On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Richard Spencer was punched in the face during an on-camera interview. Seven months later, he led hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists through my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. Spencer, founder of the term ‘alt-right’ and vicious advocate for white nationalism, is widely considered the leader of the neo-Nazi community in America. In light of the election’s outcome, Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump!” at a conference in Washington as his supporters rose their arms to a Nazi salute. In Charlottesville, they chanted “Blood and Soil”, a direct slogan from the Nazi Party of Germany. The video of Spencer taking a blow to the head quickly spread across media outlets, spawning the question: Is it okay to punch Nazis? Then the video of James Fields plowing his car through a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, injuring dozens and killing one woman, was televised across the world, and a more radical question arose: Can we afford not to?
Anti-Semitism in America is nothing new, but is already rising sharply under our new national leadership. With President Trump encouraging his supporters to attack dissenters and appointing noted anti-Semites to his administration, it is easy to see why neo-Nazis feel emboldened — they are being validated by our government. In fact, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House released a statement that avoided mentioning Jews whatsoever. Instead, the writing referred to the victims only as “innocent people”, and in response to public backlash, the White House doubled down, asserting that the staff “took into account all of those who suffered.”
The White House denies the Holocaust as an act of targeting any specific ethnicity, perhaps to avoid comparison between past governments and the targeting tactics this new administration promotes, such as the Muslim ban and Mexican Border wall. In attempting to universalize the Holocaust, the White House employs an ‘All Lives Matter’ rhetoric that, as we’ve seen, has never been about protecting all lives, but instead taking attention and power away from members of minority groups. As Elie Wiesel said, “I have learned that the Holocaust was a unique and uniquely Jewish event, albeit with universal implications. Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
The President demonstrated no better sensitivity in the following weeks. During a press conference, Orthodox Jewish reporter Jake Turx began to ask what action the administration would take in response to the bomb threats rattling Jewish centers, but was interrupted by Trump, who called the reporter a liar and told him to sit down, finding this a “very insulting question.” Although Turx explicitly prefaced his concern by noting that he isn’t accusing Trump or his staff of being anti-Semitic, Trump took the matter personally, declaring that he himself is “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve seen in your entire life.” Turx attempted to finish his question, but was silenced by Trump. “Quiet, quiet, quiet.”
Just days later were Jewish cemeteries in Missouri and Philadelphia desecrated, the tombstones defaced and overturned. These grounds bear great historic significance, as the relationship of the Jewish people and death is one soaked with politics and persecution. This horrid destruction in a place of peace and rest cements the alt-right’s devotion to Nazism as they uproot and dishonor Jewish lives. Whether through slaughter or vandalism, after centuries, their goal remains constant: discredit and erase Jewish existence.
Spencer’s followers marched through the night with flames, clearly drawing inspiration from the KKK, and were met the next morning by fierce opposition.
August struck, and Charlottesville was turned upside down. Spencer’s followers marched through the night with flames, clearly drawing inspiration from the KKK, and were met the next morning by fierce opposition. City natives and travelers from across the country united in resistance as the alt-right assembled with riot gear and assault rifles. Supposedly marching against the city’s removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s monument from a downtown park, the alt-right’s Confederate flags and intimidation tactics reveal that these events were the culmination of much more than a statue.
The presence of the alt-right is inextricable from Charlottesville’s deeply racist history, as their agenda harrowingly mirrors that which the city was founded upon: the displacement and terrorization of minority communities. In the 1960s, the black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill was bulldozed, forcing the relocation of its residents. The plaque today reads, “Sadly, because of a poll tax, many of the residents were denied a say in their own future.” Half a century later in 2015, black UVA student Martese Johnson was slammed onto the ground, bruised and bloodied for attempting to purchase alcohol with his real I.D., assumed fake by three white police officers. Moreover, it cannot be forgotten that Charlottesville was heavily involved in the slave trade and fought hard against integration, painfully visible in the ways the community remains segregated to this day. The police force itself was formed in the south to preserve slavery, and has evolved to preserve incarceration.
The recent rhetoric surrounding Charlottesville pushed by news reporters and locals alike is that such acts of hatred and brutality are unthinkable in a cozy college town, and this is a shameful deflection of accountability. It is blissful ignorance, a luxury inaccessible to those who must routinely consider the often fatal cost of existing as a minority. All white people must confront and renounce white supremacy if we are to reconcile with its institution running through the veins of our country. I was feet away from the collision that killed Heather Heyer. I heard the screams, I saw the blood, and later that day I witnessed our President condemn “many sides” — repeating it for emphasis — as a woman lay dead by the hand of a domestic terrorist, and one of Trump’s dedicated supporters.
I lost members of my family to the Holocaust. I was named for one of them. How dare anyone compare me to a Nazi for defending my loved ones against these very people? How dare anyone advise me to fight hatred and ignorance within the methods they deem appropriate? To condone only peaceful protest is to celebrate compliance. Confrontational and abrasive measures have been at the forefront of every American fight for civil rights, and to deliberately ignore this is to revise our nation’s oppressive history. The political system we are living in must be disrupted, and such a shift requires force.
Perhaps the most important lesson Judaism has taught me is that while pacifism is sacred, violence is often necessary to preclude an evil from occurring. There are unsettling patterns emerging and developing throughout America, and they are a call to action to every individual that values freedom. So, please, punch a Nazi. Punch a Nazi and do as so many prisoners couldn’t. Punch a Nazi and engage in the purest, rawest form of refusal. Punch a Nazi as if your life depends on it, and as if the welfare and dignity of our society depend on it, because I guarantee you — they do.
Your safety is of utmost importance. If you do not feel safe engaging with Nazis, there are other ways you can join the fight. Consider donating to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP, and Charlottesville Pride. Stay safe, and stay vigilant.
Illustration by Hua Chen