Charlottesville: Rethinking Reactions

“The heat here is nothing compared to what you’ll get in the ovens.”

On Saturday, August 12, hundreds of neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in a rally against plans to remove a confederate monument. Though billed as a “Unite the Right” demonstration, it quickly became apparent that the protest had been organized by the American neo-Nazi movement. The mob employed the Nazi salute, wielded swastika flags, and chanted nightmarish anti-Semitic refrains.

From carolineyeager.net

Many white American Jews were quick to respond to the Charlottesville protests by lamenting the pain wrought by such a jarring display of anti-Semitism. Both my Facebook newsfeed and the sphere of American media became saturated with vocalizations of fear, sadness, and terror on behalf of the Jewish community. As a Jew, I understand this reaction, and am in no way implying that such pain is irrational. But Charlottesville also revealed the essentiality of anti-Black hatred to the American neo-Nazi movement. American Nazis march with the KKK, wave the Confederate flag, and advocate against the human rights of black and brown people; Charlottesville was organized in response to the removal of a Confederate statue. And the response of white Jews has failed to acknowledge the intersection of these two pillars of American white nationalism.

To argue that both anti-Semitism and anti-Black hatred are central motivations for the American Nazi movement is not to argue that they are synonymous. As a friend recently urged me to acknowledge, they are two completely different forms of oppression, sculpted by two unique histories. Ranking them is useless, and neither Jewish nor African-American fear is inherently more legitimate. But American Nazis aim to instill both, a fact that white Jews have a responsibility to acknowledge.

Accounting for that intersection is essential, too, because it may help us discern the role of our whiteness in response to events like the Charlottesville protests. If we acknowledge that the rally on August 12th was about both anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism, then we must also acknowledge the distance from violence afforded to us by our whiteness. Today, existing as a white American Jew is fundamentally different from existing as an African American: racially motivated violence simply does not follow us as it does black and brown people. Yes, Jewish people still endure the effects of anti-Semitism — and people who present as Orthodox Jews are forced to endure far more than those who do not. But the police don’t kill us every day. Jews who look like me don’t get called “kike” in the street. America has indoctrinated us into the tribe of whiteness, and our fear in moments like these is therefore fundamentally different than that of black Americans.

The failure to acknowledge this reality was embodied in one particularly infuriating New York Times op-ed circulated in the wake of Charlottesville. “It may as well be millions of years of dignity, of civility, of progress lost,” wrote Nathan Englander. He argued that Charlottesville symbolized a momentous setback for the Jewish community, and that this one event meant that our Jewish children would now grow up in a world fundamentally more anti-Semitic than it was in, say, July 2017.

This is what has so frustrated me about my community’s response to Charlottesville: our failure to acknowledge that in the past 50 years, so much has actually changed. We are not the objects of ethnic discrimination, and are, in fact, the beneficiaries of immense privilege. Charlottesville did not suddenly reveal to us that American Jews are in immediate danger of ethnically-motivated violence. It actually teaches the opposite: yes, anti-Semitism is real, but our whiteness will protect us from its most brutal effects.

White Jews have a right to feel fear, and we have a right to process that fear. At the same time, however, we have a responsibility to think critically about everything that Charlottesville meant and will continue to mean. I would urge my fellow white Jews not to limit their reactions to the anti-Semitic slurs and the swastikas. Feel what anti-Semitism makes you feel; let it motivate you to do good work; but always remember that the ethnically-motivated violence embodied at Charlottesville will befall the bodies of black people far more than it will white Jews.