One Year After Charlottesville, We Cannot Lean Into Fear
On Friday, August 11, one year ago this weekend, hundreds of white men (and some white women) marched in Charlottesville, VA for the white nationalist Unite The Right rally. They surrounded a synagogue where a Jewish community was holding Kabbalat Shabbat services. They shouted Nazi and Ku Klux Klan slogans. They assaulted counter-protestors. The next day, James Fields Jr. killed anti-racist activist Heather Heyer.
I spent the morning anxiously checking Twitter from New York, unable to tear my eyes away from those of white supremacists who didn’t even bother to hide their faces. I was paralyzed by fear and guilt that I wasn’t there to defy them in person. And I felt alone among people who, until Heather Heyer was killed, didn’t see the shift towards fascism this rally signified, and the urgency of standing against it.
“I’m glad you’re not there,” a friend said. “It’s dangerous.”
“Just ignore them. Don’t give them any attention,” another white Jewish person told me.
But as an anti-racism activist myself, I knew, and the white Jewish community quickly realized, that ignoring them is not an option.
It was the first time in my life that I viscerally felt that those who believe Black people, Muslims, and LGBTQI folx are subhuman think Jews are too. It jolted many white people in the American Jewish community into the realization that we, too, have something to fear from white supremacist violence in this moment, and that we, too, have a stake in movements for racial justice.
We responded to the fear we felt in the wake of Charlottesville with white privilege.
Upon learning that the September 2017 March For Racial Justice was scheduled to take place (the holiest day of the Jewish year) on Yom Kippur , many directed their anger at the march’s non-Jewish, Black organizers. We did not pause to learn the historical significance of the M4RJ date, which commemorated the Elaine Massacre. We simply reacted, with a sense of angry, betrayed entitlement, demanding racial justice movements immediately welcome us with open arms, despite our uneven and, in some cases, non-existent track record.
Over the past year, white Jews have continued to spend disproportionate amounts of energy talking about anti-Semitism in non-Jewish Black communities instead of taking action for Black lives.
Yet too many of my non-Jewish comrades let us down as well. You did not see us. You did not hear the chants, “Jews will not replace us.” You did not learn that “blood and soil” holds terrifying, genocidal significance for us. Some of you, it seemed, forgot that Nazi racism is inextricably intertwined with anti-Semitism.
That denial of our vulnerability in Charlottesville was so, so painful.
Jews of Color who live at the intersection of racism and anti-Semitism were neglected by both these responses. Too often, white Jews fail to realize that our unchecked anxieties about anti-Semitism can eclipse Black and Brown voices challenging the public’s indifference to racism. Too often, People of Color don’t realize their communities also includes Jews.
The truth is that we must talk about both anti-Semitism and racism simultaneously. We can’t fight anti-Semitism without taking on anti-Black racism, and none of us can undo white supremacy without also naming and confronting the anti-Semitism at its core. The neo-Nazis in Charlottesville couldn’t have made it any clearer than when they shouted “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal n***ers.”
In the year since Charlottesville, many leftist spaces remain unequipped to recognize and challenge anti-Semitism. The false perception of Jews as universally white, wealthy, and U.S.-born obscures both the reality and vulnerability of our community.
It is true that right now, many white Jews are not vulnerable in the way People of Color, Muslims, and other targeted groups are. But history is not reassuring. The genocide of Ashkenazi Jews happened when we were at our most secure. Charlottesville demonstrated that our whiteness will not save us from contemporary Neo-Nazis.
In truth, all our communities are vulnerable to attacks from the right, but those attacks manifest in substantially different ways. In the year since Charlottesville, we have seen a rise in hate crimes against Jews, most notably the murder of Blaze Bernstein.
We’ve also witnessed a rise in brutal hate policies against trans folx, immigrants — particularly Latinx immigrants — Muslims, Black Americans, and people with disabilities, communities for whom this crisis is not new, but escalated. Still, there is a difference between being in the crosshairs of small but emboldened groups of white supremacists and that of the state, from the local police force to the president’s executive power.
These distinctions matter. We can’t defend our communities unless we accurately assess the threats we face and take them on together. Jews for Racial & Economic Justice has been doing this work for nearly three decades, standing against labor abuses perpetrated by Jewish businesses against immigrant workers, organizing Jews for Black Lives, mobilizing Jewish contingents to support powerful direct actions to abolish ICE, showing up for our neighbors experiencing Islamophobic and xenophobic hate, and more.
Jews are hungry for community right now, and eager for direction towards committing to anti-racism. Those who have been working for years to build solidarity across difference offer us a working example of how not to be baited into “choosing” between anti-Semitism and racism, between our unabashedly leftist politics as Americans and our identities as Jews.
The white supremacists will march for Unite The Right again tomorrow, this time in DC. Fear is understandable, but since we are no longer shocked, we have an opportunity to make different choices this year. We — American Jews, the entirety of the American left — can stop letting our fear inure us to each other’s pain. We can choose courage and solidarity.
White Jews can and must stop misdirecting our fear and rage at the closest target, particularly when those people are under attack both from white nationalists on the ground and from white supremacists in government (we should always ask ourselves what makes the easy target so easy). Non-Jews on the left can reject the politics of scarcity and extend more compassion to Jews.
I promise, seeing our trauma is not the same as centering our trauma. Seeing each other’s trauma is part of how we win.
Those who are actively hurting all of us benefit when we are pitted against each other, when we take aim at the most vulnerable targets instead of the most dangerous ones.
We can choose to collectively take aim at white supremacy instead of each other. At JFREJ and elsewhere, we have built relationships and resolve strong enough to survive our mistakes and emerge more resilient and powerful.
There are more of us than there are of them, but only if we truly become an “us” — a defiantly multiracial, pluralistic front in the fight for justice for all people. Leaders in so many of our communities have already paved the road for us; they’ve been building it for decades, waiting for us to arrive.
We are here.
We only cross over together.
Sophie Ellman-Golan is the Deputy Director of Communications and Outreach at Women’s March and a member of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ). The Forward named her one of the nation’s 50 most influential Jews in 2017, and The Jewish Week named her on their list of 36 Under 36 in 2018.