As Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio said, “This isn’t hard.” In fact, it’s quite simple. “Very fine people” don’t march with Nazis.
For us as Jews, the images from Charlottesville stir a particular kind of horror. Watching armed militias spout racism and anti-Semitism awakens a dread that is not theoretical. Their Nazi slogans should have been buried with the Third Reich. Survivors of the concentration camps still live among us. We are their friends, their children, their heirs. We carry the legacy of those who didn’t survive. And, appallingly, the Holocaust is hardly the only genocide humans have perpetrated. It can happen anywhere, even in an advanced country where the targeted groups are well-integrated into society.
Our Jewish history makes us acutely sensitive to the dangers of ugly white nationalism. Anti-Muslim rhetoric, “White Lives Matter” and other forms of covert and overt racism, attacks on immigrants, “bathroom bills” and varied cruelty to LGBTQ and trans communities, all these come from the same base instincts that fuel anti-Semitism. We are all on edge.
President Donald Trump’s failure to unambiguously repudiate neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups has defiled the presidency. Until now, it was unthinkable that a post-World War II president of the United States would suggest an equivalence between Nazi and KKK sympathizers and those who protest against them. There is no moral equivalence between evil and those who oppose it. The fact that David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the KKK, and Richard Spencer, a leader of the so-called alt-right, are among the few who are happy with the president’s statements tell us what we already know: he lacks a moral compass, and is giving succor to groups linked to some of the worst chapters of human history.
We are gratified that so many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have spoken out. They are stating clearly that there is no place in the United States for the bigotry, hatred and violence that the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and their enablers espouse. We are even more grateful to those public figures who have specifically called on Trump to disavow white supremacists and remove their supporters from his administration. We are grateful, but we would go further and urge our representatives to restore federal funding to counter white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.
In this spirit, we ask all our elected officials, from the White House and Congress to our governor and Legislature down to our city councils and select boards, to state what should be obvious: hate groups are utterly unacceptable. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between a Nazi and an anti-Nazi protester is betraying the ideals on which this country was founded and should not hold public office. By their own avowal, they cannot govern on the foundation that all people are created equal.
It’s rare to find an issue for which right and wrong are so clear. With radical hate, there is no room for equivocation. Failure to speak out is complicity.
Our elected officials must act, but that is not enough. Our religious tradition is founded in communal responsibility. We are accountable not only for our individual sins and shortcomings but for those of our community. Tikkun olam — repair of the world — requires us all to act. We are taught, “Justice, justice shall ye pursue.” We are in a critical moment in history. In years to come, we may be asked “What did you do?” Each of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, must answer that we were not passive bystanders, but that we actively pursued justice for everyone in our community.
Mary-Anne Saxl is president of Congregation Beth El in Bangor.