Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an assistant professor in presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and the author of “Messengers of the Right.” She hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and recently released the new podcast “A12.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The Tree of Life synagogue shooting on Saturday, in which 11 people were killed during Shabbat services, stunned the nation. Mass shootings happen with depressing regularity in the United States, but the virulent anti-Semitism that fueled the attack came as a surprise to many. “I just want to kill Jews,” the shooter allegedly told police. President Trump, in a rally held a few hours after the attack, expressed disbelief: “It looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime, and that is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on.”
The return of violent anti-Semitism should not have come as a surprise, however. In 2017, white supremacists hoisting Nazi flags and shouting “Jews will not replace us!” swarmed Charlottesville. Though ostensibly in town to protest the removal of a Confederate monument, the alt-right brought to town chants and symbols that were primarily anti-Semitic. And they were not alone: a month earlier, the Ku Klux Klan had come to Charlottesville to rally. Almost all their signs and placards bore anti-Semitic messages, like one that read “Jews are Satan’s children.”
The deadly violence in Charlottesville put the alt-right and white supremacy at the center of national political debate. Yet the anti-Semitism part of the story quickly disappeared. Most analysis centered on Confederate statues and anti-black racism – which, to be sure, was a core part of the story. But as reporters and pundits focused on the Confederate flags that cluttered the streets of Charlottesville, they lost sight of the specific history behind the Nazi flags that flapped beside them.
As I began work on A12, a podcast series about the violence in Charlottesville, I couldn’t reconcile the centrality of anti-Semitism on August 11 and 12 with its marginalization in the year since. So I turned to Charlottesville’s rabbis and Jewish residents, including a historian of Jews in Charlottesville, to find the answers.
The local Jewish community was well aware that anti-Semitism and violence against Jews were a core part of what happened in Charlottesville. Congregation Beth Israel, the red brick synagogue in downtown Charlottesville that is the sole house of worship for the city’s Jewish population, sits one block from the Robert E. Lee statue where the alt-right rallied on August 12. Throughout what is now known locally as the Summer of Hate, the members of the synagogue were on high alert.
Jewish residents and the synagogue received threats. As the planned rally approached, they hired a security guard to protect the schoolchildren, workers, and worshipers who passed through the synagogue’s doors. They also hid the Holocaust Torah scrolls, brought from a community in Czechoslovakia that had been destroyed by Nazis, offsite.
The morning of the rally, three armed white nationalists stood across the street from the synagogue, watching it. While the violence unfolded at the park, someone online threatened to burn it down. Jewish residents remained on edge for weeks afterward.
Anti-Semitism was a key part of what happened in Charlottesville because it is a key component of the resurgent white supremacy in America today. So why did those threats on Jewish life and property – so keenly felt and remembered by Charlottesville Jews – fade from the national story?
The answer is complicated. Both a race and a religion, Judaism occupies a complex position in American bigotry. While slavery and anti-black racism are seen as central to American history and politics, anti-Semitism is not. Never as virulent or deadly as in Europe and Russia, systemic anti-Semitism began to recede in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Though it never entirely disappeared, most Americans – including many Jewish-Americans – believe anti-Semitism is a problem that the country has, by and large, successfully dealt with. Uncertain how to deal with its sudden re-emergence and aware that black people face more explicit systemic inequality in America today, most analysts focused instead on the more familiar story: neo-Confederates, slavery, and anti-black racism.
Jewish leaders in Charlottesville, though aware that the anti-Semitism of the Summer of Hate was being forgotten, did not intervene. As Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Congregation Beth Israel explained to me, that was a purposeful choice. Black residents of Charlottesville face far more overt racism and structural and systemic discrimination, from policing to housing to jobs. They bore the brunt of white supremacy, he said, and should have the bulk of community support.
That is absolutely true. However, it is still important to bring anti-Semitism back into the story of Charlottesville, if only to make better sense of the worldview of the white supremacists who brought violence and death to the city. The anti-Semitism of the alt-right allows us to reject familiar arguments that the Confederate flag is about “heritage not hate.” For rally attendants to chant anti-Semitic slogans around a statue of Robert E. Lee is to hold Lee up as a hero of Aryanism, of a racially pure state.
That more expansive understanding of white supremacy is crucial to understanding the threat of growing white nationalism in America today. The alt-right as it has emerged in the past decade makes enemies of many, many groups: black Americans, Jews, immigrants, women. Indeed, one of the failures of much of the journalism about the alt-right is that it focuses almost exclusively on its racism and misses the violent misogyny that also defines the movement.
Misunderstanding the breadth of the hatred prevents us from seeing just how violent and deadly the alt-right truly is: from Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, radicalized “men’s rights” activists who killed 16 people and injured 30 others; to Alexandre Bissonnette, who murdered six people at a Quebec mosque; to Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people at a black church in Charleston.
The death counts are staggering and will almost certainly continue to grow. But there is another part of this story as well, one that cannot be summed up simply in lives lost. August 2017 cost many Jews in Charlottesville their sense of security. An armed security guard still watches over the synagogue whenever people are present; as I interviewed Rabbi Tom about changes at the synagogue, the guard regularly passed by the office window as he made his rounds. It is hard to imagine many synagogues remaining unguarded in the coming months and years.
For many Jews in Charlottesville, August 2017 marked the start of a new era of vulnerability. Their stories were largely lost outside the city limits, yet they are newly important in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting. That sense of vulnerability and loss has been nationalized, and the centrality of anti-Semitism to rising white supremacy in America can no longer be ignored.
Such a devastating week deserves one last hopeful note, a bit of grace: Charlottesville is home to a 96-year-old Jewish man who left Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht. In an interview, Phyllis Leffler, professor emerita of the history department at the University of Virginia, asked him about his views on the events of last August. “Never in my life could I have imagined that I would be witnessing this for a second time,” he told her.
Get our free weekly newsletter
And yet he saw stark differences between his experiences in Germany and in Charlottesville. Non-Jewish residents of Charlottesville rallied around the Jewish community, providing ongoing support and protection. “We have to recognize,” Leffler told me, “for the most part, we live in a world where people have learned those lessons and are not going back.”