The conflagration of hate and bigotry in Virginia is appalling but not surprising; Trump’s cozy relationship with members of the alt-right (think Steve Bannon) and his inflammatory language has emboldened the haters and bullies in our country. Half-hearted in his condemnation of the perpetrators, the President ultimately defended the “very fine people” who marched alongside and in lockstep with the Nazis and the KKK.
As members of the American Jewish community, we grieve over Trump’s betrayal of our core American and Jewish ideals of justice, equality and fairness; and we can’t help but fear where a newly invigorated Fascist movement may lead.
Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, wrote:
“On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services…Forty congregants were inside. Here’s what I witnessed during that time. For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them… Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols… When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front and to please go in groups…”
If there is a silver lining in this dark cloud of ugliness, it is the unifying effect that the President and his alt-right supporters have on the rest of us. From CEOs of major corporations to steelworkers in the red states that voted for Trump, people from across the political and social spectrum are raising their voices in condemnation of racial and ethnic hatred and in support of fundamental American (and Jewish) values. In response to Trump’s divisiveness comes an outpouring of love and righteousness. An event billed as “Unite the Right” has instead united right-thinking people everywhere.
For Jews, it’s difficult to look at a mob of armed, torch-carrying white supremacists and not hear echoes of Germany some 80 years ago. And while the images are chilling, let’s not let fear take over. Despite their having an unapologetic sympathizer in the White House, the right-wing extremists who marched in Charlottesville are still just a radical fringe in America today. Yes, they are dangerous, but they are also monitored closely by law enforcement and reviled by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Such groups exist even in Sonoma County, though our synagogue has, to date, not been in any way contacted by them. Nevertheless, we have taken a number of steps to secure our campus, including a perimeter fence, an automatic gate, security cameras inside and outside, an alarm system, and other security measures. While no place can be made 100% secure, the leadership of our congregation has for many years made security a high priority.
Just as important as our physical security is our emotional well-being, which in this time of elevated fear and anxiety proves to be the greater challenge. There are no easy answers, but we do have effective countermeasures embedded in our tradition—a deep commitment to the practices of community, gratitude and civic engagement. As a community, we can offer one another comfort. We can express our gratitude for living in a progressive and tolerant place. And we can work as citizens and neighbors to affirm our belief in social justice, racial equality, fairness, decency, and love. Let that love be muscle-bound, directed first and foremost to protect the most vulnerable in our society—and let its light outshine the torches of hatred and intolerance we saw on display this past weekend in Charlottesville.
We can find succor in the words of another President, Nelson Mandela, who said:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”