The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was ostensibly about protecting a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was about asserting the legitimacy of “white culture” and white supremacy, and defending the legacy of the Confederacy.
So why did the demonstrators chant anti-Semitic lines like “Jews will not replace us”?
The demonstration was suffused with anti-black racism, but also with anti-Semitism. Marchers displayed swastikas on banners and shouted slogans like “blood and soil,” a phrase drawn from Nazi ideology. “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” one demonstrator told Vice News’ Elspeth Reeve during their march. As Jews prayed at a local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, according to the temple’s president. Nazi websites posted a call to burn their building. As a precautionary measure, congregants had removed their Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building when they were done praying.
“This is an agenda about celebrating the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and celebrating those that then fought to preserve that terrible machine of white supremacy and human enslavement,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL. “And yet, somehow, they’re all wearing shirts that talk about Adolf Hitler.”
For these demonstrators, though, the connection between African Americans and Jews is clear. In the minds of white supremacists like David Duke, there is a straight line from anti-blackness to anti-Judaism. That logic is powerful and important. The durability of anti-Semitic tropes, and the ease with which they slide into all displays of bigotry, is a chilling reminder that the hatreds of our time rhyme with history and are easily channeled through timeless anti-Semitic canards.
The University of Chicago historian David Nirenberg has spent his career studying anti-Jewish movements and beliefs. Recently, he spoke to a group of students about anti-Semitism on college campuses. “At the end of the … talk, I said, ‘I wouldn’t rush from all this material to thinking that this anti-Semitism is as dangerous as its early 20th-century predecessor,’” he told me. “Seeing the images of the Virginia protest, I must admit, I kind of felt otherwise. … It certainly made me feel that books and ideas that I had treated as very marginal in our society are not as marginal as I might have hoped.”
Anti-Semitism often functions as a readily available language for all manner of bigotry—a Rosetta Stone that can translate animus toward one group into a universal hate for many groups. “Ever since St. Paul, Christianity and all the religions born from it—Islam, the secular philosophies of Europe, etc.—learned to think about their world in terms of overcoming the dangers of Judaism,” said Nirenberg. “We have these really basic building blocks … for thinking about the world and what’s wrong with it … by thinking about Judaism.”
In the world sketched by white supremacists, Jews hover malevolently in the background, pulling strings, controlling events, acting as an all-powerful force backing and enabling the other targets of their hate. That’s clear in statements made by people like Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who proudly marched with other white supremacists in Charlottesville. Jewish Zionists, he complained to a gathered crowd, control the media and American political system.
“The extreme right considers many people their threat. But it always, always, always comes back to the Jews.”
Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiment have long been intertwined in America. When the Jewish factory worker Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted of murder and lynched in 1915, two new groups simultaneously emerged: the ADL, which fights against bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the second Ku Klux Klan, which began by celebrating Frank’s death. Later in the 20th century, Nazis became a natural model for white-supremacist movements in the United States, said Marjorie Feld, a professor of history at Babson College. The logic of white supremacy was similar: Hatreds became universalized through common archetypes. Jews were seen by white supremacists as capitalists undermining local businesses. Black Americans fleeing the South in the Great Migration were seen as taking away crucial labor. Catholics were seen as immigrants stealing American jobs.
After the Holocaust, neo-Nazi movements were largely consigned to the country’s political fringe, although they never fully left the American landscape. In 1978, for example, a Nazi group pushed to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois, deliberately selecting an area densely populated by Holocaust survivors. The proposed march caused a national uproar, and the American Civil Liberties Union famously defended the group’s First Amendment rights in court. Eventually, they ended up demonstrating in Chicago.
The Charlottesville demonstration differed from the planned Skokie march in two important respects, Nirenberg said. First of all, there’s a political context for the “Unite the Right” demonstration. It fits into debates over free speech and college campuses as the front lines of cultural battle, he said. The Skokie march was also widely and vigorously condemned by political leaders. “That strong, clear commitment to certain values of inclusion from our political leaders is not present in the same way,” Nirenberg said.
On Monday, President Donald Trump held a press conference about the violence in Charlottesville. “Racism is evil,” he said. “Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” This statement came two days after his initial comments on the protests, in which he condemned the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” The suggested equivalence between the white-supremacist demonstrators and their counter-protesters shocked politicians and public figures in both parties, who quickly criticized Trump’s unwillingness to condemn neo-Nazis and the KKK. “It’s very clear that the people marching in Charlottesville felt very supported by the shape of the public statements made by President Trump,” said Nirenberg. On Tuesday, the president held another press conference in which he reiterated his previous claims, saying, “What about the alt-left that came charging … with clubs in their hands? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
Greenblatt argued that the backlash against Trump’s comments is not about politics—it’s about recognizing a pattern of anti-Semitism. There was the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that didn’t mention Jews; the conspiratorial meme of Hillary Clinton and a Star of David that Trump retweeted during the campaign; the infamous Nazi salute and shouts of “Hail Trump!” at an alt-right conference following the election. In the past several days, a number of groups have renewed their calls for Trump to fire Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, in part based on Bannon’s role in heading Breitbart, which he called a “platform for the alt-right.”
To people like Greenblatt, these are all signs that, at best, the White House does not take anti-Semitism seriously enough. At worst, the Trump administration indulges bigotry so as not to alienate some supporters. “Heck, there’s Jewish grandchildren running around the White House,” Greenblatt said. “But make no mistake, the extreme right considers many people their threat, but it always, always, always comes back to the Jews.”
“You just can’t say this as a historian, but I feel like we’re at this critical juncture.”
As Nirenberg pointed out, the violence in Charlottesville was part of a broader political context. The fringe right is reacting to other political movements with nostalgia, Feld said—a yearning for people, including minorities like Jews and blacks, to “know their place.”
“It makes sense to me that just as … we’re seeing people of all backgrounds be brave enough to insist that these monuments about slavery” be toppled, Feld said, “these people would come out and say we would want to return to the way things were.”
The identity politics of the intersectional left are radically different from the generalized bigotry of the far-right fever swamps. And yet, they are in relationship: Universalized movements that aim to fight oppression against all peoples in all of their identities necessarily invite backlash from those who feel that they’re losing their place in society. “It would really reduce and impoverish debate to see this example as primarily an anti-Jewish rally … [or] as entirely an anti-African American rally. It’s all those things,” said Nirenberg. “To the extent that we separate those and claim, ‘No, it’s only about my identity,’ we fail to understand basic aspects of identity politics in the present.’”
Of course there are neo-Nazis in our time. There are those who hate Jews in every time. It’s a hatred that easily flickers between the universal and the particular, melding with the similarly particular hatreds of blacks and immigrants and other minority groups. “You just can’t say this as a historian, but I feel like we’re at this critical juncture,” Feld said. “I don’t feel like the world is unsafe for Jews. I really don’t. But I do feel like all social groups need to pay careful attention and speak out against what’s happening.”
Like Nirenberg, Feld was trained to look at the images coming out of Charlottesville and see not a freak occurrence, but the echoes of history.
“God,” she said. “It’s fucking scary.”