After the terrorist attack and murder of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, the recent rise in the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States received increased attention. The Pittsburgh massacre underscored the significance of another pivotal moment in the rising tide of hatred and bigotry in the United States: the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. This lesson is designed to help students better understand contemporary antisemitism in the United States through the case of the violence and turmoil in Charlottesville. Students will have the opportunity to investigate the historical roots of antisemitism and learn about how it has intertwined with white supremacy in United States history. Connecting history with the present day will help students understand the worldviews of various contemporary white nationalist groups who were present at the Unite the Right rally and remain active today.
Facing History has created a series of lessons that explore the roles that racism and contested history played at 2017 Unite the Right rally. This lesson adds to that discussion by exploring the August 2017 events in Charlottesville as a case study in contemporary antisemitism. On the first day of this lesson, students will learn about the events leading up to and during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville by examining a timeline and a short video clip. On the second day of the lesson, students will look at American antisemitism in historical context by exploring primary sources from throughout the twentieth century. Through imagery analysis, they will draw connections between these historical sources and images and rhetoric from the Charlottesville rally. On the third day, students will examine community responses to the events in Charlottesville and discuss how they can choose to participate in strengthening their communities when hatred or bigotry violates them.
The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a significant moment in recent United States history, as it revealed a persistence of hatred and blatant discrimination that some Americans believed was a thing of the past. What happened in Charlottesville amplified two of our country’s longest and most troubling forms of hatred: racism and antisemitism. These two forms of bigotry, though quite distinct, are linked in many ways. According to Derek Black, a former white nationalist leader who has renounced his membership in that movement, white nationalists believe that Jews are orchestrating a conspiracy of racial minorities designed to destroy the power of white people in the United States. He explains:
White nationalists are very worried about a minority white America, but they would agree that if they’re going to tackle one thing, it has to be expeling Jewish people from America, because [they believe] multiculturalism wouldn’t have happened without Jews in the United States. . . . people motivated by racial prejudice tie their antisemitism to their racial prejudice.1
In fact, social media posts by the shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh reveal that he believed the false conspiracy theories Black describes. He was motivated to murder by his belief that Jews were organizing caravans of migrants from Central America to come to the United States to overwhelm the white population.
Such contemporary conspiracy theories about Jews are part of a much longer history. Hatred, prejudice, and discrimination targeting Jews extends back in time more than two millennia, stemming from anti-Jewish ideas expressed in early Christian teachings. Modern antisemitism emerged after the Enlightenment, and it is based on the belief that Jews are members of a distinct and inferior “race.” In the late 1800s, many European and American scientists divided and ranked humankind into smaller and smaller “races.” One of these was the “Semitic race,” which they used to categorize Jews. The term antisemitism was coined by German Wilhelm Marr, who published a pamphlet in 1878 titled The Victory of Judaism over Germandom. Filled with lies and myths about Jews, Marr’s pamphlet argued that Jews were more than a distinct “race,” that they were dangerous and alien, and that they were intent on maliciously destroying German society. Marr founded the League of Anti-Semites in Berlin in 1879 to combat the threat he imagined that Jews posed. Although his political organization did not gain much support, the racist beliefs of antisemitism spread across Europe and the United States, providing justification for discrimination and violence against Jews in the twentieth century.
In twentieth and twenty-first century United States, antisemitism has stood alongside racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia as part of the ideology of white nationalism. White nationalism as a movement is no longer relegated to the fringes of American society: according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 100 groups operating with white nationalist ideology in the United States in 2017.2 New research from the University of Virginia’s Institute for Family Studies found that roughly 5.64% (around 11 million) of America’s 198 million non-Hispanic whites have beliefs consistent with the alt-right or white nationalist worldview.3 The study argues that whether or not they describe themselves as alt-right, they share the movement’s belief in a politics that promotes white interests above those of other groups.
The resurgence of white nationalism, including antisemitism, was thrust into the consciousness of many Americans on August 11 and 12, 2017, when the Unite the Right rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was one of the largest, most violent gatherings in the United States in decades. The 2017 Unite the Right rally brought together various racist, antisemitic, white nationalist, and white supremacist groups, including the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan. Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer, claimed that the rally’s goal was to save the statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee; like others on the far right, Kessler was hoping to capitalize on the growing controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments across the United States.
During the rally, hundreds gathered to espouse their antisemitic and racist views. Protesters chanted “you will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil,” directly echoing chants and slogans used in Nazi Germany. Some brought battle gear, including torches, weapons, shields, and flags with Nazi or Confederate insignia. Many openly gave Nazi salutes during the marches. There were numerous skirmishes with counter-protesters throughout the day. The violence culminated in a deadly attack on counter-protesters, when a car driven by a rally attendee plowed into a crowd, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer and injuring nineteen others. The Virginia Governor then declared a state of emergency and the rally disbanded. According to Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL),
This [was] an agenda about celebrating the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and celebrating those that then fought to preserve that terrible machine of white supremacy and human enslavement . . . yet, somehow, they’re all wearing shirts that talk about Adolf Hitler.4
Within the realm of white supremacy, antisemitism persists as a foundational ideology uniting multiple sets of beliefs. As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic,
Of course there are neo-Nazis in our time. There are those who hate Jews in every time. It’s a hatred that easily flickers between the universal and the particular, melding with the similarly particular hatreds of blacks and immigrants and other minority groups.5
This rally highlighted hatreds that have been simmering for generations. It is important to note that there were many forms of hatred present at the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, including virulent racism and antisemitism. This particular lesson examines the events through the lens of the history of antisemitism as it manifests today. Important additional context may be found in our lessons After Charlottesville: Public Memory and the Contested Meaning of Monuments and After Charlottesville: Contested History and the Fight against Bigotry, both of which look at the events in Charlottesville in 2017 through the lenses of race and racism.