In the Space Between Silence and Violence

Written by Rachel Kohn and Suzanne Pollak on . Posted in Community News

After all of the hand-wringing leading up to Aug. 12, an estimated 20 to 40 individuals ultimately emerged from the Foggy Bottom Metro station in Washington, D.C., to participate in Unite the Right 2, a rally marking the anniversary of last year’s white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia. Last year’s rally drew hundreds of boisterous white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other flavors of bigot and ended in the death of one protester. This year’s group was taken the 10 or so blocks to their authorized demonstration ground in Lafayette Park by a significant police presence and encircled by a human chain of police officers to separate them from counterprotestors.

For some, this low turnout justified their choice not to join protests of the event; but for those who came out to chant “Nazis Go Home,” it was still a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the strength of American and Jewish opposition to the values the event represented.

“Way Dramatic Overkill”

“When we protest [against groups like Unite the Right], there are hardly any counter protesters [sic],” said Greater Washington area resident Leah Hadad on Facebook. “I wonder if we are better off letting them do their thing; any breaking news about clashes would give them the publicity they are craving and would amplify their message.”

In the end, Hadad decided to go on Sunday — after seeing the movie BlacKkKlansman Saturday night. The film prompted her to wonder how she could sit out on the anniversary of Charlottesville after everything that happened there, she said.

If Unite the Right “had any purchase or influence,” Howie Slugh of DC said he’d gladly join protests against them. As it stands, however, he thinks Sunday’s protests were “way dramatic overkill.”

“Public leaders of the conservative movement have said [Unite the Right] are jokes and terrible and rejected them in public. If there was one iota of a reason to think I was associated with such trash, I’d be happy to show up and say I reject it,” said Slugh, “but showing up at a rally specifically designed to say I reject people I have no association with in thought or action [is] like saying I need to show up at a rally saying I reject Alex Jones or Pizzagate: It’s totally baseless to think I accept them, and beneath me to have to show up somewhere saying I reject it.”

Antifa and Identity Politics

Jared Fusia of Silver Spring, Maryland, expressed interest in trying to have a one-on-one conversation with a white supremacist to “show them why they’re wrong,” but was against the idea of participating in protests when the organizers included groups with anti-Israel platforms or Antifa affiliates. The tension between social justice activism and popular intersectional philosphy that demonizes Israel is an ongoing subject of discussion in the the Jewish community — and antifascist, anarchist organization Antifa embraces violence as a tactic against entities like Unite the Right.

A Jewish woman from Michigan — who declined to provide her name and spoke from behind a gas mask — marched with Antifa and other groups on 17th Street. She said she still respected members of the Jewish community who chose not to join protests because of participating groups’ attitudes toward Israel. “I am here because I believe it is the best for me, and my Jewish community and friends agree with me; but obviously no two people’s Jewish experiences are the same, and I’m doing what I feel is right,” she said.

Valerie, another Jewish marcher, lives in a Maryland suburb of DC and did not come out on behalf of a particular group affiliated with the counterprotests, but “just showed up,” she said.

“I think there is a plague on this country, and hate does not have a home here,” she said. “I think that people are really easily influenced and the majority of the people following Donald Trump, following the white nationalists ... don’t know the progression of things like this, or they don’t care.” People who didn’t come out because of their feelings about the Left’s anti-Israel leanings “have the choice to do whatever they want,” she said.

There were a handful of people sporting keffiyehs (the scarf associated with pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel activism) among the group on 17th Street, and Palestinian-American activist Eyab Alkurbi spoke out against Israel during a solidarity gathering at Freedom Plaza that included Jewish speakers. He complained after that he was “heckled” by pro-Israel individuals in attendence.

Franz Afraim Katzir a Silver Spring resident and director of Sephardic organization SHIN DC, addressed the gathering after Alkurbi. “It was awkward, and even though that’s not what I was invited to talk about, I ended up having to say something,” said Katzir. He also noted that the MC of the event and another speaker made negative comments regarding Israel, despite the fact he and other Jewish speakers had been assured that it wouldn’t be a subject during the solidarity event.

In his speech, Katzir talked about the role of Sephardic Jewish figures like Rabbi Moshe Seixas in pushing to ensure America’s character as a country that offers “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He also shared insights from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on the previous week’s Torah portion that connected to the event: “Choose the good and good things will happen to you. Bad choices create bad people who create bad societies, and in such societies, in the fullness of time, liberty is lost.”

“I have to stand up. I can’t be silent.”

The Jewish Solidarity Caucus, formed over social media in advance of Unite the Right 2 and consisting of more than 40 people from DC and New York, marched together under a banner bearing the Yiddish phrase, “We Will Outlive Them.” Many in the group were clad in a tallit, kippah, or other clothing that identified them as Jews. Others held signs that referenced their Jewish identity.

“Those of us who were organizing thought because Nazis were going to be there, it was important for Jews to feel strong and bold and to show up,” said co-organizer Leanne Gale. “We wanted to empower ourselves as a community.”

Other Jewish protestors marched alone or with a friend. Marideth Sandler said she wanted to be at the rally because she was named for her great-grandmother who was killed in the Holocaust. “I have to stand up. I can’t be silent,” she said. “I don’t know, but I don’t think anyone stood up for them.”

White supremacists “have a right to free speech absolutely,” said Judi Cohen-Fraize of Fairfax, Virginia, but they must understand their stance “is not an American standard.”

DC resident Macey Daniel carried a poster that read, “My grandfather did not nearly lose his life fighting Nazis in Normandy for this [expletive] to still be happening in 2018.” It was important for her to show up and protest as a young Jewish American, she said.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld came with half a dozen of his congregants from Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in DC, and was very glad he showed up in spite of the small number of white supremacists. “I felt a spiritual obligation. Where there is evil, I want to point it out,” he said. “We have to show up and say this is not going to happen on our streets.”

Rabbi Ilan Glazer, an Ohev Sholom member, also felt it was necessary to attend. Rabbi Glazer recalled seeing neo-Nazis on a youth group trip to Poland when he was 16. “They scared the heck out of us,” he said. “The fact that we are seeing this here is mind boggling. I can’t be indifferent.”

By Rachel Kohn and Suzanne Pollak

 Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.

Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.