As a Jew, as an American, I cannot forget the sight of Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville. The line of (mostly) men carrying torches, anger in their faces and their voices, cast an ominous glow. They chanted “Jews shall not replace us.” They chanted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” and carried Nazi flags.
Seeing unabashed Nazis was surely an awful sight to so many Americans, particularly those who lived during Hitler’s reign.
Although that was not my time, I cannot forget, for Nazis are not an abstraction to me.
When I was a child at Hebrew School, I saw pictures of emaciated survivors liberated from death camps. I saw people at the beach with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. A beloved uncle was a German who pleaded with his parents to leave. They stayed and they perished. Another relative was born in a displaced persons camp. She and her Polish Jewish family then came to the United States as refugees.
After the Holocaust, “Never forget” was repeated to remind us of the systematic genocide carried out by purportedly cultured German leaders, by bureaucrats doing their jobs, and by soldiers following orders, as others looked away.
Remembering is also embedded in Judaism. As Nobel Prize winner and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel proclaimed in his Nobel lecture, “No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered.”
Among what was good for Jews was the experience of living in the United States. Although no place is without anti-Semitism and this country could have done more to save European Jews from Nazis, the traditions of religious freedom and no state religion made America a good place for Jews.
Over 200 years ago, President George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, saying the United States’ government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Jews had faced persecution elsewhere, but Washington wished them well in this new nation, writing, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Even before Washington’s words, the First Amendment had been sent to the states for ratification, and even earlier Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson was so proud of this creation that he wanted it included on his gravestone, along with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his founding of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The promise of a life without religious persecution was a beacon to Jews and others around the world. And, as the civil rights movement heated up in the 1950s and 1960s, many Jews became activists and allies to African-Americans as they stood up to challenge and change white supremacist institutions and practices created during slavery, supported by the Confederacy, and further developed after the Civil War.
When the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis came to Charlottesville touting their warped vision, these hatemongers were countered by hope mongers, like the murdered Heather Heyer, who was always kind, always concerned with righting injustice. Anti-alt-right protesters were nearly all nonviolent, with Antifa an outlier.
Unbelievably, President Donald Trump claimed there were “very fine people” on both sides. As Sen. Susan Collins stressed, “There are no good neo-Nazis” and Trump “failed to meet the standard that we would have expected the president to do in a time like that.”
A good next step for Congress would be to insist on restoring Trump administration cuts from programs aimed at fighting white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Congress should also reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which is still needed to counter voter suppression.
As we remember the past and pursue justice, we should live by the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon, who taught, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Our obligation is to act, for we are, as the prophet Zechariah, said, asirei hatikvah, prisoners of hope.