When the trial of two dozen alt-right organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally begins in Charlottesville on Monday, Jews, among those targeted in the extremist gathering, will be watching closely. But they are also key players in the case.
One of the lead lawyers for the plaintiff is Roberta Kaplan, a feminist who has long been active in New York’s Jewish community. And Deborah Lipstadt, the renowned Holocaust historian who is the Biden Administration’s nominee to be global envoy to combat antisemitism, is slated to take the witness stand.
The trial, said the rabbi of Charlottesville’s only synagogue, will be both difficult and hopeful.
“All these people will be back in town,” Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Cong. Beth Israel, said of those who marauded through Charlottesville during that August weekend in 2017. “It’s disturbing to think that once again this hatred, that this way of thinking, is right here walking on our streets.”
At the same time, he said, he is grateful for the legal work that will expose the roots and violent consequences of white supremacy and antisemitism. “We’re hopeful that justice will be done,” he said.
The work of Kaplan and other attorneys for the plaintiffs is being supported by Integrity First for America, a civil rights group led by another Jewish woman, Amy Spitalnick.
The lawsuit, which seeks both punitive and compensatory damages to be decided by a jury, includes nine plaintiffs, none of them Jewish, said Spitalnick. The goal is to expose white supremacists and antisemites and “to bankrupt these groups,” she said.
There was a 10th plaintiff, Hannah Pearce, who is an active member of Beth Israel. But U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon because removed Pearce, a dermatologist and mother of four, saying she had “not sufficiently alleged her injuries were caused by overt acts committed in connection with defendants’ conspiracy.”
Pearce was counter-protesting when, according to the original lawsuit, “on the basis of her religion she was threatened, harassed, intimidated and physically assaulted.” A few days later, the lawsuit states, defendant Andrew Anglin and his publication The Daily Stormer, posted photos of Pearce and her son online intending to intimidate them.
Spitalnick had no comment on Pearce’s removal, and Pearce did not respond to a message from the Forward.
The attorneys in the coming days will recall for the jury the chaos that overtook Charlottesville during that mid-summer weekend, and ended in the death of Heather Heyer, who was also a counter-protester.
They have described the defendants in court documents as conspirators who brought to Charlottesville the “the imagery of the Holocaust, of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of fascism” as well as “semi-automatic weapons, pistols, mace, rods, armor, shields and torches.”
A key witness will be Lipstadt, a former Forward contributing columnist and the protagonist of the 2016 film “Denial,” about her successful defeat of a libel suit filed by a Holocaust denier she had criticized.
Lipstadt is expected to explain to the Charlottesville-area jury “the ways in which the Great Replacement theory, which suggests that Jews are puppet masters, illustrates that you can’t take on white supremacy without taking on antisemitism and vice versa,” Spitlanick said during a Zoom session about the case at a Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York conference last week.
The defendants are 24 of the most infamous alt-right individuals and groups in the United States. They include Anglin Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer — who is representing himself at trial, Spitalnick said — Identity Evropa, Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the National Socialist Front. Last year, Spencer, who was once considered an intellectual leader of the alt-right movement, told the court that the lawsuit has been “financially crippling” to him.
The crux of the prosecution’s case, Spitalnick said, is the Enforcement Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, which was designed to hold Klansmen accountable as they spread terror.
The statute has been used only occasionally since then, said Spitalnick, including during the Civil Rights era. But since her group first filed the lawsuit in 2017, other legal teams have discovered that it can be a useful tool. It was invoked in 2020 and 2021 to sue former President Donald Trump; his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; The Proud Boys and The Oath Keepers over attempts to disenfranchise Black voters and to undermine certification of the 2016 presidential election.
Kaplan and the other lawyers will argue that the defendants, in violation of the act, conspired to hurt Jews and people of color.
“We will present defendants with the mountain of evidence illustrating what we scraped off their phones and computers showing the racial animus that fueled it, that they planned, committed and then celebrated violence,” Spitalnick said. “Our plaintiffs will give searing testimony.”
The defendants are expected to argue their case on the basis of the First Amendment right to free speech, Spitalnick said in an interview.
But Kaplan will argue otherwise, she said.
“If these defendants had gone to Charlottesville with their signs and swastikas that would have been permissible, but that’s not what they did,” Spitalnick said. “They planned violence meticulously, engaged in that violence and then they celebrated that violence, and that’s not protected by the First Amendment or by anything else. It’s precisely the sort of conduct the KKK Act is meant to address.”
The greatest challenge facing the plaintiffs’ team, she continued, is ensuring that they have sufficient personal security. “Security is our biggest expense and we’re very focused on it, but can’t share anything beyond that.”
Spitalnick, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, also said that working on the case has been “incredibly personally meaningful given my own family history.” What was once “just a piece of history is now more of a cautionary tale in terms of the world we’re living in,” she said.The trial is expected to end Nov. 19.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”