Charlottesville’s Other Jewish Tragedy

It was different last week.  You could feel it.

Online.  In shul.  There was an energy among the Jewish people I had never felt.  A distinct one, not heartbroken exactly.  More like shaken.  More like disturbed.

Of course, there was the tragedy of Charlottesville.  The woman killed by men who were yelling, “Death to Jews.”

Then Trump’s equivocation between Nazis who kill and counter-protestors.  His claim that there were “very fine people” on both sides.

The pain of knowing what so many of us had never expected to see come out with such shamelessness on United States soil, let alone be normalized by the president.

It wasn’t just that, though.  Despite what the press tells us, despite what we tell ourselves even, there was something else.

There is a thing that happens after a tragedy occurs among the Jewish people.  When antisemitism rears its ugly head, and a terrorist attack or a clear act of hate is committed by a hate group.

We unite.

There is not much that unites us these days.  As we fracture further, and as orthodoxy and the other branches of Judaism become almost completely distinct cultures and belief systems, it has always been antisemitism that has seemed to be the reminder that underneath it all, we share a soul.

There is, of course, moments where that feels violated.  Debates around Israel, and whether things like BDS are antisemitic often leave conservative Jews feeling as if their liberal brethren have given up on them, have a blindness to cloaked antisemitism.

I think they happen to be right.  But for my whole life, I’ve always seen the liberals who are blind to the antisemitism hidden under anti-Zionism as one of a misguided commitment to justice.  And one that is not even that common, one that many liberals regularly call out in outlets that I myself have protested like the New York Times.

But either way, the debate ends once someone leaves no doubt of their intent.  Once someone or some group calls for death to Jews, once the hate is blatant and unhidden, and especially when there is a casualty, we come together.  While we may debate what antisemitism is, who is antisemitic, and how widespread antisemitism actually is, we all agree that antisemitism itself, once identified, must be fought with unrelenting strength.

And then Charlottesville happened.

Nazis walking the streets.  Actual Nazis.  With flags and salutes and bad haircuts.  Calling for death to Jews.  Beating an innocent black man mercilessly.  Committing terror in the exact same way that Palestinian extremists do in Israel, by taking a car and ramming into a group of innocent people.

And then, again, there was the equivocation of the president.  Salt in the wounds, not to mention a green light from the highest office in the land for these men to continue spreading their hate and terror.  On their own message boards and news outlets, the Nazis celebrated.

A situation just like any other time in history when blatant antisemitism ripped into international consciousness.  When there was no doubt of the hate intended, and the targets in mind.  When a leader failed to address it properly, just as the leaders in Europe have failed the Jewish community so badly that there is a growing exodus.

And so, the Jews who were shocked by the event, for whom it was a traumatizing event (my wife, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, has had intense anxiety since the event), for whom it was clear how utterly the president had failed us (whatever their political affiliation), expected, hoped, dreamed of Jews finally coming together in unity to stand up to this.

Instead, much of the right wing of the Jewish world, especially the orthodox, doubled down on their previous positions.  When we posted about our shock over the horrific antisemitism and called on all Jews to stand up to it, we were met with, “But will you denounce Antifa?  Will you denounce Black Lives Matter?”

And, of course, although Trump had absolutely failed in his moral leadership as the president of a country where there must be no quarter given to people like Nazis lest they fester like rot in a national consciousness, they called us out for being “political” when we spoke up about his failure to speak up.

The anger was so palpably stronger for the left than for the Nazis who had killed innocent people, called for the death of Jews, that there was even an article written by an orthodox Jew called, “I’m an Orthodox Jew in Israel but liberals have become so deranged with hypocrisy, I’m actually standing with the KKK on Charlottesville.”

And then there was the silence.  The quiet in the mess of it all.

People, leaders and others, who would normally be holding vigils and bringing Jews together for unity events after something so horrific were absent.

Chabad, which usually holds things like “Mitzvah Campaigns” after terror attacks, especially ones aimed at Jews, was silent.  And since Chabad is not a monolithic entity, but controlled by thousands of independent leaders, the silence was even more deafening.

There was the OU, which, finally, released a statement about Charlottesville, but which did not mention the president.

And despite some bright spots like a statement released by 50 orthodox rabbis, the quiet of our leaders was more painful than the yells of the right.

Then there were our friends.  The ones trying to keep the peace, who asked us to stop taking out our anger on Trump and focus on the Nazis.

All of these people, without realizing it, had taken a step deeply outside the norms of Jewish society. 

Those criticizing those of us for calling out Trump as being political were claiming that there are now some acts of overt antisemitism that don’t need to be condemned forcefully by America’s leadership, something unimaginable only a few years ago.

Those demanding equivocation between Black Lives Matter and Antifa were combining debates about whether organizations and people are antisemitic with speaking out against those whose core philosophy and overt point of view is antisemitic, not to mention violently antisemitic.

And of course, those going so far as to side with Nazis because they exposed liberal “hypocrisy”… well, they don’t deserve the ink on this page.  But the tear they sunk into Jewish consciousness must be acknowledged, even if they are on the fringe.

All of this combined into a tear in the Jewish psyche that will not soon be healed.  One that needs to be acknowledged, at least by those of us who feel it and can see it.  Of the people I have spoken to about Charlottesville, their pain has been two-fold: the pain of seeing Nazis call for death of Jews and then actually kill… and seeing (many of them for the first time in their lives) Jews refuse to stand up to those Nazis, and the leader who could not condemn them even a fraction of the same force he attacks Rosie O’Donnell.

That was the new energy, the energy I wasn’t used to seeing, a sort of pain that seemed to go exponentially deeper than usual.  The pain of being betrayed by your family.  The pain of seeing those you love refuse to stand with you in the way they always had in the past.

The man in shul, speaking about someone he had spoken to who was defending Trump, his voice breaking as he tried to stay angry even though it was clear he was just in a state of shock and heartbreak.

The people in the Jewish anti-Trump groups, who keep posting, day after day, about a new friend who defended Trump, or who wouldn’t even acknowledge the Nazi attack, or who equivocated.  As if they just needed to get it off their chest in a way that they hadn’t before.

For many of us, and I include myself in this, none of this is surprising.  It’s the inevitable result of a large group of people not just taking a polarizing political stand, but actually internalizing the thinking of a leader who demands not just support but total agreement.  In other words, the result of an authoritarian’s psychological power over the people who follow him.

It was not even surprising to see the silence of leadership who has for years been speaking up in unity about things like Nazism.  Or to see friends trying to “maintain the peace” by taking a non-political stand.  Those who haven’t subjugated themselves to the thought processes of Trump have tried to remain so firmly in the middle that they don’t realize how this itself has pushed them into taking radical positions like refusing to speak up against a president who has responded to antisemitism, hate, and violence so weakly.

No, none of this surprises me.

But it is like what I imagine the pain of a divorce becoming official feels like: you knew it was coming, but that cannot change the pain of its arrival.

The Jewish people are in pain.  We all are, of course.  Perhaps the ones defending or turning a blind eye to Nazis even more than the rest, since they are sacrificing not just a sacred duty of the Jewish people, but their own soul’s calling.

But the pain of those who have been divorced must also be acknowledged.  This new tragedy of Charlottesville must be remembered.  For it is no minor pain, nor is it just another disagreement among Jews.

It cuts to the core of who we are as a people, and it cuts to the core of how Jews have held themselves together in the face of hatred since World War II.

One day, we may look upon the days when we debated whether things were antisemitic as golden years, as divided as we were then.  Because now we are entering a new era: one in which the debate isn’t whether a group or philosophy is antisemitic, but which antisemitism we prefer.

And the psychic communal effect of that on a people cannot be understated.