By Rabbi Rick Sherwin
White Supremacists and neo-Nazis made no secret of their plans to continue gathering in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the statue of a Confederacy hero. As Americans, we told ourselves, “People have the right to object and to protest.” We knew that their protest was likely to be punctuated with racial slurs and anti-Semitic epithets, and we told ourselves, “We don’t want to make a big deal because it will give the protesters more exposure on camera and through the Internet.” We told ourselves that these people were just a group of miscreants who don’t represent our country, so we stepped back so that we can focus on our own lives.
Then the Voice of Human Conscience within us asked: Do people coming to protest the removal of a statue have the right to protest the inclusive equality upon which American life is based? Standing up for one’s rights is fine, but is it a right to deny the rights of others? How can we step back? How can we look away?
We have been alone with our thoughts; now we must share our words. We have taken a stand; now we must walk. We reached in to feel the pain in our heart; now we must reach out in response to inflicted pain. It is time to protest – to counter-protest – those who seek to uproot basic human rights, those who advocate the denial of human dignity, those who base bigotry on biology. We who counter-protest must speak out, and speak out loudly. We must not stand back in fear but step forward in conviction.
Zenobia Jeffries asks an excellent question: The white supremacists called their gathering a rally, yet who wears paramilitary gear and carries automatic weapons to a rally? Who takes shields and helmets and pepper spray and bats and sticks to a rally? The car didn’t “crash”— it was driven at full speed by a ‘rally supporter’ into a diverse crowd of counter-protesters.
We need to be honest: “Unite the Right” stopped being a rally sometime the previous night when a stream of torch carrying white supremacists approached the University of Virginia campus chanting “blood and soil.” They used those torches as weapons in fights with counter-protesters. The so-called rally was not about removing a statue; it was about removing the standard of dignity, the conviction that all humanity reflects the Image of God regardless of race, ethnic origin, religious creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental abilities, physical capabilities, and socio-economic status. The counter-protesters reflected that diversity, the very Image of God.
"We have been alone with our thoughts; now we must share our words. We have taken a stand; now we must walk. We reached in to feel the pain in our heart; now we must reach out in response to inflicted pain. It is time to protest – to counter-protest – those who seek to uproot basic human rights, those who advocate the denial of human dignity, those who base bigotry on biology. We who counter-protest must speak out, and speak out loudly. We must not stand back in fear but step forward in conviction."
-Rabbi Rick Sherwin
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was eloquent in his response: “Racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic views have no place in a society that cherishes freedom and liberty for all. The right to speak and to hold repugnant views is not a right to circumscribe the ability of others to live in peace and security. Torch-lit marches of hate evoke the KKK; the image of a heavily armed militia standing among the neo-Nazi protestors should send an alarm to every person of good conscience in our nation...”
Rabbi Jacobs commended the opening of President Trump’s statement condemning the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence” but was deeply troubled by President Trump’s denouncement of violence and hate “on many sides,” saying nothing about the display of white supremacists wielding Nazi flags and spewing racist vitriol. Two days later, in response to bipartisan disgust, President Trump offered a brief condemnation, then returned to his message that both sides are accountable.
In 1943, the Nazis determined they would destroy the Warsaw Ghetto, which had been the prison-home to 40,000 Jews in an area of 1.3 square miles. The Nazi army was surprised when the surviving inhabitants met them with armed resistance, holding them off two weeks before succumbing to the overwhelming Nazi attack. Yes, the Ghetto fighters had weapons knowing the Nazis were coming. Should we hold those in the Warsaw Ghetto accountable for the violence? Of course not!
Those who gathered to counter-protest did not come prepared for violence; those surrounding the statue did. Those who counter-protested made the very clear, loud statement, “Nazis, never again.” Though we teach our children there are always two sides; we must include the caveat that it is true only both sides share the basic values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When one side denies the basic values of humanity, it is wrong. Period. There is only one side, and that is the human side.
We need to take to heart the incredibly poignant message of liturgist Alden Solovy as we respond to bigotry and the senseless violence in Charlottesville, in Orlando, and throughout America:
I am neither Democrat nor Republican,
Neither left nor right nor center.
I am an American,
Born to a legacy of truth and justice,
Born to a legacy of freedom and equality.
Today, I am a patriot
Who will not yield this nation to hate.
Not to neo-Nazis.
Not to thugs self-styled as militia.
Not to slogans or chants.
Not to gestures or flags.
Not to threats and not to violence.
Hate is hate,
Ugly and brutal,
And we will not yield.
I am Christian, Muslim, and Jew,
Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh,
Atheist and agnostic.
I am Asian, Latino, Hispanic, African American,
White, Native American and multi-racial.
I am an immigrant, a child of the American Revolution,
A veteran and a soldier.
I work in the dark depth of the mines
And the high towers of Wall Street,
In the factories and the farms,
In our hospitals and strip malls.
I am gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans,
Man, woman and gender-neutral.
I am young, old, blind and deaf,
Hearing and sighted,
Powerful and unafraid.
Truth is truth,
That all are created equal,
And we will not yield.
Today, I am an American,
A citizen of the United States,
A child of this great democracy,
A child of this wise republic,
Dedicated to liberty,
Dedicated to action.
We will not yield.
Rabbi Rick Sherwin, a graduate of UCLA, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Rick’s passion is filling spiritual services and interfaith educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue, and humor.