held in Skokie.  In their decision the judges said that although the march was clearly a provocation, it was “protected speech” because Skokie’s attorneys did not prove that the Nazi symbols, uniforms or literature would incite violence.  I wonder how that court would rule today.

The tragedy in Charlottesville was horrific on many levels, first and foremost being the loss of life.  We mourn with the family of Heather Heyer, a victim of hate and terrorism, and we mourn with the families of the two officers who died while protecting the ideals of our country.

I’m sure that you have been following the events and the statements about the events since Friday.  I was struck by the fact that the focus of the virulent alt-right hate speech had little to do with the stated purpose of the rally.  Instead, different minority groups were the real targets and we should not have been surprised that the Jews were included.  The rabbi of the small congregation there, Tom Gutthertz, told me that he simply cannot describe what it felt like to stand outside his synagogue with a few members and a security guard, staring at armed alt-right militiamen gathered directly across the street, and listening to uniformed neo-Nazis marching by, chanting “there’s the Temple. Zig heil!”  In the United States.  In 2017.

Yet Rabbi Gutthertz stressed the support he has received from the Charlottesville Clergy Alliance, and from the public at large.  This is a close-knit university town, and almost all of the extremists came from elsewhere to participate.  In the midst of our grief and anger, it’s important to keep in mind that while the alt-right hooligans are loud, hate-filled and dangerous, they are not very big and they are not growing.  We should not panic.  Which is not to say that we should be ignoring what is happening.

The truth is that these people are no more hateful now than they were last year.  The only difference is that they have been emboldened to act publicly.  They have crawled out into the light this year only because they have sensed since early in the presidential primaries that there are a few prominent Americans who will not slap them down.  They stand taller because they see that the President does not want to disavow them, and doesn’t really mean it when he is forced to.  His comments yesterday about “very fine people on both sides” make clear his belief that there is a moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis and those who oppose them.  That is horrifying in itself.

I’m heartened by the nation-wide outpouring of opposition from all parts of the political spectrum, opposition to the hate itself, and to the cowardly refusal of the administration to call it what it is.  The alt-right spews a virulent, disgusting, homophobic, anti-black, anti-Semitic ideology.  It is the same ideology which plunged us into WW II, and which many Americans died fighting valiantly to defeat.  To suggest, as the President did, that those who fight Nazis somehow bear part of the responsibility for the violence is a perversion of history, and an insult to their memories.

I’m heartened by the peaceful gatherings and the candle lit vigils which have sprung up across the country.  These moments reinforce for us the truth that we are not helpless in the face of barbarism.  When communities come together in solidarity we are reminded that the vast majority of Americans hold fast to the ideals which have made this country a welcoming place for Jews as well as many other groups.

This Friday night our Shabbat services will reflect on those ideals. They are already deeply embedded in our tradition, so it does not take much tweaking, but this week it’s important to focus more consciously on that connection.  And it’s important simply to be together.

I need to add one more thought.  Vigils and prayer services are powerful ways for us to reassure ourselves that the fabric of society is still strong.  But by themselves they are not enough to bring about the change we seek.  We can use these gatherings to calm our fears, and then we must use them as a way to galvanize ourselves to act.  The hatred on display in Charlottesville has been a small but persistent thread in our nation’s history; it will not be wiped out overnight.  Change will come riding in on the shoulders of all those willing to do the daily, on-going work required to create a just society.  Our prophets called us to this task, and over the weeks and months ahead I’ll suggest specific ways to heed their call in your own life.

We read in Deuteronomy “you shall not remain indifferent.”  We are blessed to live among millions of Americans who believe that and act upon it. I look forward to continuing to work with you in building the society our tradition envisions, and our children deserve.


Author: Rabbi