When a car fatally plowed through a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, the world took notice. Rallies and marches orchestrated by white nationalists, like alt-right leader Richard Spencer, and neo-Nazis plagued the city, awakening the country to the persistence and prevalence of hateful ideologies. Perhaps most troubling is that the multi-day rally in Charlottesville was far from an isolated incident; on that same weekend, nine other white nationalist rallies were scheduled across the country and chants of “Jews will never replace us!” echoed through the United States.
Given the fact that it is 2017, many Jews — especially those of us that reside in New York, a city with a large Jewish population — assume they can live without fear of violence because of their religious identification. But according to FBI statistics, Jews endure the majority of religious bias hate crimes, despite their small numbers—a whopping 52.1 percent. The Charlottesville rally alarmed American Jews that hate crimes in general, as well as those targeting Jews specifically, bedevil our society, posing a credible danger to the freedoms and tolerance we take for granted.
These issues are not only prevalent in the Unites States, but occur globally; a mere week after Charlottesville, 500 protesters marched menacingly in Berlin to celebrate the life of Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, accomplice to Hitler and contributor to the Mein Kampf documents and Nuremberg Laws, on the 30th anniversary of his death. The ever-present reality and rise in neo-Nazism in recent years is worrying and frightening to Jews and many others. Not long after Charlottesville, Spencer spoke at the University of Florida, touching off counter-protests.
Living in New York City, 342 miles and seemingly worlds away from the terror of that weekend’s events, I have never encountered overt threats from modern-day neo-Nazis or hate groups of any kind. It’s impossible to envision neo-Nazis outfitted with clubs, torches and armed with fiery anti-Semitic chants walking down Broadway as they did in Charlottesville. But even in this epicenter of American Jewish life, I know the discomfort and jarring disbelief when I see graffiti of swastikas on playground equipment, when an acquaintance refers to me as “Jew” or “Hymie” or when I wear a kipa coming out of High Holiday services and hear someone shout that “dirty Jews run the world.” Comments and jokes about the Holocaust, about the legality of the state of Israel and about stereotypical facial features associated with Jews are disturbingly made by some of my peers, even those who self-identify as Jewish.
The overt showing of anti-Semitism and hateful ideology in Charlottesville this summer, coupled with more common micro-aggressions towards Jews and other religious, ethnic and racial groups, reminds us all of our democracy’s need for vigilance, learned tolerance and constructive dialogue.