What’s past is prologue: a Jewish reflection on Charlottesville

White-supremacist protesters clash with police in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12. Credit: Evan Nesterak via Wikimedia Commons.
White-supremacist protesters clash with police in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12. Credit: Evan Nesterak via Wikimedia Commons.

By Noam E. Marans/

When Jews confront the present and prepare for the future, they are always mindful of the past.

When torch-bearing neo-Nazi white supremacists chant, “Jews will not replace us,” and a threatening contingent move on to a Charlottesville synagogue, the low points of American Jewish history flash before our eyes: the 1915 lynching of an innocent Leo Frank; Henry Ford’s campaign to expose an alleged “international Jewish conspiracy” in the 1920s; Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio broadcasts during the Great Depression; and Charles Lindbergh’s accusations that Jews were scheming to drag the country into war with Nazi Germany. The parents and grandparents of my generation of American Jews suffered from university quotas; glass ceilings; and restricted communities, hospitals and clubs. This makes the American Jewish success story even more remarkable in hindsight.

Yet something has changed with Charlottesville. American baby boomers like me, and certainly our children and grandchildren, have had little or no direct experience with anti-Semitism. Being Jewish is far from a societal liability; it is an asset. We are still very much living in a golden age of opportunity for American Jewry, one documented in a February 2017 Pew Research Center study reporting that Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group in America. Being Jewish is cool. Who would have thought?

That positive story is what makes Charlottesville so jarring. Anti-Semitism has not disappeared from the American landscape, but it has been driven to the peripheries of society. It has been rendered socially unacceptable, a malignant behavior that disqualifies one for corporate, political, educational or religious leadership.

This did not change with Charlottesville, as frightening as it was. The novel factor was and is a continuing presidential unwillingness to make it crystal clear that there is no place for neo-Nazis and white supremacists in American society. Anyone who chooses to be associated with the likes of them is not entitled to the rationalization “that there were very fine people on both sides.”

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism has proven its durability as the world’s oldest hate. That reality puts even greater responsibility on the shoulders of leaders: they have to be unequivocal in their rejection of the ideology, its transmitters and fellow travelers.

Pastor Martin Niemöller, whose heroic record against the Nazis was not free of some vestigial anti-Semitism, understood this. Our contemporary version of his famous words might be: First they maligned Mexicans, and we did not speak up enough, because we were not Mexicans; then they maligned Muslims, and we did not speak up enough, because we were not Muslims; then they maligned women, and we did not speak up enough, because we were not women; then they maligned the disabled, and we did not speak up enough, because we were not disabled; then they maligned people of color, and we did not speak up enough, because we were not people of color; then they maligned Jews, and we did not speak up enough, because we were not Jews; then they maligned us and there was no one left to speak up enough for us.

American Jews are finding their voices, and we must speak up even more.

First, it is simply the right thing to do.

Second, it is consistent with our grandest Jewish narrative, the Exodus from Egypt and its eternal lesson to take care of the most vulnerable—“You know the soul of the stranger.” (Exodus 23:9.) You were slaves in Egypt. You were freed. Use your power to do the same for others. It is remarkable how resonant and relevant that message has remained for the Jewish people in every generation, not least for the generations that emerged from the Holocaust.

Third, we Jews are motivated by enlightened self-interest. At any given moment, we might not be the target. But tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, we might be the target. We are always on the list. Those who hate one group rarely restrict their hatred. Their hatred is blind and Jews are invariably included. The murder of Heather Heyer is, then, the murder of one of our own.

Nothing focuses the Jewish mind like a visit to Germany, where I was during the week following the Charlottesville violence, together with an AJC-Germany Close Up group. Like many other Jews of a certain age, I had not visited Germany until relatively recently. In the course of many recent visits escorting younger American Jews and helping them navigate the meaning of modern Germany, I have learned a lot about how Germans are grappling admirably with their horrific history. Ironically, it is Chancellor Angela Merkel who understands Charlottesville better than the president of the United States. She condemned the events there unequivocally as “racist,” “horrifying” and “evil.”

Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations.

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