We Need To Talk About The Anti-Semitism At The Charlottesville Protest

Photo: Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

This weekend, self-identifying white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis marched on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville and violently protested in the town, ending with the death of at least one person and leaving dozens more injured. People across the country condemned the events. In addition to the horror of watching those hateful humans march in broad daylight without fearing any consequences, I found it disturbing that many people, including liberals and progressives, didn’t acknowledge the hateful anti-Semitic comments made by these Nazis. In some cases, they tried to argue that they didn’t happen.

Think of those who believe the protesters from Unite the Right weren’t saying “Jew will not replace us,” but “You will not replace us.” Actress Olivia Wilde posted an Instagram on behalf of her mother, a candidate for the House of Representatives, that talked about Nazism and Nazi language, but made no mention of Jews or anti-Semitism. Bernie Sanders mentioned neo-Nazis in a tweet but didn’t talk of Jews or anti-Semitism.

This strange in-between of calling out Nazis without directly acknowledging their hate towards Jews made me heave a very, very long sigh.

As a Jew who grew up in the South, I’m all too familiar with how little is known about Jewish culture and faith, not to mention Jewish history. Most people know that Nazis tortured and murdered millions of Jews in the Holocaust, and we are told to never forget those events. That includes not forgetting the nuances as well: Jews weren’t specifically targeted just for their religion, but also because Nazis believed they were a different and inferior race that needed to be ethnically cleansed.

While narratives try to say otherwise, America also has a long, violent, and discriminatory history with Jews. Ever heard of the lynching of Jewish-American engineer Leo Frank? The glaring anti-Semitism of celebrated American industrialist Henry Ford? The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that used geographic targeting to keep Jews from immigrating to the U.S.? In recent months we’ve seen over 100 Jewish schools and centers receive bomb threats and numerous Jewish cemeteries vandalized in targeted attacks.

While many people identify Jewish Americans as simply “white” these days, some may be surprised to learn that this is a relatively new mainstream notion that has surfaced in the past half century.Before that, many Americans bought into the belief that Jews were ethnically inferior white people and treated them as such for centuries. The discrimination towards Jews hasn’t just come from blatant white supremacists, either; when future president Ulysses S. Grant was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, he singled out Jews “as a class” and expelled them from the territory he was commanding from Mississippi to Illinois over accusations that they smuggled goods between the Union and the Confederacy.

I’m not saying that the ongoing plights surrounding Jewish identity are more important than issues facing other oppressed groups in the U.S., nor am I ignoring that the fact that many Jews do benefit from white privilege and have long-standing tensions with other movements. I’m aware that the context of Europe in the 1930s-’40s and that of the American South in 2017 are very different; after all, many of the self-proclaimed Nazis in Charlottesville, VA also marched with Confederate flags, showing support for the enslavement of Black people in this country. They have always found kinship with other hateful causes.

However, Nazism and Jewish history are inextricably and eternally linked, and it also can’t be overlooked that many of the phrases these Nazis in Charlottesville were chanting were in fact rooted in remarks directly created to incite hatred against Jews. “Jew will not replace us” and “Sieg heil,” the Nazi victory salute, are pretty damn explicit. “Blood and soil,” which many outlets reported the white nationalists chanting, actually comes from a German phrase Adolf Hitler used (“blut und boden”) to rally citizens behind “rural” and “pure” Aryan people and denounce those whom he saw as greedy, corrupt Jews. Omitting this context also means ignoring yet another violent, ugly part of American history that many people don’t even know about to begin with.

This weekend, many liberally-minded people from Insecure’s Yvonne Orji to former president Bill Clinton (as well as a few conservatively-minded people, like Orrin Hatch and Ted Cruz) are urging us to call what happened in Charlottesville what it actually was: an act of domestic terrorism by people who identify as white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis. We also need to go a step further and be explicit about the types of ethnic cleansing to which these people allude. Waving Confederate flags is about promoting slavery and anti-Blackness, and waving swastika-laden flags is about getting rid of “undesirable” populations — like Jews. Hell, there were people doing the Nazi salute and walking around in T-shirts with Adolf Hitler quotes on them. If that’s not a direct condemnation of Jews, I don’t know what is. So why are people not saying that?

You don’t have to denounce anti-Semitism over other forms of hate; you just need to make sure you include it. Speaking out against anti-Semitism and discussing the plight of Jews in America doesn’t exclude the hateful and violent histories experienced by other oppressed groups in the U.S. We don’t need to sweep one atrocity under the rug to make room for others; there’s plenty of space, as well as a dire need, to discuss every single one of them. They were all born from a similar place of hate and ignorance, and there’s no place for even the tiniest crumb of it in the United States of America.

Lily Herman is a New York-based writer and editor. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, TIME, Newsweek, Fast Company, and Mashable. Follow her on Twitter.