By Jack Kliger, President & CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
Three years ago, violence overtook Charlottesville as hundreds of white supremacists gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The unrest reached its violent peak when a man drove into a crowd of protesters, killing activist Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
As a Holocaust institution, we recognize the signs of rising hate because we know the history. The racist and anti-Semitic ideology, symbols and language of Nazism sadly endure 75 years after the Nazi Party dissolved. The challenge of white supremacy and its tenet of contemporary Nazism is greater now than perhaps at any time since 1945.
In early 2021, those who organized the Unite the Right violence that fateful weekend — fomenting violence online in the preceding weeks — head to trial in Sines vs. Kessler, a federal lawsuit backed by Integrity First for America that is the only current legal effort to take on the leadership of the vile white supremacist movement.
They will be on trial for meticulously planning the heinous event at which unmasked, unafraid men marched on the city, spewing vitriol including, “Jews will not replace us,” and avowing, “Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.”
The violence that erupted in August 2017 was by no means isolated. White supremacist terrorism, particularly against Black and Jewish targets, dates back to the 19th century and has been a dire threat to our communities and national security.
Today, as we endure the coronavirus pandemic, the threat posed by these extremists has become even more pronounced. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories related to the virus, unsurprisingly, are running rampant on social media — and this leads to misinformation and ignorance.
Last week’s announcements by Twitter and Facebook, under pressure from organizations like the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, that they would prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust, are welcome. But it will not be enough to suppress efforts to distort history.
That decisions came in the wake of a Claims Conference study that found that 63% of all Millennials and Gen Zs did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and at least one out of every 10 thought that the Jews were responsible.
In New York alone, 19% of respondents in New York thought the Jews were responsible and 28% of respondents in New York found it acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views. Astonishingly, New York ranked near the bottom of all states — placing 41st — in knowledge of the Holocaust.
History shows that periods of social crisis and economic distress — such as this current moment in our nation’s history — can cause prejudices to become exaggerated and extreme. Movements always label scapegoats.
As Adolf Hitler rose to power, the Nazis utilized all types of anti-Semitic propaganda, physical intimidation and violence to strengthen their position in the government. They focused on the Jews as the source for Germany’s ills, using racism and bigotry to unify an insecure people. The Nazi rhetoric led to boycotts, book burnings, desecrations of graves and synagogues, segregation, destruction of property, and ultimately to the unimaginable murder of millions of individuals, including 6 million Jews.
Our institution was borne out of our commitment to commemorate, educate and inspire people to action. We must collectively use the lessons of the past to shape a better future because our fates, not just the Jews, are threatened by an emboldened white supremacy movement.
The lessons of the Holocaust remain relevant to contemporary issues and tragedies, including Charlottesville, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life massacre and countless others.
As we move further away from the past, the import of our work is increasingly vital, borne out by the lack of Holocaust awareness among younger generations. This moment calls out for three societal responses to the vile, antisemitic hostility and other forms of bigotry that have been building in this country from factions on both the far-right and extreme left.
We must commit to educate in our classrooms and beyond and teach students how to first recognize hate rhetoric and symbols so that they can stop it. We must continue to address online hate. Social media is allowing the sources of white supremacy and anti-Semitism to proliferate. And, we must mobilize and address bias, both implicit and explicit, and engage in advocacy.
And it is essential that we stand together, speak out and hold white supremacists accountable in court, so we can prevent future genocides and hate crimes.
We all have a responsibility to be upstanders — not bystanders — when we see hatred and prejudice in our own communities. Charlottesville has become part of American history, and we must learn from our history.