Nazis walk around, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” as they wave their flags adorned with swastikas back and forth. Violence breaks out, and someone is hit by a car and killed. No, the aforementioned scene is not one from World War II—it’s a scenario that just took place. Not in Germany, not in the 1940s, but August 12th, 2017, right in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the United States of America.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, on August 12, a “Unite the Right” rally was organized in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee. This protest ultimately turned into a white nationalist gathering, and as a result, a counter-protest emerged on the campus of the University of Virginia. The confrontation soon turned violent, and white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring nineteen people.
The events in Charlottesville were horrifying, and the whole world watched, people wide-eyed and afraid. It was a wake-up call for minorities whose races and cultures were disparaged in the march. And as Jew, it wasn’t just a wake-up call—it was like someone dumped a bucket of ice-water over my head all at once, forcing me back into a harsh and unwelcome reality that caused me to tremble where I sat. Suddenly, the 1940s weren’t as long ago as I thought they were.
I had barely been back in the United States for forty-eight hours when I first heard the news about what was happening in Charlottesville. Prior to returning home to the United States, I was in Europe. I had gone with my family for a trip that lasted just over a week, beginning in Berlin, then heading to Dresden and then leaving Germany for Prague in the Czech Republic. These three cities are all attractive tourist destinations, understandably so. They’re beautiful, ancient cities with glorious architecture, unique people and, of course, piles upon piles of history. While that history stems back centuries, it is filled with darkness and ugliness, especially during the World War II era.
I walked through the park in Berlin, in front of what is today Museum Island, where Adolf Hitler held mass Nazi rallies and murdered hundreds of Jews in cold blood, with no substantial protest, in the 1940s. I went on a tour of Dresden, during which our tour guide casually mentioned to us how Dresden used to be a city populated with lots of Jews, but now there were barely any left, since very few of the Holocaust survivors wanted to return home to a city that had let them perish. I traveled to Terezin, a ghetto from World War II that is just outside of Prague, where more than thirty-three thousand Jews were murdered, and felt tears fill my eyes as I admired the artwork and poetry some of the children of the Holocaust had left behind, detailing their horrific experiences.
And while it was all sad, all touching close to home, I viewed it as something in the past, something that I knew could never happen nowadays in the country I live in, the country that prides itself on freedom of religion and democratic principles. Until I came home two days later to see every major news network discussing the hundreds of neo-Nazis that had used a statue as an excuse to rally together to promote their discriminatory beliefs.
You might be wondering why swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs were present at the march in the first place, or why neo-Nazis threatened to burn down the local synagogue in Charlottesville while a congregation was inside praying. After all, this was a march, in theory, about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, who fought on the pro-slavery side in the American Civil War. He wasn’t fighting to keep Jews as slaves—rather, he was fighting to keep African Americans enslaved. The “Unite the Right” protesters praised what they believe to be their white supremacy, their pride in their “white culture.” So, what did Jews have to do with any of this? Nothing. And that, unfortunately, is the terrifying part.
Where there’s anti-black racism, anti-Semitism isn’t usually far behind. The Ku Klux Klan—who, fittingly, made an appearance at the Charlottesville rally—hate the Jewish people just as much as they hate black people, which comes as no surprise, since they hate the vast majority of people in the world who are different from themselves. However, racists frequently try to sloppily hide their beliefs behind a wall of terrible explanations, like, for example, using the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue as an excuse to spout racist and anti-black rhetoric. Only this time, they didn’t even bother trying to come up with a poor explanation for their outright anti-Semitic behavior. An explanation wouldn’t have made their behavior excusable, of course. But, such unabashed, proud anti-Semitism and anti-black racism made my blood boil.
When the Jews were stripped of their rights, forced to wear yellow stars, kicked out of their homes and sent to death camps, no one acted in a substantial, life-saving way until six million of them had been murdered. Do I think Charlottesville is the beginning of a similarly extreme movement? No, thankfully I do not.
But, keeping in mind the heartbreaking history I studied in Europe earlier this month, I can’t help but feel that each and every person, no matter their race, religion or culture, has a duty to speak out against the recent atrocities from Charlottesville. I hope that you agree with me. And if for some reason you don’t, I hope it doesn’t take the oppression or genocide of your people to realize that people need to stand up for one another.