How tales of Jewish resistance inspire a 21st Century Nazi hunter
“The madness of the brave moves the world forward,” Chaika Grossman said when she was fighting Nazis in the Polish ghettos. She had a ticket out of Poland in 1938 but chose to stay behind and lead the resistance in her hometown of Bialystok. The Nazis entered the city and punished it at the height of their fury; over the next years, they deported and murdered all but a few hundred of Bialystok’s 50,000 Jews. When Soviet troops arrived in 1944, Grossman was still there. She marched alongside the liberating soldiers and later became a leftwing member of the Israeli Knesset who advocated for Arab civil rights and the rights of workers, women and children.
Amy Spitalnick, a modern-day Nazi fighter, has drawn inspiration from Grossman and women like her, whose stories are detailed in Judy Batalion’s book “The Light of Days.” A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Spitalnick is executive director of the nonprofit Integrity First for America (IFA), which is suing the neo-Nazis who planned the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. This October, after four years of depositions and delays, IFA’s lawsuit Sines v. Kessler will finally go to trial. Its outcome has potentially historic implications.
In late May, Spitalnick joined Batalion at “Nazis to Neo-Nazis: Women’s Path to Resistance Then and Now,” a virtual briefing hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Afterward, I spoke with Spitalnick and her colleague, attorney Roberta Kaplan, by phone and over Zoom. I wanted to know what it’s like to fight Nazis today, when influential mainstream figures like Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson have espoused neo-Nazi positions and given neo-Nazis an unprecedented platform within the Republican Party. If you think that’s hyperbole, facts surrounding Sines v. Kessler may change your mind.
At the Holocaust Museum event, Spitalnick noted the gulf in circumstances between fighting Nazis in the Polish ghettos and fighting them here and now — though the gulf is not quite as wide as she would like or as some might think.
“Instead of using teddy bears with guns inside,” Spitalnick said, referring to one of the ghetto-fighters’ smuggling operations, “we’re using our justice system.”
‘Do You Want To Help Me Sue Some Nazis?’.
People generally remember Charlottesville for the car that plowed into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer, but the car attack was just one maneuver in a battle that neo-Nazis planned for months and executed Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, with multiple armed assaults involving mace, shields, metal flagpoles and guns. IFA’s lawsuit pursues compensation for Charlottesville victims injured in the violence.
While this is not Poland in 1938, the lawsuit has required a special kind of bravery unique to the Trump era. Spitalnick and Kaplan say they have faced personal and physical threats unlike any in their prior careers in politics and law. Federal prosecutors enjoy ample protections while prosecuting violent criminals. Private citizens who pursue justice through civil litigation are more vulnerable.
But Kaplan, the lead counsel in the lawsuit alongside former federal prosecutor Karen Dunn, says that after Charlottesville she felt obligated to pursue the Unite the Right planners through civil litigation because the Department of Justice (DOJ) under Trump would not likely pursue criminal indictments. Federal prosecutors did obtain convictions for a handful of perpetrators at Unite the Right, including a life-sentence for James Fields, Heather Heyer’s killer, but they did not investigate conspiracy or domestic terrorism as the Justice Department has done in the case of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. The latter investigation has charged around 500 people, 40 of them with various forms of criminal conspiracy.
“There’s no question that this is the Justice Department’s job, and they have far greater powers to enforce these laws,” Kaplan told me. She points out that the department was created in 1870 with a specifically antiracist mandate of protecting freed slaves’ rights in the states that lost the Civil War. “If we had had a Justice Department doing its job, I don’t know that I would have been doing this,” she said.
Because the Trump DOJ ignored the criminal conspiracy behind the violence at Unite the Right, Kaplan initiated a lawsuit and reached out to Spitalnick, who was then working as a representative for New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood. Spitalnick remembers that Kaplan proposed they work together with this question:
“Do you want to help me sue some Nazis?”
When the defendants received their summonses and learned, as one of them put it, they were being sued by “a lot of fucking kikes,” they began a campaign of harassment and threats targeting the plaintiffs, the legal team and IFA. One of the defendants, Jason Kessler, “just sits in his living room livestreaming about me and Robbie,” Spitalnick says. “Michael Hill posted how I should be afraid of him. Jeff Schoep sent mail to my home address.”
Another defendant, Chris Cantwell, often ridiculed as “The Crying Nazi” because he posted a video of himself in tears over a warrant for his arrest, threatened Kaplan by posting on the messaging app Telegram, “After this stupid kike whore loses this fraudulent lawsuit, we’re going to have a lot of fucking fun with her.” Shortly thereafter, in an unrelated tantrum, he threatened to rape a fellow white supremacist’s wife. Cantwell was arrested for the latter incident and convicted of extortion and making violent threats. He is currently in prison in Illinois.
Anonymous emails and messages continue to flood IFA’s inbox promising violent reprisal against Jews and, at the end of 2019, Spitalnick and Kaplan’s names appeared on a list called “The Noticer” that neo-Nazis share on Telegram. Spitalnick says the list is “intended to create a one-stop shop for threats and harassment.” The threats call for Spitalnick and Kaplan’s murder and are often specific about how it should be done. One message included a photograph of the sender’s assault rifles and ammunition.
“It’s fair to say we take this stuff seriously,” Kaplan says. “It would be silly not to.”
The biggest single line item in IFA’s budget is security. The murder threats have not, however, deterred the two women.
“If anything,” Kaplan says, “it makes me more determined.”
“I wholeheartedly agree,” Spitalnick says. “They use harassment and threats as a way of trying to scare us away and stop us from holding them accountable. Practically, though, the security risk has a tangible impact in that I’m spending a lot of time making sure our team has the resources to be safe. We take significant precautions. Every day we get a report of what’s been said about us and IFA and the team and the case, including on the dark web, and in nearly all of those reports there are threats directed at Robbie or me or others on the team.”
‘We Thought the Best Way To Take a Bully On Was Sunlight’
When she was a child, Spitalnick often dreamt of what she would do in her grandparents’ shoes. In Poland during World War II, Spitalnick’s grandmother Anna was put on a train to a concentration camp, but was rescued by resistance fighters, after which she and her sisters went into hiding in the Polish countryside. They were on the move when the Nazis found them. Spitalnick’s grandmother hid under a porch and listened to the gunshots ring out as the Nazi soldiers executed her sisters and their children. She survived the rest of the war in hiding with a non-Jewish woman.
Early on, Spitalnick committed to speaking out about her family history. In elementary school, she brought her grandmother to school for “cultural diversity day” to tell her story. When she grew up, Spitalnick became a political representative. From 2008 to 2011, she served as the first press secretary at J Street, the liberal advocacy group, and then served as a representative for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and for New York State Attorneys General Eric Schneiderman and Barbara Underwood. In all those roles, Spitalnick grew accustomed to speaking out for her political values and absorbing blows from political opponents and reporters.
When I asked her how she got good at public speaking, she said, “I have no idea, I don’t know. I don’t think I’m good at it. I watched a recording of myself at a live event and it was mortifying. I thought, ‘Why does your hair look like that?’ ”
When Tucker Carlson was editor of The Daily Caller, Spitalnick asked for a correction on a story that had misquoted Mayor de Blasio. She received ad hominem, insulting replies, including one from Carlson’s brother Buckley making fun of her family name with bizarre fellatio references and calling Spitalnick a “whiny little self-righteous bitch” and “LabiaFace.”
“That was pre-Trump, so that kind of language in our politics was still shocking, perhaps now less so,” she said. She went public with the juvenile Carlson emails and got her correction. “We thought the best way to take on a bully was sunlight.”
Meanwhile, years before the Charlottesville suit, Kaplan had already made history by arguing United States v. Windsor, the 2013 Supreme Court case that granted marriage equality to same-sex couples. Kaplan is herself gay and knew how much the case would mean to the gay community if she won. No stranger to political battles herself, she jokes easily about the neo-Nazis who have harassed them. After representing Johnny Depp’s ex-wife, actor Amber Heard, Kaplan told The Washington Post that the Johnny Depp fans’ online attacks were worse than the Nazis’.
“I think he’s paying a Russian bot farm,” Kaplan says of Depp.
The Charlottesville defendants’ open hostility to the plaintiffs and the court proceedings has not only failed to deter IFA, but actually strengthened the plaintiffs’ case.
“The single biggest struggle so far has been the [defendants’] flouting of court orders in discovery,” Kaplan says. Rather than surrender their iPhones in response to subpoenas, for instance, multiple defendants have, according to Kaplan, claimed to have dropped their phones in the toilet. The court ultimately issued monetary sanctions against the defendants and a series of adverse inference rulings, a type of ruling that Kaplan says she’s wanted her entire career and has never been granted until now.
A judge issues an adverse inference ruling against a defendant who has illegally destroyed or withheld evidence, explains Michael Bloch, one of the chief litigators in the IFA case. As a remedy, the judge can instruct the jury to accept parts of the plaintiffs’ argument as fact from the beginning of the trial. In the case of Elliot Kline, who combs his hair like Hitler and calls himself a “judenjager,” or “Jew hunter,” for instance, the judge will instruct the jury to consider it an established fact that Kline “entered into an agreement with one or more coconspirators to engage in racially-motivated violence in Charlottesville” Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. Kline has been fined and jailed for repeatedly flouting court orders and lying under oath.
If the jury decides in October that Kline and his coconspirators are responsible for damages, the defendants could well spend the rest of their days paying their debts to the plaintiffs. Richard Spencer, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “one of the country’s most successful young white nationalist leaders” and “a kind of professional racist in khakis,” is among the defendants in the IFA suit and has already complained that it’s been “financially crippling.” Days after Unite the Right, he told The Daily Mail, “I always win,” but he has so far lost his battles with Charlottesville plaintiffs. In May 2021, in a separate lawsuit filed by a victim of the Charlottesville car attack, a court ordered Spencer’s think tank, the National Policy Institute, to pay $2.4 million in damages.
“Our team is committed to following these defendants around for the rest of their lives to make sure they pay the judgments against them to the victims of their violence,” Spitalnick says.
‘A Notion Straight out of Nazi Ideology’
The October IFA trial will take place in the context of a new national reckoning with racism, the biggest in perhaps a generation. Antisemitism climbed off the charts during the Trump Presidency; in 2019, according to the Anti-Defamation League, hate crimes against American Jews spiked to the highest levels ever recorded. 2021 began with white supremacist domestic terrorists killing Capitol policemen and waving Confederate flags in the Rotunda. Regressive legislation has in the last months passed in statehouses around the country, aiming to suppress voting in communities of color and to interfere with those communities’ ability to protest violent police misconduct.
The Unite the Right neo-Nazis have more than an incidental relationship to this national context. Experts on racist extremism who have prepared depositions for IFA report that the defendants in Sines v. Kessler have sought to mainstream and spread their racist agenda by appealing to racist sentiments in the broader public, attempting to fan the flames of white grievance into a race war. National figures like Trump and Tucker Carlson have helped them succeed beyond their wildest dreams; the Unite the Right planners’ tactics have since showed up at the U.S. Capitol and their rhetoric has shown up in Republican-sponsored legislation.
Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon flung the mainstream door open to white supremacists by declaring himself and his candidate their mouthpiece, specifically referring to the news outlet he ran, Breitbart News, as a “platform for the “alt-right”.” The man who originated the term and the idea “alt-right” was Richard Spencer. No wonder he celebrated Trump’s victory at a 2016 “alt-right” conference with Sieg Heils and cries of “Hail Trump!”
The New York Times reported on the 2016 conference: “While much of the discourse at the conference was overtly racist and demeaning toward minorities, for much of the day the sentiments were expressed in ways that seemed intended to not sound too menacing. The focus was on how whites were marginalized and beleaguered.”
“We’ve crossed the Rubicon in terms of recognition,” Spencer said of Trump’s victory that November. He derided the mainstream media for predicting Trump would lose, using the Nazis’ disparaging term Lügenpresse, which means “lying press.” Or, in other words, “fake news.”
At times, Trump Republicans seem fully cognizant of the Nazi provenance of their white grievance politics. On Jan. 5, a day before the Capitol insurrection, at a pro-Trump rally hosted by “Moms for America,” newly elected congresswoman Mary Miller, Republican of Illinois, quoted Hitler in a sympathetic light:
“Hitler was right on one thing,” she said to the crowd gathered outside the U.S. Capitol building. “Whoever has the youth has the future.”
She was following the “alt-right” playbook, like Trump was in 2018, when he told his chief of staff, John Kelly, that “Hitler did a lot of good things.”
The day after congresswoman Miller dropped that pearl of wisdom from “Mein Kampf,” a mob carrying Confederate flags and sporting neo-Nazi regalia stormed the Capitol, convinced that the election had been stolen from their candidate, and as in Charlottesville they used flagpoles to assault their opponents — this time Capitol policemen. The willingness to accept Trump’s lie that the election was stolen derives, perhaps, from a more general feeling that the country itself has been stolen from whites by non-whites. That’s a notion straight out of neo-Nazi ideology. French white supremacist Renaud Camus coined the phrase “The Great Replacement” to describe the supposed phenomenon and neo-Nazi David Lane then repackaged the conspiracy theory in America. Lane has asserted that Jews are plotting to vanquish white power by pushing Democrats to open U.S. borders to nonwhite immigrants who will then vote Democrat. It’s what the Charlottesville neo-Nazis were referring to when they chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”
In April of this year, Tucker Carlson espoused the idea before millions of viewers. He accused Democrats of “trying to replace the current electorate” with Third-World immigrants. Carlson denies that his statement had anything to do with race, but it’s hard to understand what he means through any other filter. Democrats are not trying to replace anything, because there’s nothing to replace. People are people, unless you think that white people are different or better than others. Whatever Carlson thinks, however, neo-Nazis celebrate him as their gateway to the mainstream.
“When Tucker Carlson, who hosts the most popular opinion show on TV, starts calling out jews for their hypocrisy,” defendant Michael Hill of League of the South posted on Telegram, “then it’s time for jews to get nervous. I pray the normies are awakening to the supreme importance of understanding the JQ [Jewish Question].”
‘Laws Like This Are a Far-Right Dream’
Perhaps nothing demonstrates the Unite the Right planners’ success mainstreaming their ideas so well as the anti-protester legislation recently passed by three Republican statehouses. These new state laws share their rationale and rhetoric with the Unite the Right neo-Nazis who championed the right to hit protesters with their cars and provoked the car attack that killed Heather Heyer.
IFA’s expert witness reports reveal that much of the neo-Nazis’ pre-Charlottesville battle-planning on social media app Discord focused on what kinds of assaults they could get away with if they disguised the assaults as self-defense. One report, for example, quotes defendant Jason Kessler’s statement on Discord June 9, 2017: “if you want a chance to crack some antifa skulls in self-defense don’t open carry. You will scare the shit out of them and they’ll just stand off to the side.” Car attacks were among the many methods of disguised assault contemplated by the neo-Nazi planners.
“Is it legal to run over protestors blocking roadways?” one discussant mused. “I’m NOT just shitposting. I would like clarification.”
In May 2017, neo-Nazi James Fields, who kept a photo of Adolf Hitler next to his bed, posted a meme to Instagram with a photo of a car driving into protesters and the caption: “You have the right to protest. But I’m late for work.” In the 5-months before the Charlottesville rally, Fields also posted and messaged 30 images of Hitler. Then, in August, at Unite the Right in Charlottesville, he stepped on his car’s accelerator, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others.
In the last few months, Republican lawmakers across the country have made it clear they have the neo-Nazis’ backs on this one. They have passed laws in Oklahoma, Iowa, and Florida that grant civil immunity to drivers who hit protesters, so long as the drivers believe themselves endangered. That’s precisely the mendacious justification for violence that the neo-Nazis explicitly urge on their followers, and it’s a legal standard that defers to the judgment of perpetrators behind the wheel, like James Fields. As a Vox report put it, “Laws like the one in Oklahoma are a far-right dream…. There is a specific history in the U.S. of the far right using cars as weapons, and it’s not hard to see how bills like the one that is now law in Oklahoma might only make things worse.”
The Oklahoma law protects drivers from both criminal charges and civil liability. The Iowa and Florida laws offer only civil immunity. All three laws provide the requested “clarification” to the neo-Nazi who asked for it on Discord in the run-up to Charlottesville. The answer is: yes, you can run down protesters if you claim to perceive them as a threat.
‘For a Person Who Supposedly Controls the Media, It’s Been Hard To Get Media Coverage’.
Granting civil immunity to drivers who kill or injure protesters does more than encourage would-be perpetrators of car attacks. It seeks to deprive victims of far-right violence like those in Charlottesville of the means to pursue justice when law enforcement fails them.
In 1981, Ku Klux Klansmen in Mobile, Alabama, lynched Beulah Mae Donald’s youngest son Michael. The killers were belatedly brought to justice, but as in the case of Unite the Right, the DOJ did not pursue those who fomented and organized the violence. Donald and attorney Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, pursued justice through civil litigation. The suit Donald v. United Klans of America was decided in 1987. It awarded Donald $7 million in damages, which the Klan in Alabama could not afford to pay. They went bankrupt.
Since IFA’s lawsuit, Sines v. Kessler, could have a similar historic impact, Spitalnick wonders why it hasn’t received more attention.
“For a person who supposedly controls the media, it’s been hard to get media coverage,” she says, referring to the antisemitic trope that Jews control the “lying press” and use it for world domination.
“Many of us have the fear that both the Jewish community and Americans in general are not sufficiently aware of the threat we’re facing,” Spitalnick says.
The example of the car attack legislation demonstrates just how far and how literally the neo-Nazi agenda has metastasized into the mainstream Republican agenda. As Georgetown history professor Thomas Zimmer told Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon, “The radicalization of the Republican Party has outpaced what even most critical observers imagined. We need to grapple with what that should mean for our expectations going forward and start thinking about real worst-case scenarios.”
“Our democratic institutions are more in danger than ever, unless we act,” Spitalnick says. “It’s important for the Jewish community to recognize hate crimes against minorities are all related. Many Jews don’t seem to understand ‘then they came for me’.” German pastor Martin Niemöller used those famous words to describe his failure to act and speak out against the Nazis: “First they came for the socialists, and I said nothing because I was not a socialist … then they came for the Jews, and I said nothing because I was not a Jew … then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” “The best way to stop them,” Spitalnick says, “is to be united against them.” If we don’t win now with the legal tools available, she adds, we risk losing those tools.
Winning U.S. v. Windsor, Kaplan says, “did give me what I hope is not a false sense of confidence that you can use the courts to achieve far-reaching change. I’m hoping this case will be a wake-up call, a shofar, to Jews that they have to take this very, very seriously.”
Spitalnick and Kaplan are not running from the moment. In that way they follow in the footsteps of Chaika Grossman and Beulah Mae Donald. As Michael Figures, one of Donald’s attorneys, said of his client, who lost her son to racist violence, fought, and bankrupted the Alabama KKK, “She never backed out; she just stayed there.”
Austin Ratner is a winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and in 2017 The New York Times Magazine selected his essay “Sidewalk Phantom” as one of its all-time best Lives columns.