Let’s be clear about what happened in Charlottesville.
“Jews will not replace us.”
That’s one of the chants that the neo-Nazis, newly emboldened by the new political climate, spat as they clanked through the streets, weighed down by their guns. (Virginia is an open-carry state. The results of that legislative decision are visually startling.)
It’s hard to get the full sense of this surreal nightmare just by reading about it; this Vice video, which is terrifying, hard to watch, and revealing, gives a better idea of what happened than written words do. (And when you watch it, pay homage to the courage of the reporter, Elle Reeve. I have no idea how she managed to do what she did. It’s extraordinary.)
We should not dismiss the marchers, these Nazi creeps or their KKK counterparts. They are the physical embodiment of hatred, and they mean us harm.
At first, they were almost figures of bumbling fun, in their silly costumes and totally ridiculous backyard barbecue-style torches and inability to march their way out of a parking lot. They seemed nothing like the real life Nazis, those creatures of absolute hair-pomaded evil. But then you watch the video, and you understand.
And then there was violence, culminating in the terrible death of Heather Heyer, murdered by car, at the hands of a pathetic loser neo-Nazi who took his ideology from Hitler and his tactics from ISIS.
Mr. Zimmerman starts by saying that his shul hired an armed guard to stand by during Shabbat services that morning. Then he describes what he saw:
“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, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.
“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.”
It “broke his heart,” he continued, but when services were over he had to tell congregants to leave through the back door. “This is 2017 in the United States of America,” he wrote.
There is very little logical about what happened in Charlottesville. If the reason really was to keep up a statue of General Robert E. Lee, a very bad man, a slave-owning traitor to his country whose reputation as a very good man is entirely unearned, in a park in town, then why would the Nazis care? What is General Lee to do with Nazis, or Nazis to do with General Lee?
It seems that Jew-hating, like the hatred of black people, or in fact hatred of anyone not exactly like themselves, is endemic in some sad corners of the United States. The Civil War, it seems, never ended in the minds of some white people. The marchers’ hatred of black people and of Jews is pathological.
(In 1995, Tony Horwitz described the conditions that led to last weekend’s horror in a brilliantly written, funny, sensitive, and ultimately depressing book, “Confederates in the Attic.” It’s well worth finding and reading.)
It is terrifying to know that our president sees a moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis and KKKers who marched and the people who stood up to them in protest and to bear witness. He is wrong. There is no such equivalence. This is not a question of political correctness but of basic morality.
But somehow there must be hope.
There were many demonstrations against what happened in Charlottesville. The big ones were angry, as well they should have been. But the smaller ones, like the one in Teaneck that I wrote about, or the one in Metuchen that I went to, purposely avoided anger in favor of trying to heal through community, acknowledgment of shared values, and an understanding of the value of light glowing through darkness. They were local, happened all over the country, involved some talking, much singing, and even more hugging; admiring other people’s shirts and signs and adorable little kids; acknowledging that differences are fine, even necessary, but we need trust if we are to have a future together.
And we will have a future. We will tell the truth. There is such a thing as right and wrong. In Charlottesville, one side was wrong, and the other side was right.
And we will be able to look at our neighbors, smile at them, and say “Hate has no home here.”