The scenes from Charlottesville a year ago shocked our nation, revealing in harrowing coverage the bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism that remains in the United States. As an American Jew whose parents fled the Nazis in Europe and as president of the American Jewish Congress which is rooted in the belief that Jews are more secure in a society that actively protects the rights of all its citizens, I have closely watched how American society and politics have changed since that fatal day. While the overwhelming immediate response from all races and all religions was positive with many uniting to stand united against discrimination and hatred, a disorganized but persistent threat from the same Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, Confederates and the “alt-right” remains.
Jason Kessler, who organized Unite the Right, the name originally given to the Charlottesville rally by the “white civil rights activist,” is planning a second rally after an application was denied for Charlottesville. This time the right will gather outside the White House in Lafayette Park.
If there ever was a trace of doubt of how racist and anti-Semitic the organizers are, recent internal Facebook chats from Unite the Right planners (obtained from an anonymous source by the media collective Unicorn Riot, a left-leaning investigative journalism nonprofit) show them arguing over subjects such as whether there’s a good way to “normalize” anti-Semitism without appearing to do so (in other words, without using anti-Semitic memes). This behavior is typical of alt-right members that didn’t necessarily identify with far-right and Nazi organizations according to Dara Lind, but soon began to participate “from the use of “cuck” to deride anti-alt-right conservatives to Twitter harassment of Jewish journalists by Photoshopping them into images of Nazi gas chambers.”
Of course Unite the Right and those behind the Charlottesville riot are not the only ones promoting this type of hatred and violence. A string of rallies have been held, most recently in Portland where the “Proud Boys” and others engaged in a violent demonstration. These rallies are indicative of a growing number of hate groups in the United States. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the annual count of hate groups increased from 917 to 954, while there was a 22% increase in neo-Nazi groups last year, to 121.
However, many supporters of “white rights” remain disorganized or wary of public confrontation. An upcoming investigative documentary by PBS Frontline will expose how some of the white supremacists and Neo-Nazis involved in the 2017 Charlottesville rally went unpunished and continued to operate around the country. Yet several candidates in 2018 like Corey Stewart, the Republican Senate nominee from Virginia, have adopted hardline views and policy positions openly catering to these same supporters. The bottom-top and top-bottom rally cries mutually reinforce the racism that was denounced by both parties in 2017. Leaders from both parties must continue to denounce candidates that endorse or even flirt with these fringe ideologies.
To avoid Charlottesville like riots in 2018 and prevent the institutionalization of platforms of hate for white supremacists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, we must continue the bipartisan and cross-faith efforts to clamp down and find ways to stop hateful ideologies from spreading and seeping into our society. Rallying together remains our only tool in fighting these atrocities. The institutions that make us great: our freedom, our democracy, our passion for justice are ones that were built, not given. We must go to great efforts every day to maintain them against repressing and hateful ideologies.
Scenes like Charlottesville are ones that many of us had hoped were confined to the history books. Nazi flags and new forms of hateful ideologies have no place in American politics. I am proud to work alongside Jewish Americans every day in speaking out against racism and anti-Semitism, as well as with our partners across civil society. We, as a part of American society with a unique perspective, have no other option than to stand up and do so.