Charlottesville’s Jews have seen white supremacy up close. Our work is far from over
My heart skipped a beat when the outcome was announced at the trial of the organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally here in Charlottesville. The white supremacists and their organizations were found guilty of conspiracy to commit violence, and are liable for over $25 million in damages to those who were directly wounded on that terrible day.
At this moment, with the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict behind us and Ahmaud Arbery’s killers just found guilty, I am experiencing a small window of reprieve. It feels just slightly easier to believe, in the words of plaintiff’s attorney Roberta Kaplan, “that facts matter, the law matters, and that the laws of this country will not tolerate the use of violence to deprive racial and religious minorities of the basic right we all share to live as free and equal citizens.” We are grateful to the lawyers who gave up a month of their lives to be here in Charlottesville to prosecute this case, and for the four years they spent preparing for it.
Being on the front lines of this story has meant that our Charlottesville Jewish community got an early start on understanding the role of antisemitism in white nationalist ideology, as well as about the place of the Jewish community in relation to the larger conversation about racism in this country. It made us accelerate our self-reflection on the stories we have been telling ourselves, and to look harder at the things we have not known or not wanted to see. And it put us in direct contact with the extreme core of the growing white power movement in this country.
It is a sobering reflection that, even as this trial is ending, no one can honestly say that the spread of these hateful ideas has diminished today in comparison to four years ago.
Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, often uses a “concentric circles” theory to explain the way this white power movement has gained influence in public life. At the center, she suggests, is a small and activist hard core, committed to these ideas of white grievance and race war. Surrounding them is a wider circle of those who support them with financial contributions and who show up at “public-facing” events. An even wider circle consumes explicit white power content regularly online.
Beyond the circles are innumerable people who encounter and become comfortable with some configuration of these repulsive ideas through friends and family members, on social media, through conspiracy theories like QAnon, or through such travesties as the “great replacement theory” coverage by Tucker Carlson. These tropes of something being “stolen from us” (our nation, our racial privilege, our election) have firmly entered the wider political mainstream, as the events of Jan. 6 and its shameful aftermath in our political culture have made all too clear. We need to face this poisonous rhetoric head-on in the months and years ahead.
For the moment, our Jewish community is looking toward the future and to being a part of the hard work required to get to the healing that has yet to come to our town. Just the other day on my way back to our synagogue, I passed through the square block of downtown named Market Street Park. The fall leaves were aglow with late afternoon sun. In the center of that square, where only a few months ago a statue of a man on a horse had stood — a symbol of hate and brutal oppression that had dominated the landscape — there now sits a small empty patch of earth. I stopped for a moment and allowed myself to imagine that one day something beautiful, whose shape I cannot yet discern, will stand on that site.
I allowed myself to hope that what will arise on that small, open and humble patch of earth will be something that represents the highest aspirations of our community and nation rather than its worst divisions and brutality. I hope it will be something that tells even a part of the story of the brave and largely unsung heroes who, in the darkness of violence and oppression, lit the lights of resistance and hope. Men and women who fought against segregation, against Jim Crow, against racist housing policies, and against entrenched systems of political and economic oppression. Activists who cherished a vision of a world in which all people are entitled to live in human dignity. Something that will tell the stories of those who marched, who wrote, who signed petitions, who voted, who brought court cases, who told the truth about the past, who changed hearts and minds.
Ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-zman ha-zeh. In those days. And in our own time.
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