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Empathy in vulnerability: resisting racism and anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism in America is on the rise. In the past year, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated in Philadelphia, Rochester and St. Louis; my rabbinical school was vandalized with a swastika, targeted for the first time in its 140-year history; and (in August), neo-Nazis and Klansmen marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting “Jews will not replace us!” and threatening the town’s only synagogue.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents have surged in the past few years, leading many Jews to wonder for the first time in a generation: Are we truly safe in this land we call home?

Dominating the headlines in recent weeks has been the particular manifestation of anti-Semitism known as white nationalism, which caused the terrifying events in Charlottesville. According to Eric K. Ward, the executive director of the Western States Center, white nationalism is a “revolutionary social movement committed to building a whites-only nation.” White nationalism seeks not only to exploit racial minorities; it wants to remove them, ultimately envisioning an American nation devoid of all people of color.

The leading brand of contemporary white nationalism is the so-called “alt-right.” Richard Spencer originally coined the term “alternative right” and is its torch-bearer today. While “alt-right” has held a range of meanings over the past decade, in recent months, the term has come to refer to something very specific: a focused program of white nationalism. To know what they stand for, we need only listen to his own words: “Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.” When someone tells you what they stand for, believe them. The alt-right wants to hang on the Statue of Liberty a giant sign reading “Whites only.”

Richard Spencer is also a bona fide anti-Semite. He put his prejudice into practice last year in a war against the Jewish community of his hometown, Whitefish, Montana. Spencer mentioned a personal dispute with a Jewish realtor to Andrew Anglin (the founder of the neo-Nazi website “The Daily Stormer”), and Anglin published — and Spencer distributed — the personal information of several members of the Whitefish Jewish community. Responding to Anglin’s call to action, hundreds of anonymous men called, emailed and texted noxious and offensive messages to the Jews of Whitefish. Many invoked the Holocaust in menacing death threats, including some against a 12-year-old boy.

The hateful assault on the Jews of Whitefish exposes the connection between two kinds of anti-Semite, the anonymous internet “troll” and the Richard Spencer-style ideologue. By the numbers, most members of the alt-right are young men whose activity is contained in online message boards and whose beliefs about race rarely reach beyond their own echo chambers. But the incident in Whitefish signals a new reality. According to University of New Hampshire Professor Seth Abramson, politically committed white nationalists, actual neo-Nazis and Klansmen, use social media platforms to recruit new members, taking advantage of a captive audience of confused young people who really just want to belong to something. In other words, alt-right leaders like Richard Spencer can turn to the masses of disaffected youth online to recruit “real-life trolls” ready to defend their radical and dangerous agenda.

What happened in Whitefish happened again in Charlottesville on a much larger scale. Beckoned by charismatic leaders, scores of alt-right sympathizers poured into Charlottesville. It was one of these newcomers, 20-year-old James Fields, who murdered anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer and wounded 34 others. The alt-right has spent most of the past decade in the dark corners of the internet; today, however, the movement is energized and emboldened.

How can we resist white nationalism in the months and years to come?  

First, we must continue to build bridges in our professional and our personal lives between neighbors of different backgrounds. People stand up for the individuals and communities they know and care about, and the deeper our relationships, the deeper our commitment to one another. Let our congregations be beacons of hope and exemplars of unity as we create sacred communities of understanding and respect.

We also have a civic responsibility to pay attention to local elections. The alt-right is currently locked out of the government, but their goals may lead them to try to change it from the inside. Richard Spencer himself has said he may run for Congress. When a white nationalist does decide to run in a state primary or town council election, it is our duty to make sure they get no further than the ballot box.

And finally, we must be ready to participate in creative responses to alt-right demonstrations. Eric Ward, among others, strongly encourages us not to engage in counter-protests. Instead, we should be prepared to organize entirely separate events that draw media attention away from hate speech and focus it on a message of love.

If there’s one lesson Yom Kippur teaches us, it’s that it depends on each of us singly and all of us together to ensure that this is a year of blessing and peace, a year in which we cultivate, as our prayerbook says, the “strength to resist all who would oppress us.”

Our principles give us inspiration. Our community gives us power. Our tradition gives us hope. 

May the new year ahead be for one and all a season of justice and joy.

This article is excerpted from the full sermon, which is available at on the B’nai Jehduah website, b’naijehudah.org, and at danielkirzane.com.