The Persistence of Hate: What the 2017 Unite the Right Rally Revealed about Contemporary Antisemitism | Facing History & Ourselves
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The Persistence of Hate: What the 2017 Unite the Right Rally Revealed about Contemporary Antisemitism

Students develop an understanding of contemporary antisemitism in the United States through the case of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Social Studies




Three or more 50-min class periods
  • Antisemitism


About This Lesson

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.

This lesson explores 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.

  • How and why does antisemitism persist in communities today?
  • What can we do, individually and collectively, to confront hatred in our communities?
  • What role did antisemitism play in the ideology of the participants in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017?
  • How have antisemitism and racism intersected in the American past and at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville?
  • How have communities attempted to prevent and repair the damage caused by antisemitism and other forms of hatred?
  • How does exploring the history of antisemitism and its various forms of expression inform our decision-making processes when we are faced with injustice?
  • Students will recognize the persistence of antisemitism and the ways that contemporary antisemitism is manifested in the United States today.
  • Students will examine connections between antisemitism and racism in the United States today and in the past.
  • Students will be able to discuss ways that they can play a role in creating inclusive, civil classrooms and communities.

This lesson is designed to fit into three 50-minute class periods and includes:

  • 11 activities 
  • 1 video
  • 7 handouts
  • 6 teaching strategies
  • 6 extension activities

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.

  • 1Derek Black interview with Facing History and Ourselves, August 1, 2018.
  • 2Southern Poverty Law Center, "White Nationalist," Southern Poverty Law Center website, accessed December 7, 2018.
  • 3George Hawley, "The Demography of the Alt Right," University of Virginia's Institute for Family Studies website, August 9, 2018.
  • 4Quoted in Emma Green, “Why the Charlottesville Marchers Were Obsessed With Jews,” The Atlantic, August 15, 2017.
  • 5Quoted in Emma Green, “Why the Charlottesville Marchers Were Obsessed With Jews,” The Atlantic, August 15, 2017.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

It is crucial that you preview all of the materials in this lesson and think carefully about how you will share them with students. This lesson includes a video, images, and documents that show hate-filled language and actions toward Jews and other groups in the United States, both in recent years and in the past. The intensity of some of these resources may be shocking to your students. Be sure to provide sufficient time during these class periods for students to reflect, process, and ask questions about this content.

If you do not already have one in place, we suggest creating a classroom contract with your students. This will be helpful for maintaining a respectful classroom culture and conversation. For more information, you can also refer to our resource Fostering Civil Discourse: How Do We Talk About Issues that Matter?.

The activities on Day 2 use the Jigsaw teaching strategy, which we suggest you review before teaching the lesson. Each artifact used in the activity consists of two elements: an image or piece of text and an accompanying set of questions. Prepare enough copies for each expert group of students in your class. Because some of the materials used in this activity include images of swastikas and Confederate flags, it is important that you collect the jigsaw materials at the end of the lesson and don’t leave copies lying around the classroom or on copy machines and printers.

Activity 3 on Day 3 uses the Big Paper, Silent Conversation teaching strategy, which we encourage you to familiarize yourself with before teaching the lesson. Note that in order for students to have a silent conversation with the text and with each other, you will need to provide clear and explicit instructions for students prior to the start of the activity and answer any questions in advance. Before class, you should print the Unite the Right Rally Big Paper Sources handout and tape each page on a piece of chart paper.

Students may begin this lesson with misconceptions about Judaism. Antisemitic beliefs and stereotypes still persist today. Students may encounter facts and information in this lesson that conflict with things they learned at home or in faith communities that they did not realize were rooted in the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Therefore, it is important to be ready to respond to stereotypes about Jews that may arise in class, help students consider where such stories come from, and ground the discussion in what we know from history about the origins of antisemitic ideas. If, in the course of teaching this lesson, you become concerned that your students have a limited understanding of what it means to be Jewish and are relying on stereotypes instead, consider using the extension “Explore the Complexity of Jewish Identity” from our lesson Exploring Identity. For general conversations about identity, see our unit My Part of the Story.

The word Semitic does not actually refer to a group of people. It is not a “race” but rather a linguistic term that refers to a group of languages traditionally spoken in the Middle East and parts of Africa, including Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia, as well as Hebrew and Arabic. Because there is no such thing as a “Semitic race,” Facing History & Ourselves uses the alternate spelling antisemitism instead of the common spelling anti-Semitism. See the resources recommended in the Extensions below to learn more about the history of Anti-Judaism and antisemitism.

  • The links between white nationalism and antisemitism are deeply intertwined and complex in nature, but they are critical to understanding the events of the Unite the Right Rally. Use our White Nationalism Explainer to teach your students more about white nationalism.
  • For additional background information on the roots of white nationalism and its links to antisemitism, view the video clip Eli Saslow on Antisemitism and White Nationalism. Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post journalist who covers this topic extensively in his book Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1 Activities

Begin by reviewing your classroom contract. Agree that your discussion will remain civil and respectful, and ask students to name what that looks and sounds like in your classroom.

  • Engage students in a brief conversation in response to the following question:

    What are some issues, ideas, or events that divide communities?

    Record students’ ideas on chart paper that you can refer back to at future points in the lesson.

  • If it does not emerge from the discussion, ask students to consider the ways that bigotry and hatred can divide communities. Then, tell students that they will be looking at a particular form of hatred, antisemitism, by examining a contemporary case study and then placing it within the historical context of antisemitism in twentieth-century America.

  • Write “antisemitism” on the board and ask for volunteers to help define it. Then provide the following definition that students can record in their notes: bigotry towards, hatred of, or persecution of Jews because they are Jewish.

  • Pass out the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville Timeline handout to provide students with more context about what happened at the rally in August 2017.

  • Read aloud the opening paragraph on the handout and then have students read aloud each event using a strategy like popcorn or wraparound.

  • Invite students to add any new ideas to the class list of issues, ideas, or events that can divide communities and record their ideas on the chart paper.

  • Explain to students that they will now watch a video clip from the white nationalist protest on the evening of August 11, 2017. To set the tone, remind students that the rally led to violence and the death of three people, and that the chants they will hear reflect those of Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

  • Play the VICE News video Charlottesville: Race and Terror from 0:00 to 1:30. Note that this video is more than 20 minutes long, but we strongly recommend you are careful to limit what you share to only the recommended clip due to the intensity of the video.

  • Next, give students a few minutes to process in their journals using the following prompt:

    What about this video do you find most striking and what does it make you think about or feel? What questions do you have about it?

  • Tell students that they will now re-watch the video clip and then discuss it as a class. Again, play the VICE News Charlottesville: Race and Terror video from 0:00 to 1:30. Choose from the following questions to guide a class discussion:

    • Who are the protestors? What are they doing and chanting?
    • From the perspective of the protestors, who is the “we” and who is the “they”?
    • Based on their chants, what do the protesters want? What do they fear?
    • Who are the counter-protestors? What are they doing and saying? How are these events impacting them?
    • How does the video clip confirm, change, or challenge your understanding of the Unite the Right rally?

So students can process the content from this lesson, have them complete the following sentence starter in a journal reflection:

After reading the timeline and discussing the video clip, I am thinking about . . . I am wondering . . .

Day 1 Extension Activities

Pass out the handout Overview of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism. Instruct students to complete the handout with a partners. If time permits, you can show them a video clip to offer more background into the historical development of antisemitism: Ancient Roots of Anti-Judaism or Antisemitism from the Enlightenment to World War I (11:55).

Protestors in Charlottesville chanted “blood and soil” while marching through the streets. This chanting has direct links to Nazi ideology. Watch Hitler’s Ideology: Race, Land, and Conquest (5:50), in which scholar Doris Bergen explains the Nazi concept of “race and space,” which can help students understand the origins of the “blood and soil” chant.

Day 2 Activities

The documents in this activity invite an examination of the ways antisemitism and racism have intersected throughout US history. These sources also help students realize that the events in Charlottesville are grounded in a long history of antisemitism in the United States.

  • Start by reviewing the list that students created in class of issues, ideas, and events that can divide a community. Then explain to students that in this lesson, they will examine a set of documents from and information about the past that will help them better understand the historical roots of antisemitism and white supremacy in US history. Then they will consider how learning this history impacts their understanding of what happened at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.

  • Divide students into five “expert” groups and use the Jigsaw teaching strategy for an exploration of the following artifacts:

    Once students are in their “expert” groups, begin with two minutes of silence so that students have quiet time to examine their artifacts before discussing the questions on the handout.

  • Move students into “teaching” groups and have them summarize and share their work from their “expert” groups before discussing the following questions together:

    • What evidence of antisemitism in the United States did you find in these documents and statistics?
    • What did you learn about antisemitism in the United States that seemed most surprising or significant?
    • In what ways does antisemitism in these documents stand alongside racism and other forms of hatred and bigotry? What groups make up the “we” and “they”?
  • Have groups share ideas and questions from their teaching group discussions with the class. Then discuss the following question together:

    What connections do you notice between this set of artifacts and the timeline and video clip from Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that you examined in the last class?

Using the Exit Cards strategy, ask students to answer the following questions before class is dismissed:

  • What new, different, or deeper understanding do you have of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville or antisemitism in the United States today after participating in today’s jigsaw activity and discussion?
  • What one question you have at the end of today’s class?

Day 2 Extension Activities

Use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to explore Henry Buxbaum’s story Voices in the Dark from 1930s Germany. After listening to the audio (or reading the transcription), ask students to respond to these prompts in their journals or in conversation with partners:

  • Do you think the man from Henry Buxbaum’s soccer club would have shared his antisemitic views openly if he had been able to see who else was on the train? Why or why not?
  • What are the different ways you see people expressing intolerance and bigotry today? How are these ways similar to or different from what happened on the train?

Play the short documentary A Night at the Garden (7:05). An image from the rally has been included as part of the Big Paper activity on Day 3, but this seven-minute documentary features striking footage of the 1939 German American Bund rally. You can use our Close Viewing Protocol teaching strategy when watching the film. Ask students to process as a class or in small groups:

  • What did you see?
  • What surprised you?
  • How did you feel watching this?
  • What questions do you have?

Day 3 Activities

  • Review the class’s exit tickets from the previous lesson. Unless you have prior permission from students, you should keep exit cards anonymous when sharing them with the larger class. Note any trends worth discussing.

  • If there are any comments that deviate from your classroom norms, reaffirm your class’s commitment to your contract from the previous day. You might start by posing the following question: In light the discussions from the past two class periods, are there any amendments to the classroom contract that you would like to make?

  • Quickly review the chart paper with your students’ list of issues, ideas, and events that can divide a community and then let students know that in this lesson, they will be focusing on the challenging process of repairing divided communities after injustices have occurred.

  • Give students a few minutes to write in their journals in response to the following questions:

    • Describe a time when something happened that divided a community to which you belong (or one you know about).

    • How did people respond?

    • Which responses attempted to repair the community?

    • Which ones only made the divisions deeper?

  • This activity helps students understand the community’s response to the August 2017 rally and violence. Before this lesson, prepare for a Big Paper discussion using the materials in the Unite the Right Rally Big Paper Sources. (See Notes to Teacher)

  • Remind students they have been exploring the relationship between antisemitism and the rally in Charlottesville, particularly how the antisemitism witnessed by the world in 2017 has historical roots that can be traced back centuries but is emerging from the dark in ways we have not seen in decades.

  • Explain the Big Paper strategy and tell students that they can use the S-I-T: Surprising, Interesting, Troubling questions to respond to the quotations and images on the big paper:

    • What surprises you?

    • What do you find troubling?

    • What do you find interesting?

  • After students have 10–15 minutes to examine and respond to the quotations and images, facilitate a class discussion using the following framing questions as a guide:

    • How did the events in August 2017 change how these people felt about their community and their place in it?

    • What actions did individuals take to reassure the Jewish members of their community? Which actions seemed to have the greatest impact?

    • What else could individuals have done to respond meaningfully to the riots? What can they do now, more than a year after the riots?

    • What role do individuals play in how a community responds to hate? What role do community leaders play? Local, state, and national government?

  • Present students with the definition of upstander: a person who has chosen to make a difference in the world by speaking out against injustice and creating positive change.

  • In small groups or as a class, use the following question to frame a discussion about the actions that upstanders took after the events of Charlottesville and the impact their actions had on the community:

    What did upstanders in Charlottesville look like, sound like, and feel like, or make other people feel like? You might have students create a three-column chart in their notes or on chart paper where they can record their ideas.

  • Close the class with a discussion on the following question:

    • How can learning the history of antisemitism and hatred equip people to be upstanders?
    • What lesson can I take from this class that I can apply to my life today?

Day 3 Extension Activities

Read the article In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On written by Alan Zimmerman, the president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. Consider the following questions as you read in small groups:

  • What is one thing that surprised you while reading this article?
  • What examples can you identify of “choosing to participate” in this article?
  • What does this article demonstrate about ways to respond to incidents of hatred?

Provide students with the opportunity to discuss, as a class, ideas for concrete actions they can take to address contemporary antisemitism and other forms of hatred. Have students read examples of student activism in schools and local communities. Give students the reading Bullying at School and utilize the discussion topics below as a guide:

  • What are some ways that students can participate in making their communities (such as their school and their social media networks) more civil?
  • What questions does this lesson raise for you?
  • What might a project to combat antisemitism and hatred at your school look like?
  • What would your school look like if all the students committed themselves to being upstanders in more situations?
  • What action can your class take to help create a culture where students at your school choose to be upstanders rather than perpetrators and bystanders?

Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organizations

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