OP-ED

On taking a stand against racism and anti-semitism

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Morris Nathanson, an 89-year-old who served in the United States Navy in World War II, was outraged by President Trump’s failure to strongly speak out against the hateful philosophy of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and militia groups exhibited at a violent protest that escalated out of control in the streets around the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va.

Growing up Jewish, Nathanson is horrified about the growing racism and anti-Semitism so visibly flaunted at the Charlottesville rally and seen throughout nation.  Before the Second World War, his parents had escaped the violent pogroms in Russia, ultimately settling in a three-decker house with relatives in Pawtucket.  Family members who remained in Europe were killed, victims of the Holocaust, he said.

“It’s is indefensible,” says Nathanson, an East Side resident who in an internationally acclaimed artist and semi-retired restaurant designer, for Trump to not outright denounce the neo-Nazi groups.  He warns, “We must recognize the growth of the neo-Nazi movement for what it is, a terrible disease that must be eliminated.”

The jarring historical imagery of the torchlight procession of supporters of Adolf Hitler moving through the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin on the evening of January 30, 1933, came to life for Nathanson and millions of Americans when hundreds of neo Nazis, white nationalists, KKK, militia members and other right-wing groups gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.  Carrying tiki torches, flags with swastikas and confederate flags, they came to the City’s Emancipation Park to ostensibly support a protest against the removal of a statue of Civil War confederate General Robert E. Lee.  But it was really an opportunity to display their strength.

Battle lines drawn

On the evening of Friday August 11 at 10:00 p.m., the torch bearing marchers, some wearing Nazi-style helmets, carrying clubs, sticks and round makeshift shields emblazoned with swastikas and other Fascist symbols, and others entered the one-block square in downtown Charlottesville, the site of the controversial monument, chanting “Jews will not replace us”, “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry), “White Lives Matter,” along with homophobic, racists and misogynistic slurs. Heavily armed militia members, carrying semi-automatic weapons and dressed in camouflage military fatigues came to support and embolden their fellow extremist groups that identify as the “alt-right”.

At the site of the controversial monument in the City’s park and surrounding streets, throughout Friday evening and Saturday, August 12, members of alt-right groups opposed counter-protestors including Antifa, a far-left militant political movement that opposes fascist groups, members of Blacks Lives Matter, and church groups along with others who oppose racial bigotry and anti-Semitism.  During the weekend rally, it was reported that 15 people were injured.  On Saturday, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old, drove his gray Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other counter-protestors.  Two Virginia State Police officers, monitoring the protests, died when their helicopter crashed.

Immediately following the rally on Saturday and the death of Heyer, Trump went to Twitter and posted an opened ended statement, calling the nation to “condemn all that hate stands for.”  Following this tweet, on Sunday, August 13, he issued a statement at his golf club in Bedford New Jersey, stating, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”

Trump vacillates on who’s to blame

On Monday, August 14, intense political pressure would force Trump to make a statement at the White House to strongly condemn KKK and neo-Nazi groups after he blamed violence at the Charlottesville, Va., two days earlier in a tweet on “many sides”

By Tuesday August 15, Trump had backed off his public scolding of America’s hate groups   At an impromptu press conference held at Trump Tower, he cast blame for Charlottesville’s violence equally on the “alt-right” and “alt-left” counter- protestors. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent," Trump said, noting that "Nobody wants to say that, but I say it."

“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis and white supremacists, believe me,” says the president, noting that some protestors wanted to stop the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. Some were “nice people” he stated.

“So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” said Trump.

 Trump’s comments that not all rally marchers were neo-Nazis or white supremacists caused a political tsunami, with critics pointing out that these individuals marching with the neo-Nazis were not “nice people.” It was guilt by association.

The two former Bush Presidents joined world leaders, GOP and Democrat Senators, Governors, and rank-and-file Republicans, Democrats, and Fortune 500 Executives to chastise Trump for his failure to speak out against Nazi and white supremacist ideology and that his comments trivialized the anti-Semitism and racism of these extremist alt-right groups.   

Even the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior uniformed military leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the President, posted tweets denouncing the alt-right extremists and blaming them for Saturday’s bloody violence in Charlottesville.

However, white supremacists took Trump’s Charlottesville statements as an endorsement to their legitimacy and acceptance to allow their members to become more visible in society.  David Duke, a white nationalist and former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, tweeted, “Thank You Mr. President & God Bless You for setting the record straight for All Americans.”  The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, quickly called Trump’s statements on blaming both sides a sign that he implicitly supported their goals and objectives.

The increasing visibility of racism and anti-semitism 

Ray Rickman, 65, Executive Director of the nonprofit Stages of Freedom, says, “I am deeply worried about the piercing images of men marching with Nazi torch lights on the University of Virginia campus. These men were screaming “Jews won’t replace us.” It was Nazi Germany all over again. The idea of seeing a Nazi flag, the most vicious symbol of anti-Semitism on American soil, is almost unbelievable to me. All of this is followed by the deeply divisive comments from Mr. Trump”, says the long-time Rhode Island activist. 

“This man in the White House has shown total disrespect for the millions of American soldiers both living and dead who died to save the world from the Nazis,” adds Rickman, noting that “It’s the first time since Woodrow Wilson that a president has refused to condemn racism after such an act of violence.” 

Rickman says that the neo-Nazi groups used the Charlottesville gathering as a public show of force and to promote hatred. “Maintaining the Robert E. Lee Monument was just an excuse to attack Jews and Blacks,” he says, noting that the three-day protest was planned as a “hateful rally by people who hate people of color and Jews. It is as simple as that.”

One of the most interesting aspects of beliefs held by General Lee was that he was not in favor of raising Confederate monuments, says Rickman, noting that in 1869 he wrote that it would be wiser “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow those nations who endeavored to obliterate the mark of civil strife.”

Combating intolerance and hatred

While both GOP and Democrat lawmakers lambasted Trump’s choice of words for laying the blame of violence at the Charlottesville rally on both the far right demonstrators and counter protestors, there were some who remained silent or defended his comments, saying his words were adequate.     

With the increased public visibility of the neo-Nazis, white supremacist and other hate groups, if Trump fails to use his national bully pulpit, and the moral authority of the Office of the Presidency to steadfastly condemn hate groups, national and state elected officials and Americans of all walks of life must take on this responsibility.

In response to the violent weekend in Charlottesville, Va., the Illinois Senate adopted a resolution, sponsored by Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, urging law officials to recognize white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations. 

Nathanson, who in 1965 marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama to fight racism, calls for organizing rallies at the state and national level to “reduce the damage of Trump’s comments.”

It would be an appropriate time to remember the speech given by Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran minister who opposed the Nazis and was sent to several concentration camps.  He survived the war and explained:

First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists.  I was silent.  I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.  This article is dedicated to my childhood mentor, the late Fred Levy, of Dallas, Texas, who served in the European Theatre of World War II.  In his later years he spoke out against anti-Semitism and Nazi atrocities that he witnessed while serving in Germany.

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