Charlottesville

Look, It's about White Supremacy

No, the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh is not “incomprehensible.”

I write from the suburbs of Chicago, where I’m visiting for the weekend – not far from Skokie where, forty years ago, a band of Illinois Nazis sought to march in full regalia. Why Skokie? Because in the 1970s it was not only densely Jewish, but also because it had the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors of any other municipality in America. Sticking their hate in the faces of Shoah victims was a tactic for noxious, evil people to most provocatively display their message—one that keeps surfacing since the 2016 political campaign, and Charlottesville, and now Pittsburgh: “You (Jew) will not replace us.”

The massacre of Jews at prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning was first and foremost a crime against Jews: the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. Victims do not appreciate having crimes against them universalized. This attack was specifically against Jews, in a Jewish place, marking a moment in Jewish time (Shabbat; and the bris celebrating a baby boy’s arrival into the covenant of the Jewish people).

It is crucial to understand that antisemitism is not “generic bigotry.” It is specifically anti-Jewish hatred, incubated throughout the centuries and always ready to take root in the fertile soil of the far left and the far right.

In the taxonomy of hate, antisemitism has specific characteristics. Similarly, Islamophobia has its own unique expressions, and Muslims’ experience of bigotry is uniquely their own. So, too, for anti-black racism. And homophobia. And all the other special hatreds that the human soul has devised for itself.

However, there is a line that connects modern American hate together, and that line is white supremacy, which has plagued this country from its founding to today.

It’s a thread that runs from the days when Americans owned people of a certain color skin. It was enshrined in a Constitution that considered such a man 3/5 of a human being. It is self-evident on the slobbering faces of white celebrants at lynchings.

It was there when an antisemitic mob murdered Leo Frank in 1915. It runs through the internment camps in which Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. It was on the MS St. Louis which was turned away from Florida’s shores, bringing its doomed passengers back across the Atlantic to the clutches of the Nazis. It lingers in Quran-burnings by hypocritical preachers, and in vandalized mosques.

It was there in Skokie, and in the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Miami. And it’s there in the denigration of refugees as something less-than-human.

The perpetrator of the Tree of Life slaughter made his motivations perfectly clear (no, the crime is not “incomprehensible”). He despised Jews in general, and in particular for their perceived role in protecting refugees from seeking sanctuary in America. He called out HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and claimed a last straw to save America from invading armies of dark-colored immigrants, as manipulated by sinister Jewish forces.

He told us why. It’s not incomprehensible. Just evil.

White supremacy, white nationalism, whatever you want to call it: it’s the moral rot eating at American democracy since the beginning.

The only peace I can find is that another parallel line likewise runs through the American soul. From the unique experience of a specific group, we can come to partially and incompletely come to understand the suffering (and, I hope, the aspirations and joys) of another group. This is empathy, the greatest of human virtues. Occasionally we confront fellow humans who are completely lacking in this trait. But the gatherings and the vigils of the past few days tell me that it’s possible, at least, that a coalition of decency can arise.

Jonathan Greenblatt said it quite eloquently: You have to have zero tolerance for this.

If your candidate is attacking George Soros or the “globalists,” or a member of Congress from your party is embracing Holocaust deniers, you must stand up and tell them to stop.

If your allies in a range of social justice causes either explain away the anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam by citing the good work they may do or justify demonizing the Jewish state of Israel and its existence, then they need to know that they can no longer be your ally.

If your favorite social media platform continues to refuse to remove anti-Semitic garbage from its site, then vote with your clicks and deactivate your account.

When we consider this horror in the days and weeks to come, we should keep that in mind. It is about the poisonous sprout of white supremacy – and those who would enable it with their silent nods and coded dog whistles.

After Charlottesville

I’ve been reticent to write about the horrors of the past few days. Not because I haven’t been completely obsessed with it all; simply because I didn’t think I had anything new to contribute.

After all, when my family and neighbors and I were at our town’s rally against hate on Sunday night after Charlottesville, I was in kind of snarky mood. (It happens.) My overwhelming sense was: “Really? We still have to do this? We have to protest the KKK and American Nazis? In 2017?” What was running through my head that evening was the voice of John Belushi ז״ל: “I hate Illinois Nazis.”

And of course, I’m appalled by the moral black hole that is the Executive Branch of the government.

So I’ve read the articles (obsessively), and the op-eds, and the letters from rabbis to their communities, and the statements from community organizations—all of whom appropriately have expressed revulsion that Nazi slogans and symbols are resurging and that the White House can only muster half-hearted condemnation (at best; at worst, “they made me do it!”) of the most appalling people in America. The movement to normalize white supremacy in the highest level of governments is terrifying.  This meme by satirist Andy Borowitz kind of summed it up for me: “Man with Jewish Grandchildren Reluctant to Criticize Nazis.”

But it turns out that there are a couple of wrinkles I’d like to see get some more attention, so here goes:

(1)  The Jewish members of Trump’s inner circle—and I mean National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—what are they still doing there? They should follow the lead of the CEOs who resigned from presidential advisory councils and resign their posts. Collaborating with evil is evil; this is no time to say, “Well, maybe I can change things from the inside.” 

Just as it was the moral responsibility of Jewish board members to resign from the Carter Center when it became apparent that former President Jimmy Carter was irredeemably anti-Israel, there are bigger things at stake. You can’t say, “Well, in my little corner of the administration, we had a different agenda.” 

(2)  Domestic terrorism:  You don’t like American Nazis and the KKK? Great—that shouldn’t exactly be controversial.  But legislatively speaking:  Now we must be calling out the administration for its proposing to remove domestic groups from certain anti-terrorist organizations, in order to focus solely on Islamic terror. I don’t think this actually went into effect—this administration is insidiously non-transparent—but it did openly propose the idea. Reject it; make sure that lawmakers keep all these groups on domestic terror watchlists (and having the funding to do something about it).

(3)   Don’t change the subject. I was bemused to watch yesterday’s press conference with the President, where at the beginning, middle, and end of the questions-and-answers it was clear that he wanted to talk about anything other than Charlottesville. “How about a couple of infrastructure questions?” he kept asking to reporters who weren’t interested in discussing infrastructure while the residue of a Nazi march in Virginia lingered.

And kudos to right-wing pundits such as Charles Krauthammer, with whom I agree practically never.  But on Fox, Krauthammer wasn’t standing for any dissembling from Trump apologist Laura Ingraham:

Ms. Ingraham, a Trump supporter who has been courted by the White House, allowed that the president’s remarks might have hurt his agenda [my italics]. But she also offered a partial defense, saying of Mr. Trump, “He made some points that were factually right.”

Mr. Krauthammer retorted, “What Trump did today was a moral disgrace,” and said that the president had broken from his predecessors who recognized the history of civil rights.

“I’m not going to pass moral judgment on whether Donald Trump is morally on the same plane as you are, Charles,” Ms. Ingraham replied.

Don’t let them change the subject. That goes too for the likes of Rabbi Marvin Hier—whose moral blinders let him intone a bathetic prayer at the Inauguration—who this morning on CNN condemned Nazis, but tried as hard as he could to change the subject to Iran’s pursuit of nukes. Iran is a horror—but Hier's desire to talk about anything other than the topic at hand was pretty transparent.

We know what we have to do—stand with those of our neighbors who are most likely to be disenfranchised; have zero-tolerance for leaders’ racist dog whistles; sign petitions, attend rallies, write letters and op-eds. Remain aghast, don’t be silent. But I hope drawing out some of these points above is useful. 

And a reminder:  in this week’s Torah portion we read two seemingly contradictory verses:

אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן
There shall be no needy among you (Deut. 15:4)

כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ
There will never cease to be needy ones in your land (Deut. 15:11).

Which is it? Will there be people in need in the future or not? 

Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman addressed this in his Torah commentary: Verse 11 doesn’t mean that there will always be people in desperate straits; the Hebrew word yehdal ("cease") means that it won’t come to a stop on its own. If you want suffering to disappear, you’ve got to do something about it, reaching out to hurting brothers and sisters.

So it is with extreme hate. It isn’t just going to go away—not unless people of good faith come together and clearly articulate our vision of a decent and just society, and demand that elected leaders make it so.