By Shoshanna R. Schechter-Shaffin
It started with whispers. “Did you know that the alt-right” is going to have a big protest at UVA on August 12th?” “Oh, I’m sure it won’t be a big deal.” “Let’s just ignore them, all they want is attention…why should we give them what they want?”
On Friday evening, as reports from Charlottesville, less than an hour away from my tight-knit Jewish community in Richmond, started to flood in through the press and social media, my ancestral wounds burst wide open. White supremacists were marching, with torches no less, through the UVA campus, shouting racist and specifically anti-Semitic slogans. Clergy friends, holding a prayer vigil for peace at a local Charlottesville church started posting that the racist chanting of the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil,” “The Jews will not replace us,” and “White lives matter” from the march outside became so loud that their prayers for peace and tolerance were quickly drowned out.
At that moment, the stories and memories of my grandparents and great-grandparents – of pogroms, of Kristallnacht, of hiding in forests and running for our lives, of being beaten and slaughtered on the streets of Europe by local law enforcement, of our family farm in Peekskill, New York being burned down by the KKK, all came flooding into my head at once. As soon as I began to process what was happening, the answer quickly became very clear: “NO! We will not tolerate this!”
As a professor and doctoral student of Jewish studies, when we examine and attempt to grapple with the enormous force of evil that was the Nazi regime, the biggest questions we often ask are WHY and HOW. WHY was this allowed to happen in the modern era and HOW could such a massive force of hate be given permission by humanity to carry out such atrocities?
Many people warned us not to go to Charlottesville. “It’s going to be dangerous… you don’t know what you are getting yourself into!” “It is recommended that you stay home.” “Don’t you know that they declared a State of Emergency?
If my extensive Jewish education has taught me anything, it is that when the Nazis show up in your backyard, it is our responsibility, as Jews, to SHOW UP and make our voices heard. As the late human-rights activist, author, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is quoted as saying “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” This was certainly no time for silence and no time for fear.
Luckily, my friend Debra felt the same way and on Saturday morning we jumped in the car to head over to Charlottesville, slightly fearful of what we would encounter, but deeply committed to standing, in person, with our fellow counter-protesters against hate. It was time to embody Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s legacy of “praying with our feet.”
As soon as we arrived, it was quite obvious that even the air in Charlottesville felt tense. Dressed in a shirt with Psalm 91: 11 in Hebrew and English, I was instinctively suspicious of every person we encountered while walking towards the main protest area. I’ve never seen so many large guns openly displayed in the U.S.
Counter-protestors of color were fearful and angry on two levels; first of the white-supremacists, but at the same time distrustful of the extensive police and riot control forces that were put in place “to protect.” They questioned out loud: “Who are you protecting?”
That is why we marched, that is why we yelled, and that is why we made the choice to be present and serve as witnesses. When it comes to neo-Nazis, when it comes to the KKK, when it comes to the “alt-right,” as former Vice-President Joe Biden stated: “there is only one side.”
The white-supremacist “protesters” showed up with sticks, knives, guns, and riot gear. They clearly came to fight and spill blood. They openly chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and proudly displayed flags with swastikas. They had only one message and that message was one of pure hate.
Anyone who has studied basic Jewish history knows what can happen when we choose to stay silent. Hitler is just one of the many figures in modern history who has taught us that words are powerful and that words can kill. It was bad enough on Friday night when the white supremacist groups were fighting with words and quickly turned deadly on Saturday when they chose to fight with actual weapons, less than 12 hours later.
The lesson I learned in Charlottesville was simple: when the racist- neo-Nazi- “alt-right” gathers in your backyard, it is up to us to SHOW UP and make it known that they are not welcome. There is no room here to be passive. If we do not speak out and speak up now, the consequences can be even more devastating than what has already taken place.
Hineni– I am present. You should be too.
Shoshanna R. Schechter-Shaffin is the Director of Jewish Campus Life at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.
Copyright 2017- Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin