The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia left most Americans shocked, upset, and looking for answers. The most pressing issue at hand was certainly what is the correct response to neo-Nazis. While President Trump’s inability to condemn the white supremacists was clearly not the right response, another suggestion emerged from these pages suggesting that we should be making friends with neo-Nazis. This second response was equally wrong.
Written by Bethany Mandel, the piece marshals three examples of people who successfully convinced people out of their white supremacist views. Let there be no doubt—leading people away from racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry is a moral good. Mandel’s proposal, however, is not.
For starters, befriending bigots provides those who do not self-describe as neo-Nazis with political cover: “How can I be anti-Semitic when I have Jewish friends?” Furthermore, friendship requires mutual respect. When we befriend someone who believes that we are worth less than they are, the resulting relationship is a one-way street. In this case, making friends to white supremacists means making friends with people who could never respect us, because they believe we are subhuman. It follows that reaching out to neo-Nazis in this way entails a sacrifice of our own dignity.
But the work of activists that Mandel describes in her column is not actually friendship; it is an effort to debunk bigoted beliefs by speaking with those who hold them on an individualized basis. This approach, though perhaps rewarding for some, is ineffective: what Mandel fails to mention is that these efforts are necessarily limited in their impact, as they require far more resources, including emotional energy and time, than other forms of outreach, and those who actually subscribe to these beliefs are vastly outnumbered by those on the fence. For example, it took David Abitbol of Jewlicious“months” of engaging Megan Phelps-Roper on Twitter before she began to rethink her ideas. Spending this amount of time on each member of the far-right is simply unfeasible.
In addition, not all the examples Mandel provides support her position. In one of cases she cites, widespread social exclusion was the only reason that a neo-Nazi reconsidered his beliefs at all. When Derek Black, the godson of notorious white nationalist David Duke, was “outed” as a white nationalist at his university, he was ostracized. Eventually, a Jewish student invited him to his weekly Shabbat dinners. Black accepted only because it was “the only social invitation” he had received.
Moreover, there are far more people to convince with less effort elsewhere on the political spectrum. Though the rising tide of white nationalism and neo-Nazism is terrifying, its supporters constitute a small minority of Americans. A recent poll revealed that only nine percent of Americans feel that holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views is “acceptable”; 83 percent say it is “unacceptable.” Likewise, only 10 percent of those surveyed said that they support the “alt-Right” movement; fifty percent oppose the alt-Right. However, 41 percent say they have “no opinion” on the alt-Right. What this reveals is not an imperative to reach out in good faith to those whose beliefs deny our dignity or right to exist, but rather a need to engage with those who have yet to be convinced either way.
Any number of neo-Nazis—no matter how few—is too many, and a threat to all minorities. We must oppose them effectively and with confidence. Attempting to make them our friends is not the way to do this. We should instead direct our limited resources elsewhere: excluding them from political power, convincing the “Do Not Knows,” and protecting the vulnerable, by force if necessary, when bigots dare to show themselves.
Noah Baron is a civil rights attorney who lives in San Francisco, CA.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled David Abitbol’s name.