The following is a transcript of Episode 85 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis, A show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, president of Shalom Hartman Institute North America. And we’re recording on Monday, January 17th, 2022. So, this is our second stab at recording this conversation with today’s guests.
We had scheduled a live event a couple of weeks ago that fell apart due to some technical difficulties. And I do apologize to those of you who logged on for that program, but I’m glad we can still get you this conversation in the podcast feed. But in between then and our recording now, there was the new cycle – as there always is.
And in particular, the harrowing story over this past Shabbat that continued until late Saturday night of the attack at congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, which included the rabbi and several congregants held hostage for 11 hours until the situation resolved with the hostages free, thank God, and the assailant dead.
There’s a lot to unpack in the story, including the COVID era reality, that aspects of the attack were captured live through the streaming of the synagogue’s Saturday morning services or in the reports that the attacker gained entry to the synagogue by claiming to be unhoused and hungry, appealing to the charitable instincts of the synagogue in order to bring harm to those inside, or even the wild subplot of the attacker asking to speak to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan, who he perceived as the ostensibly all-powerful intercessory who could meet his demands. Inevitably though, what bubbles up in moments like this is the instinct to revisit our people’s ongoing conversation about anti-Semitism, what it feels like to be hated and threatened and what it might take to both protect ourselves from its specter and maybe even to fight back.
Antisemitism is such a weird topic of conversation. We’re tempted to think that the new cycle changes what we have to say on the topic. Well, there’s also this very Jewish, very deep gravitational pull that makes a lot of us think that Antisemitism is an ever-present danger that metastasizes, but it doesn’t fundamentally evolve.
Of course, we in its sights are evolving. We’ve never been the same throughout Jewish history. And therefore, what it means to fight antisemitism varies dramatically, depending on who we are, where we’re located, who are our allies, what we can expect from the society around us and what tools are at our desks.
Anyway, Colleyville now is the name of a place that for American Jews for the foreseeable future will now be a menonym for something bigger, part of this ominous list of place names that tell a story just by saying them. Squirrel Hill Poway, Jersey City, Colleyville. There’s another place name in America though that’s been in the news lately first in the summer of 2017 and then again at the end of this past November, and that may be also belongs on that list. Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m sure we all remember back to August 11th and 12th of 2017. When for 48 hours, Charlottesville became the epicenter of white nationalist politics and an explicit attempt to unite the right “to bring together white supremacists and nationalist groups in America.” And it specifically took place in Charlottesville in response to a movement underway to take down Confederate statues in the South as had already been decided by the city of Charlottesville in the spring of 2017.
But of course, awakened and given greater force by the broader trends of the Trump presidency. So, in August of 2017 Nazis and white supremacists emerged into Charlottesville from all over the country like the convergence in one place of a whole bunch of demonic figures emerging from swamps and sewers.
And when the dust had cleared one person, Heather Heyer, was dead murdered by a white supremacist who rammed his car into the crowd. And thousands more were wounded physically and psychologically both by the violent rally itself, as well as by president Trump’s inability to differentiate between the good people, as he said on both sides, the protagonist and the antagonists. Some of the images are never going to go away like the Tiki torches.
And of course, the chants that “Jews will not replace us.” And some of it hasn’t gone away. It’s not hard to draw a line between Charlottesville as a warmup and the Capitol insurrection as a slightly less overtly white nationalist effort to disrupt American politics as the first big act. And who knows what’s next?
In general, I wonder what it means to fight back against any of these expressions of Antisemitism. Most of us have probably have a hard time imagining the presence of mind of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who threw a chair at the attacker in Colleyville and managed to escape.
And anyway, most of us are desperate for larger scale interventions: the ones that ask us not merely how we figure out how to survive in such a crisis, but how we, the Jews, how we as Americans actually fight back in ways that prevent such things from happening again.
In Charlottesville we’ve now seen one such effort in the form of a lawsuit funded and litigated by a new nonprofit called Integrity First for America, a nonpartisan NGO that supported the efforts of a wide range of Charlottesville plaintiffs to injustice against many of the organizers of the Unite the Right rally by holding them accountable in civil court for civil rights violations, including civil conspiracy, race-based harassment and violence and assault and battery.
At the end of November, the jury provide a mixed verdict in the case called Sines v. Kessler that held all the defendants, including individuals and organizations, the organizers of the rally, and perpetrators of the violence liable for one charge or another levying a total of about $26 million in penalties.
My colleague at Hartman professor James Loeffler who teaches at University of Virginia and as a senior fellow at Hartman spent about a month in the courtroom, tweeting the trial. and then he published what I think is already the definitive account of what it all means. An essay in the Atlantic entitled “Charlottesville was only a Preview.”
Jim writes in that essay, “Charlottesville’s greatest legacy, however, is it’s fracturing of a common set of truths. Our national conversation about race and religion has since devolved into a contest of warring slogans and dueling dates.”
Jim, thanks for being here with us again on Identity/Crisis.
I guess I want to start with you personally. I’d love for you to reflect a little bit about what it was like to be at that trial. I know that you were chronicling the trial as part of your scholarship. You are a professor of Jewish history. You were writing this Atlantic piece. You’re writing something bigger for your academic work. But I’m sure that it wasn’t merely being a spectator in a trial. I’m reminded in fact of the – I don’t know you like this comparison – I’m reminded of Arendt in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and what it must’ve been like for her as a German Jewish refugee dispassionately chronicling this trial. So maybe you could just speak for a few minutes about what it felt like for you at the trial as a Jew, as an American, as a professor at the university of Virginia and of course, as a scholar of all of this.
James: Thank you, Yehuda. Tt’s really good to be back to talk with you about this issue and to think through some of the implications of what we saw very recently and how it connects to this larger moment of antisemitism and moment of questioning about it. So, I won’t compare myself to Hannah Arendt. I’ll simply say I spent longer in Charlottesville I think then she spent in Jerusalem. Famously she kind of zipped in and out and then gave her take on what it all meant. And I won’t assume I got everything about it too, because it was very complicated. But I will tell you that my overwhelming sense was that this is something of enormous significance because it is fusing together a number of storylines.
And so much of what I do as a scholar and a teacher is explain how such and such an event going on in the headlines relates to Jewish history. Or such and such a Jewish event, how it relates to larger story lines in America. But here they were kind of all right there, framed together.
The defendants are all people who strategically and emphatically embraced Holocaust denial, who had not only embraced Antisemitic stereotypes, but they dove kind of deep into Jewish history to pull out the other episodes and the other antisemitic tropes that they wanted to recycle and reuse.
So that’s happening. And then there’s a storyline about race and racism at the time in American history when we’re reckoning with that a lot and debating about how to reckon with it. It was front and center because since as you said it’s about confederate memorials. And it’s about white supremacists using that and trying to kind of rope other people into their struggle.
So, these things were smushed together in sometimes surreal ways because we could be listening to the defendants talk about how they were just protecting their free speech rights. And then all of a sudden, they would be referencing Leo Strauss and talking about theories of Jewish thought and theories of the Jewish role in history and then theories of themselves as enacting some kind of cosmic drama.
So, as I’ve said, he was heady stuff. What I thought because of that, and I think we’ll talk about this is, Gosh, everyone must be kind of transfixed by this too, because it allowed so many people to see the storylines coming together.
The Trump era, white supremacy, Antisemitism, racism, they’re not always fused together, as I said, and here they were. And plus, here was a solution. Here was a bunch of lawyers saying, “Hey, we have a course of action. And we have a way to come up with a very creative legal strategy.” And I also thought that was terrifically interesting because we don’t hear much about those types of actions.
Yehuda: So at least one of the comments you make in your essay, when you refer to the deafening public silence, I agree with you. There’s something so interesting about so many pieces of the story we’re in a national conversation about race, and the Unite, the Right rally is prompted by a national reckoning around race. The plugging in of Jews into that conversation as a means of fueling white supremacy in this country. A lot of questions about free speech and what it means to constrain it. And of course, the Trump presidency – probably the most polarizing American political event in a hundred years.
And yet you refer to in your Atlantic essay as a deafening public silence. In fact, you said, “if even a single one of the 22,000 students at the University of Virginia bothered to visit the courthouse plaza, I did not see them.” I’m sure it didn’t feel great to knock on your students, but what is that about and why did nobody pay attention nationally to this new story about the trial itself and even about the verdict?
Not just nationally, but also locally.
James: Yeah. I mean that’s a great question. I have some thoughts. I wrestled with it. I still wrestle with it. I’m trying to make sense of that. It really felt like a deafening public silence. I will add, to give you a sense of the experience. It wasn’t just the people not showing up in front of the courthouse.
My students not being there. It’s also a time of COVID. Other things going on, but it was also just a sort of lack of awareness. People weren’t even paying attention, debating it or transfixed by it. So, what was going on? Certainly, there’s trial fatigue. There were two other prominent trials happening in Georgia and in Wisconsin at the time.
Those trials involved murder charges. Someone died in Charlottesville, but they died several years ago and the person who killed them was put on trial and put away for life. So frankly there was a little bit less of what Americans love about trials, which is a very open, shut case of did he do it or didn’t he do it?
But beyond that, it’s very clear that people don’t pay attention if they’re not told about it. So, I was very, very struck that the media coverage was light. There were dedicated reporters there from major news organizations and some freelancers, but there was not to this steady diet of it being presented to the American public to digest.
And without that people are not even going to have a chance to pay attention. I don’t know what that is. I think it has something to do with the way the media sees this type of complicated trial and has their own kind of fatigue. I think it was hard to make sense of this because there were these different actors in the story.
Trials about Jews are not easy for the media to process. And I don’t mean because of implicit bias. I mean, because they quite can’t quite figure it out what’s going on here. This seems to be a Jewish cause because many of these lawyers seem to be Jewish and yet we don’t want to talk about that.
That doesn’t sound right. And the victims who were victims of white supremacy and Anti-Semitism not all of them were racial minorities and none of them were Jewish. So that puzzle is hard. But lastly, and this is a sensitive topic to discuss, more so than I would feel bad about knocking on my students, I also feel bad about knocking on the Jewish community.
But I was surprised clergy and communal organizations didn’t stand up and shout all throughout the trial. Look at this. Here it is. Jews and others victimized here. It is Antisemitism. As you said, you had a political weapon.
This is a chance for America to recognize the danger and why we matter in the reckoning with it, but that didn’t happen. And that gets it to other issues, I think. But I think our leadership didn’t speak up loudly about it. Maybe they were distracted too. Maybe they were fearful. Maybe Antisemitism is just too politicized.
But without that leadership, it becomes really hard for people to get over the numbness and to pay attention.
Yehuda: So, I get the logic of numbness, right? We’re numb to a lot of political violence right now, a lot of terrible rhetoric in the public square. I get that. Our colleague Dahlia Lithwick on a talk last night for Hartman talked about the ways in which violence gets reported on. Paradoxically justice doesn’t. Or the processes of healing or fighting back don’t get reported on.
Maybe that’s part of this. And maybe, Jim, maybe part of the reason the Jewish community doesn’t get behind this is because the fear of losing. Even you indicated this wasn’t a slam dunk case from a legal perspective.
There was a bit of a stretch here. Use of Klan laws to prosecute the organizers of this rally. The plaintiffs run up against the possible accusation that they’re trying to stifle the first amendment rights of the defendants.
There’s a lot of risk that’s associated here. In fact, whenever Antisemitism or Holocaust denial gets put on trial, you open up the possibility that you lose the case. And the stakes of losing are far worse than the gains that come out of winning. So maybe for Jews, even though, and we can get to this a little bit further, about how this might be a strategy to defeat antisemitism.
Maybe there’s just fear about litigating this in public and wind up on the wrong side of history as a result.
James: I think you’re absolutely right. There was a lot of fear about what I would call visibility. Jews want the law to be doing its work. And they want people to take big steps towards justice, but they are afraid of the backlash of a trial that doesn’t go their way. I think there’s also fear that this is just rocking the legal boat in terms of what Jews will want law to do for them.
This was audacious. And because they just said it involved retrieving some other parts of American law and using it again. I think Jews are frankly quite ambivalent in the United States about what they want law to do for them. They could make more ambitious, consistent claims about civil rights and anti-discrimination law.
But there’s also a sense that this is perhaps overplaying their hand. Or that this is also something that is going to get into hot water because there’s a kind of vicious debate happening in another corner of American Jewish life involving BDS and free speech laws. And the politicization of it and the perception, this is type of riskiness that we can’t afford.
And we should just go back to a safer liberalism, which was good for Jews and good for everybody and tinker around the edges. I think that sentiment is definitely there. And the problem is if we do that, we leave ourselves without many tools to make big steps.
And then we’re left with just kind of an online debate and op-eds and tolerance education, and all kinds of other things, which in and themselves might be satisfying, but they might not actually move the needle on shutting down hate groups and finding more capacious ways to protect students from even Antisemitism that we didn’t anticipate would be there at this point.
Yehuda: So, this gets to the heart of the theory, right? The theory of prosecuting this case for the nonprofit that wound up doing it is essentially to create some sort of sticky consequences for those who would engage in this type of activity, to effectively use whatever tools of the – it’s not criminal justice. It is the civil justice system. I think the goal is really to bankrupt if I’m not mistaken to essentially drive these guys out of business by making their lives miserable for a number of years. I’d be curious for you to reflect on that as a strategy, the gains and losses that are associated with it, but also to maybe go a little bit bigger.
It’s a really interesting moment for the Jewish community to be associated with the justice system as a tool of protecting Jews. First of all, in Jewish history, very rarely did we look to the justice system of a society to protect us. Oftentimes we were vulnerable to it, but it’s also an incredibly contentious issue, especially on the left-hand side of American Jewish politics that Jews would be kind of intertwining themselves within the structure of the policing systems and criminal justice systems as tools to protect Jews.
And it’s not always the case that all of our allies would see those as tools that are meant for our protection. So, can you unpack some of that? How you see this as a strategy?
What were the plaintiffs essentially trying to do? And what does that mean? What do you think that reflects about the American Jewish relationships with to the justice system?
James: It’s very interesting. First of all, it’s complicated to understand how one uses civil lawsuits to pursue criminal justice effectively. These plaintiffs were doing a tort suit. I mean Jews know torts, right? It goes all the way back.
You’ve damaged our clients. You’ve damaged these victims. You’ve hurt their lives. You’ve hurt their bodies. So, we’re suing you for the damages and the other kinds of damages that we talk about. Compensatory and punitive damages. There is, on the one hand, a very clear strategy here, which they acknowledged goes back to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which did this actually for decades suing the Aryan Brotherhood and other hate groups. Let’s hit them in the pocketbook. We can do that. It’s actually, I think in some ways, a way to sidestep having to go directly to the government and ask the government to do the work for you. I personally think it’s actually regrettable only in the sense that think the government could be asked to do more.
One reason this lawsuit happened is because the Trump administration did not want to do any pursuing the federal charges. So, this is kind of a private alternative to that. Now in terms of embedding or intertwining ourselves with the justice system as a whole, I take a slightly different view.
American Jews have done this for a long time, but we do it selectively and we do it in sometimes unpredictable ways. To be honest, what this trial reminded me the most of is a series of trials that involve people suing terrorist groups, suing Hamas, suing the Palestinian Authority, suing Palestinian terrorist groups on behalf of victims, either themselves or family members they’ve lost, who’ve been injured or killed in terrorist attacks. And those have been going on for some time now. And they’re very complicated lawsuits because sometimes they actually pit the American Jewish plaintiffs against the US government and sometimes the US government steps in to help.
So, what I’m trying to suggest is its kind of a messy strategy to go that route. It promises a big numbers. It promises the power of in a financial sanction. It could go either way. It puts you in a strange relationship sort of alongside the government and there are trade-offs for that.
Now I’ll say one more thing about the trade-offs. The plus side is the financial hit you can inflict on the hate groups. There’s another positive, which unfortunately where we began our conversation didn’t necessarily come to pass here, which is you get massive publicity.
So, these plaintiffs said we could have sued under Virginia law. We could have sued for hate crimes and all kinds of damages, but they went for the federal approach because they wanted to get into federal court. They wanted that level of exposure and they wanted to set a larger record. They wanted people to pay attention.
So that’s the thing. Now, the downside is first of all, if you lose the downside is kind of a privatization of justice actually, and that is something that I feel some concern about. Because it just feels like the potential for that to be morphing into all kinds of other directions. And it also is something where it leads us to feel that maybe we have to take justice into our own hands. I don’t want to suggest for a second that’s what these lawyers, these very responsible lawyers of these plaintiffs were doing. But there’s a sense that we require our citizens to go out and defend themselves in these cases, rather than asking our FBI and our government to do it for us and having a democratic process where we demand that our fellow citizens care enough to tell our government to do this. A lot of messy stuff comes out of this.
And I think we’re still early in this. So, we’ll see how it shakes out.
Yehuda: It’s so bizarre because the reason why private plaintiffs essentially have to take it into their own hands as you allude to, is that the Trump DOJ didn’t want to prosecute any of these individuals not even for criminal charges, forget about that, civil charges.
And so, this became necessary and you get a little bit of a view into the kind of partisanization of what justice looks like in the Wall Street Journal’s unsigned editorial. I think it was last week or so, reflecting on one year since the capital insurrection where they refer to it, not as an insurrection, but as a riot.
And therefore, a riot means, yeah, there was a problem with social order. And insurrection is actually something that needs to be prosecuted. But at the same time – we’ve discussed this other times in the show with other guests, there are impulses within the Republican party to use the justice system around Antisemitism, as it relates to BDS, for instance, that we’re going to use the civil and even criminal structures to prosecute BDS.
Maybe that’s why I’m a little bit skeptical about this use of the law because it’s like well the kinds of Antisemitism or the kinds of political violence that that I can use the infrastructure of law to prosecute just depends on who’s in charge. I don’t know if that in the long-term really makes Jews safe and actually seems to play into the partisan culture of Antisemitism and fighting against it.
Maybe that’s unfair.
James: No, it’s a fair point. I just think that’s a built-in risk in general that happens when we talk about free speech and hate speech and regulating speech, and social media or elsewhere, because there’s so much hateful invective.
And when we like to do it, then the counter argument is this can be turned around against people depending on who’s in power or who’s in favor. But my point here is that that is always a risk. I think we have to be thinking about it. But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try to explore avenues because otherwise we’re left with very little. I’ll go back to what I said a few minutes ago.
Otherwise we’re just left with documenting Antisemitism, trying to get people outraged, asking for support. Not giving ourselves tools to at least pursue justice and actually try and put legal pressure on the bad actors. But I will say one other thing about this Yehuda, one of the things that struck me about the trial, and it does speak again to your worry that that politicization and polarization makes this even riskier is the surprising silence from a whole range of conservatives, including Jewish conservatives, who might have looked at this trial and said, this is a great way to say those are the bad apples. Conservativism, Trumpism has dangerous elements. But that’s not all of it. We want to rebuild our conservative movement.
We think there’s a great place in it for Jewish Americans. So, we can point to this trial and we can say those people are truly marginal, truly crazy, to use an overused word. And therefore, they’re not us. They don’t represent conservatives. The alt-right, these people who spoke up again and again in the trial, they reject conservatism as too soft and too sell out.
But that didn’t happen. I think that would have been an opportunity to say, okay, we see this as something that can actually help us articulate our concerns. And then, PS, we can also say, this is why we’re pursuing perhaps the Israel element, but we also care about this and it didn’t happen because of our polarization.
And I think it didn’t happen because this was initiated by a nonpartisan nonprofit but was still perceived to be Jewish liberals seeking justice. And people are quite cynical these days and quite unwilling to think about bipartisan initiatives. Look at the held-up nomination of Deborah Lipstadt.
That was a missed opportunity.
Yehuda: So Jewish liberals seeking justice. Let’s talk about this as a Jewish issue and a Jewish trial, a Jewish riot or not. I mean, it’s such an interesting case because you alluded to this at the beginning. It’s prompted by the racial justice reckoning. It’s about the statute of Robert E. Lee which stands in Emancipation Park in downtown Charlottesville and where the city had already said they’re going to take down the statue. And that’s why this becomes a kind of symbolic site for this rally. So, it doesn’t principally start as a Jewish story.
Famously the Jews will not replace us chant appears there. So, it’s part of the vocabulary. This is Eric Ward’s language, “It’s the fuel of white Antisemitism as a fuel of white nationalism.” So, it’s a sensitivity about race, but then Jews are brought in. The plaintiffs as far as I understand are not Jewish in the trial, but the lawyers are. I don’t know. There’s something I’m trying to figure out.
And I guess I feel particularly sensitive today. It’s MLK day and there’s been for a long time in the Jewish community a kind of a question of like when does the passion that Jews have had for civil rights, for instance, or the nostalgia the Jews have had for our role in the civil rights movement, winds up in a situation where we’re describing ourselves as the heroes and protagonists of a story that that’s not principally about us.
Now, of course, here it’s more complicated because it is an Antisemitic rally. It threatens the synagogue. Maybe you can help be disentangle or maybe just answer, it’s not this intangible about the fight for racial justice as connected to this story or whether this is actually a really a Jewish story.
James: Yeah, that’s a terrific question. And I think it’s clear if you look at the trial and you look at the whole story of Charlottesville. It helps us to see not only as Eric Ward, put it, you quoted him that Antisemitism plays this key role in contemporary white supremacy. But we’re really talking about, I would say, two kinds of white supremacy. And part of the confusion that play out in the trial reception, part of the complex entanglements is that there’s two kinds of white supremacy, right?
One is the white supremacy of Southern Christian. White supremacy and American racial supremacy. That’s something that runs deep in Charlottesville. The people coming there were seizing on that. They’re also tapping into racial tensions and resentments in Virginia that not long ago still were expressed in the form of massive resistance to racial integration.
So, there’s all of that. And then there is the issue that we talk a lot today, which is white supremacy in terms of institutional racism. And the legacies of it and the realities of it. Then there’s the white supremacy, the neo-Nazis, the Holocaust deniers, those who are obsessed with Jewish power. They’re obsessed with whiteness and they’re obsessed with Jews as racial imposters.
And that is a kind of a story that’s now fused with it, but it’s a different kind of white supremacy, if you will. The two have come together in recent years. They came together before. They’d been connected in American history for a long time, but it’s kind of a new moment of that.
And I think that’s part of why you had the strange reality of Antisemites seeking to target racial minorities and Jews central to this, and yet not the direct target. What we do with that is tricky. It’s really important. It’s also important that we acknowledged that the Jewish American story is a complicated one.
And if you go into Virginia, you see Jews who were active in the civil rights movement there, heroically. And you also see Jews who were complicit and resistant to change and willing to just put their heads down because they felt they were at risk or they identified with a part of American society wanting to move slowly.
This is a painful story. It’s also part of it. And it’s something else we kind of need to record with if we want to make sense of where that great moment of synergy and solidarity went. But the two white supremacies, there’s something that I think it’s really important. I will tell you that in hearing people talk at my university it sometimes sounds like they are really talking about two completely different ideologies. One is really about American racism against people of color and the other is about Nazi-ism and Holocaust and other stuff like that. Not necessarily things that are always understood as now, fusing together.
Yehuda: What’s tricky about that is that especially as relates to this as a legal strategy to defeat it. Is that when antisemitism lives exactly at that intersection. White supremacy, white nationalism, the ADL will just say that is the primary, violent anti-Semitic threat in this country.
And then you have moments like what happened to Colleyville, where wasn’t about white supremacy. It wasn’t about white nationalism, but it still trafficked in a lot of the same rhetoric and ideas, which is, by the way Jews, he targeted a synagogue, but the objective was a political cause and the leveraging of Jews.
In fact, I believe he’s now being quoted as having said, the only people, the only victims Americans care about are Jews. So, I’m going to go to a synagogue. I’m going to use Jews as my people, and I’ll be able to. Because everybody cares about Jews. So, it’s the same thing. It’s just not the same convenient antagonist.
And I fear that when the whole story about Antisemitism is about white nationalism, then you can only mobilize your resources to fight the system when it fits into that narrative. And then you get moments like Colleyville and plenty of other expressions of Antisemitism that just don’t fit.
What does it look like? I know you’re thinking a lot about this because it reflects an effort by the Jewish community to actually do something, not just wear your Jewish star. Like a “do something.: But how do you do that? When certain expressions of anti-Semitism are kind of politically inconvenient for people, they don’t want that to be the version of antisemitism that we’re fighting.
James: Yeah. That’s very difficult. The Colleyville situation is striking because of the reporting that came out in which the FBI apparently initially said this wasn’t actually targeting Jews. The FBI agent said it’s not an anti-Semitic crime. It was a crime of convenience.
Not that different from what you said you heard while he went to make use of some Jews to get the world’s attention, but he wasn’t there to try and attack Jews, which is of course not really what’s going on and not really what anti-Semitism is. He did go there to target Jews and then to use them.
The inconvenient dimensions are connected to, frankly, the complexity of it. And trying to explain to an American society that still thinks in terms of race and religion, what Jews are and trying to figure out what you want to be seen as, because we don’t want to be a stereotype.
We don’t want to be typecast. We don’t want to be squeezed into one box just stuck in white America and therefore not eligible to be understood as a vulnerable minority, but then we are also part of white America in large part. And then our Jews of color have an even more complicated situation because of that.
So, where does that leave us? Sometimes the inconvenient moments are useful and sometimes we just have to pursue them. And I think there’s a tendency to want to make everything neat and have it figured out in advance. And I don’t think we can afford that anymore. I think we have to be imagining and thinking about solutions as we go forward.
And that’s why Jewish pride is not going to do enough for us. And that’s also why I think recording and narrating our insults and injuries that we experience is not enough. If we don’t go into the criminal justice system and engage with it. If this is a success story and part of the success story seems to be because the ADL trained this rabbi.
It’s just a story that no one really cares about because it’s just a story of behind the scenes work and training and preparation and apprising people about legal options and security.
And that’s the kind of thing our community has to do. And that’s the kind of thing we perhaps should accord more respect. It’s just not as sexy, but it’s actually useful.
Yehuda: Yeah. It is a success story and I was taken by that too. It didn’t stop all day people on the right and on the left to go after the ADL all the time. And you saw this kind of pause when the rabbi in his statement, I want to thank the FBI and the ADL for the training that they gave me.
It’s like, oh, well actually, maybe that helps. So, but this leads to a bigger question, which is very deep that you wrote in your piece, that I think goes to the heart of the strategy in Charlottesville. You said, “there’s something both noble and tragic about these efforts.”
I’m quoting, “to reveal the true face of white supremacy, noble because commonly discussing racism and Antisemitism with racists and Antisemites is hard, painful work, even in the plastic confines of a courtroom. Tragic, because doing so reflects the great liberal faith in the power of honesty. If you just expose the lies and hatred, then eventually the law, the liars and haters will come clean about their intentions. Yet the law is supremely challenged by a postmodern racist ideology that deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction.”
I think this is alluding to the fact that these guys are playing all the time with I’m joking. I’m telling the truth or I’m joking. I guess what I heard you saying here is this deep question of, okay, well we won in Charlottesville, but the much larger question is can liberalism win? Can the politics of believing in the system win? And again, if you had asked any Jew in almost any regime and Jewish history to put their faith in the system, that it would protect them, they’d be like, are you crazy? So, you’re stuck because you can’t put your faith in the system, and you can accumulate power outside.
But here Charlottesville reflects we’re going to go through the system. We’re going to go through the legal system and liberalism ultimately will win. It’s hard to feel that right now in the polarized America. So, I guess my question for you, is simply, can liberalism win?
James: That is something that I thought a lot about during the trial and as you said, that is what I was getting at. There’s a certain belief that the sunlight is the disinfectant and people will snap out of conspiracy theories and you know, that kind of thing.
And behind it is kind of a certain desperation. On the other hand, there’s also a deep cynicism about the system and what it could do for us. And there’s a skepticism about the limits of it. And cynicism about how it’s been affected by politics or maybe the system is the problem.
It did well for certain groups. Then it doesn’t do well for others and now everyone’s unhappy with it. But what I would say is that the system and liberalism is actually ultimately what we make it. I just think there’s a tendency these days to kind of reify it, to say, we have to get back to civil discourse as if that’s something that just kind of magically happened in human history.
And liberalism just magically happened because of the power of ideas. And because people were nudged in the right direction. It was a battle. It was always a battle to construct a neutral sphere, to come up with ideas of equality before the law, to expand it. And in that courtroom setting, it often felt like those lawyers really just wished they could really make everyone appreciate the grandeur of the law. And that’s something that I was getting at. It felt a little noble, but tragic. But in a larger sense, law is a tool of power. And they’re doing the right thing by pursuing it. And I think we need to be bolder. Liberalism can win if we’re bolder about what we wanted to do.
We have to think of it less as something we’re kind of protecting from threats and more of something we’re building the next version of. So as much as we’ve talked in this conversation about risks and counter scenarios with law and civil rights and Antisemitism, what could go wrong and what might not work?
I think we have to experiment. If we don’t do that then we’re sort of betting on the fact that people will develop to the mean, or people will somehow wake up and realize, well, I’ll get enough of what I want out of it. And therefore, I can live with it. I think it has to be something more. I think law is not the only way to do it, but I think we need to be willing to ask for more answers and to give more answers rather than to simply say, we’re just looking to get back to the basic little patch of ideas that we can all agree on.
Yehuda: Right. So maybe liberalism and law are one tool. I think there’s a second. And I’d love for you to reflect on this, which is you also say in your piece, “justice depends as much on a common public narrative as it does on the pursuit of truth and the authority of the law. Until we can agree on a common understanding of our recent past, we have little hope of repairing our troubled present.” I’m reminded of an essay also by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker from February of 2020, as she called “the Last Time Democracy Almost Died.”
And she references the 1930s, the last time democracy nearly died all over the world and almost all at once. Americans argued about it. And then they tried to fix it. I’m fascinated by the periodic moment where it looks like we’re all on the same side. I mean, even the incredible images of all of the community of rabbis, pastors, and imams in Colleyville, Texas, which the rabbi had cultivated all together, working with the FBI, but also tweeting pictures of themselves.
There was something about a common public narrative. The good, the rational and the reasonable are on this side. And the extremist is on the other side. What else has to happen, Jim, around especially public narrative and uncomfortable public narrative to create a new kind of reality in which it’s so clear when there are incidents like Charlottesville, it’s not an attack on black Americans and it’s not an attack on Jewish Americans, but it’s actually an attack on the American project?
James: Yeah. Well, one thing that has to happen is what you described, which is a model of interdependence, right? I mean what’s very striking about Texas is that notion of interdependence. And there are different ways to find that. The religious community model is one way to do it, to find interdependence. I think we desperately need that.
Secondly, that helps us see it as kind of a stakeholder model. Where it’s like your community needs your engagement for the sake of the community, not just for the pity over the bad things happening to people in it. So, I will say something that I didn’t write about, because I couldn’t get everything into the article I wrote for the Atlantic, but a wonderful moment was one of the plaintiffs testifying about why he went to the rally.
He had an argument with his wife that morning because he wanted to go to the rally and she said, why are you going to the rally? It could get dangerous. And he said, I just feel I should be there. These people are coming into my town. I actually moved to Charlottesville only recently.
I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not a member of racial minority group or Jewish, but I just thought they should be there to stand up to their men to express solidarity. And his wife said, yeah, but you don’t have to be there. You know, like if there are other ways to help and don’t do it. And he said, I just think it’s the right thing to do to show up.
So that’s inter-dependence. He just felt that’s what he needed. I think we should celebrate moments like that and then build them as our clergy and others build those networks that can do that. But as you mentioned the flip side too, is we have to do that and have models of interdependence and pluralism without certain myths that I just don’t think work well for us anymore. I think American exceptionalism, as it is, is a difficult myth that we have to deconstruct more. There is still a tendency to say because of this land’s unique for religious freedom, it’s been so good to Jews and some other religious minorities we can build on that.
We now know though that it wasn’t so good to lots of other religious minorities, and we know that there were compromises and problems with that all along. American Jewish exceptionalism is also something that we have to wrestle with. One of the problems that I think many American Jews have today is they have such a rose-tinted view of American history.
There was this bad moment in the Civil War for like a second where there was an Antisemitic Order. Leo Frank. But that was sort of a bizarre hiccup and then the real problem was that we didn’t do enough to stop the Holocaust. Our country didn’t do enough or it’s private communities. Well, it’s this community doesn’t like us, but I think we need a more honest look at what American history has meant, what Jews have gained and lost.
And, frankly it’s not to go back and paint a deeper, darker picture of Antisemitism everywhere. I’m the last person that want to do that, but it’s to understand that the idea of a golden land was a myth and it was a myth that obscured a lot of what was happening to Jews and happening to other people.
So, what we need to do is be able to have a stronger history that doesn’t mythologize itself. And I do think that’ll help us to think more about interdependence and to think about Muslim Americans, for instance, not just as the newest version of the minority that arrives and to think about other communities, not simply as the ones who are still struggling when we’ve already made it.
Those attitudes come from a sense that America was the best possible country for us. America has been good, but it’s challenged us too and we should acknowledge that as we go back to figure out how we got here.
Yehuda: And maybe even just acknowledging these messy public stories around black and Jewish power and vulnerability as they intertwine. Jewish and Muslim power and vulnerability as they intertwine. Both of are the news stories of the last three months. And where the convenient effort to construct a public narrative of what it means to be Jewish and vulnerable in America requires you to, instead of inhabiting that kind of complexity, to strip it apart and insistent on some other kind of radical and untrue simplicity.
James: I think so. We focus this conversation a lot around law. I’ll note that very clearly, whatever happens in the next few years with attempts to protect Jews via civil rights law, its attempts to support Israel or Israel related causes and speech and protected from discrimination, hate, all of that is going to naturally raise the question about what about other communities. It already did with the idea of why isn’t there Czar for Islamophobia? We are destined to have more of that. And I don’t think we can respond to that only by saying, well, our situation’s different or well we need this, but that may be a bridge too far to approach it only with cynicism.
I think we have to ask what kind of protection we want, what kind of models legal identity, if you will, we want, and then what are we willing to extend to other groups, other communities inside this process of trying to define liberalism today.
Yehuda: Well on that note, I want to thank you all for listening this week and a special thanks to my guests, to my friend, professor James Loeffler. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called.
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