Words and deeds: A rabbi watches the events in Charlottesville

Opinion: Baruch Frydman-Kohl on being shaken by modern antisemitism and hatred—and how to stand up to it

Marchers at a white-supremacy rally encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Marchers at a white-supremacy rally encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto and the vice-chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus. He holds American and Canadian citizenship.

Last Saturday, on the Jewish Sabbath, Alan Zimmerman stood outside his synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia, with an armed guard. Forty worshippers were inside. “Three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street,” he wrote. “Parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Seig Heil’ and other antisemitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue, [so we took] the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.”

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville brought together young men radicalized through the internet with groups such as Vanguard America (“An endless tide of incompatible foreigners floods this nation”), the Ku Klux Klan, Identity Evropa (immigrants should “re-migrate” out of the United States), the League of the South (“Southern white culture is distinct from, and in opposition to, the corrupt mainstream American culture.”); and the National Socialist Movement (deport Jews and “non-whites”). They carried Nazi and Confederate flags, gave Nazi salutes, shouted “blood and soil,” ”Jews will not replace us,” and “n—-r” at passersby.

Why would a plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, erected sixty years after the Civil War, trigger overt expressions of antisemitism? The organizers share four intersectional beliefs: the “white race” is in danger; the United States was built by and for white people; minorities are taking over the country; and America should be “free from the influence of international corporations, led by a rootless group of international Jews, which place profit beyond the interests of our people, or any people.”

MORE: The KKK has a history in Canada. And it can return.

Growing up in Chicago, I was aware that members of my family had been killed during the Holocaust and occasionally I experienced antisemitic bullying. As an adult, I protested against Soviet antisemitism, but generally felt that such expressions of hatred were either in the past or “over there.” But more recent attacks on synagogues and community centres in North America, killings in schools and markets in France, have profoundly shaken me.

Witnessing the public display of Jew hatred by nationalist white supremacists, as well as the transformation of left-wing anti-colonialism into anti-Zionism and antisemitism, have left me—and many other Jews—anxious and angry. More than 70 years after the Holocaust, it is as if a large rock in the garden was moved and all the creepy-crawlies have emerged. Jews, after all, are the religious group most targeted by in both Canada and the United States.

Describing the technological and commercial change of the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Those dislocations led to totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, Holocaust and Gulag, and two World Wars.

In our century, we are experiencing the “future shock” foreseen by Alvin Toffler, when individuals and groups perceive “too much change in too short a period of time.” Cultural and identity boundaries imagined as fixed are now more fluid. Historical discourse and interpretations are in flux. Changing demographics and technological disruption have left many people with what David Brooks describes as “a bewildering freedom, without institutions to trust, unattached to compelling religions and sources of meaning, uncertain about their own lives, with an unnamable dread about the future.” Rather than the Age of Aquarius, we have entered the Age of Anxiety.

Although haters have always been part of the American political landscape, over the past century, a gradual effort succeeded in isolating them from civic life. Leading conservative voice William Buckley Jr. rejected his father’s antisemitism and the extremism of the John Birch Society, exiling Jew haters from the principled conservative movement he sought to develop. He understood that when white nativists and antisemites have a place in the sun they become dangerous.

During the recent American election campaign, Donald J. Trump instead fed the fear of an anxious nation. His election gave haters permission to enter the public square. And in the wake of Charlottesville, week, he minimized the actions of those who set the table for conflict when he established a false equivalency between white supremacists and those who came to protest their hate.

MORE: Democracy can’t be taken for granted. Charlottesville proves that.

What can we do? How should we face the violent words and deeds of that weekend in Charlottesville? Two rabbis who survived the Holocaust offer lessons on ways forward.

First, stand with dignity and self-respect. In 1935, Rabbi Leo Baeck composed a prayer to be read aloud in German synagogues on the sacred night of Yom Kippur. Although the Nazi regime prohibited its distribution and arrested Rabbi Baeck, his words still resonate: “We express our abhorrence of the slander of our faith and its expressions. We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world respect for the Human made in the image of God? Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? It sprang from our prophets, and continues to grow in our Judaism. Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity. We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us.” Blacks and Jews, First Nations and Muslim immigrants have rich spiritual histories and should bring their legacies to Canadian life with pride.

Second: Demonstrate moral principle. In 1963, responding to an invitation from President Kennedy to discuss religion and race, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes…. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” Leaders must model righteous action.

Local and national leaders can become a counter-choir to the solo of President Trump. It was heartening to hear presidents George H. W. and George W. Bush unequivocally state, “America must always reject racial bigotry, antisemitism, and hatred in all forms.” Senators and representatives, governors and mayors all echo words written in 1790 by George Washington, that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And when leaders stand up for an inclusive Canada or America, let them know of your support. Encourage the best of us.

I learned to respond to antisemitism and racism with dignified speech and personal engagement to gradually forge a more respectful and inclusive society. Our words and deeds must prevail.


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