Rabbi David B. Cohen wrote this piece days after the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Blood and soil – in German, “Blut und Boden,” was a Nazi rallying cry, a nativist insistence that one’s legitimacy as a German was determined by one’s blood and one’s connection to the land. To hear those words from khaki clad, torch carrying clean cut American youth was, in a word, chilling. I’ve been thinking about this since last weekend.
Our country took a giant step backwards this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Friday night’s torch lit march featured participants who felt no shame, trading white robes and hoods for white polo shirts and red “Make America Great Again” caps and raising their arms in the Nazi salute. Saturday saw more demonstrations, featuring the symbols of Nazism, which devolved into violence. As protesters and counter-protesters began to leave, a white supremacist drove his car at high speed into a crowd, killing one and injuring nineteen.
I am stunned by the persistence of hatred. Like a lava flow unleashed, hatred cascades, annihilates everything in its path and suggests another eruption may be near. Indeed, according to some, the events in Virginia may only be the beginning.
Then, our president made things worse. He defended white nationalists, neo-Nazis and KKK members by equating their actions in Charlottesville to those of the counter protesters, the “anti fa(cists)” and the “alt-left,” a term introduced solely to create a false equivalence. There were “some very fine people on both sides,” said Trump. This is moral relativism at its most destructive, tantamount to equating the forces of fascism and the murderers of the Third Reich to those who rose up to defeat them in World War II.
These events are the foreseeable results of decades of conservative talk radio, television, and some conservative politicians, blaming immigrants, people of color, Muslims and Jews for society’s problems. As is always the case, those with the least economic and political power provide a ready scapegoat for all of society’s ills. The election of America’s first black president added fuel to the white supremacists’ fire. The administration’s inclusion of Steve Bannon lit the match.
This White House has taken deliberate steps that have amplified racist voices. For example, the administration took all the counterterrorism resources focusing on domestic terrorism and reassigned them to Islamic terrorism. Programs to encourage people to leave white supremacist groups were defunded. These are not coincidences.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day…” someone said to me Sunday night. “After Charlottesville, I think we are going to have to refight the battles of the nineteen sixties.” I agreed that social change often moves one step forward and two steps backwards. The gains of the civil rights struggle in America in regards to integration, fair housing and economic justice, remain far from fulfilled.
I responded, “The sixties? I am worried that we might have to refight the battles of the nineteen thirties.” The current growth of fascism and authoritarianism echo the growth of the KKK and others groups during the late twenties and thirties. Most dismayingly, it seems to have at least the tacit approval of the president.
Given the current struggle over Confederate monuments, it strikes me that battles we need to refight now are from the eighteen sixties, i.e. the Civil War. While many of the monuments were erected in later years as the south struggled to reconstitute something approaching slavery – Jim Crow – their appearance points back to America’s original sin. The current battle has led some to assert a new false equivalency. Just as there were “fine people” and “bad people” on both sides in Charlottesville, so too we should see an equivalence between Washington and Jefferson, on one hand, and Robert E. Lee, on the other.
The president’s comparison was an error of category. Washington and Jefferson were imperfect men, to be sure, e.g. they owned slaves. Yet, more significantly, they established a new country with a constitution that enshrined democratic principles. In contrast, Robert E. Lee was dedicated to bringing down the United States and to preserving slavery as an institution – an act of treason. He sought to keep his slaves, even at war’s end. When his father in law’s will freed his slaves, Lee sued to maintain their ownership in his name. That so many believe strongly that his statue should remain in place illustrates the point made by Civil War historian, Barbara Fields, at the end of Ken Burn’s “The Civil War:” “The Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and regrettably, it can still be lost.”
As Jews, none of this is new; we’ve seen such discrimination before. It’s only recently that we’ve been accepted in America as “white” and, in some corners, are still considered “other.” Witness the Charlottesville demonstrators shouting “Jews will not replace us.” We know these anti-Semites; we’ve seen them before.
- When white supremacists march by Nuremberg-like torchlight, chanting “blood and soil” (a traditional Nazi cheer) and speak of racial purity, we know these bullies; we have seen them before.
- When KKK members feel safe enough to take off their hoods and make a show of strength, saying how they aim to “take their country back,” we know these racists; we have seen them before.
- When the police stand by and do nothing when violence erupts between armed racist demonstrators and those who oppose them, we know this equivocation. We’ve seen it before.
- When white supremacists stand outside a Charlottesville synagogue armed with assault rifles, and religious leaders praying for peace can’t leave a church because it is surrounded by a mob, we know these outrages; we’ve seen them before.
- When our president defends white nationalists, neo-Nazis and KKK members, equating them with their opponents, we know these moral relativists; we’ve seen them before.
- When Heather Heyer z”l is murdered by a white supremacist, and joins the pantheon of Leo Frank, Medgar Evers, victims of the 16th Street Church Bombing in Birmingham, and Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, we know these victims; we’ve seen them before.
In light of the events of the past week, it seems Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Having seen all this before, we Jews know what we have to do.
First, we have to remember Edmund Burke’s maxim: “for evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing. Or as Eli Weisel put it, “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”
Second, we have to speak up and unequivocally condemn the ideas and the actions of the racists who demonstrated in Charlottesville.
Third, we have to reject our president’s moral blindness and call for moral clarity from our national leaders.
Fourth, we have to make sure that Holocaust education is expanded and strengthened. As the survivors become fewer and fewer, we now have to speak for them.
And finally, remember – we have seen this all before, and more than once. Yet, we maintain hope. Not naive hope, but Jewish hope – bruised and scarred, and rooted in a realistic and unsentimental understanding of the world, its cruelties and injustices (after S. Ragins). Hope that understands, as one writer puts it, that “there are only two kinds of madness in the world one must guard against … one is the belief that we can do everything. The other is the belief that we can do nothing….”
Rabbi David B. Cohen leads Congregation Sinai in Fox Point.