Charlottesville One Year Reunion: Act Against Hate, Don’t Talk About It
One year ago, Americans looked on in horror as tiki torch-carrying white nationalists chanted “Jew will not replace us” (sic) as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. Antisemitism had come out from the dark corners of country, both online and off, with brutal, ugly force. Demonstrators carried shields with swastikas, and made angry comments to the media about “Jewish communists.” The two-day demonstration known as “Unite the Right” ended in tragedy, as a driver plowed his car into a crowd, killing counter-protestor Heather Heyer.
In the weeks that followed, Republicans and Democrats alike reacted strongly. They expressed their intolerance for neo-Nazi groups, implored President Donald Trump to “call white terrorism by its name,” and declared that there was no “moral equivalence” between the alt-right protestors and the assembled counter-protestors. Senator Orrin Hatch tweetedthat his “brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.” Calls for action rang loudly.
White nationalist Jason Kessler and his alt-right followers are planning a Charlottesville reunion of sorts to take place Sunday in Washington D.C., just across from the White House. Though the rally’s sponsors are unlikely to draw the numbers of last year, their intentions are all but the same. It feels like not much has changed; this is partially dueto the inaction from all of those who denounced the alt-right a year ago. This anniversary, and the fact that it is being celebrated by the alt-right, should be a moment of reckoning for our country and for members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle.
A year after Charlottesville, when he isn’t speaking about immigrants from “shithole” countries, Trump is still using dog-whistle antisemitic rhetoric like the term “globalist.” The State Department’s legally mandated position of U.S.Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism remains unfilled more than 18 months into the administration. Legislation meant to confront anti-Jewish bigotry has stalled in Congress, while, according to the ADL, a record number of extreme-right antisemites are running for office in the midterm elections. If the president will not safeguard American ideals, it is incumbent upon our other elected leaders—Republican and Democrat alike—to demonstrate that racism and antisemitism violate our most firmly held beliefs. The failure to adequately respond to the bigotry so proudly displayed by the far-right is unacceptable.
One concrete response to Charlottesville could have been–and still could be–as simple as the White House appointing a Special Envoy. Since 2004, Congress has required that the President appoint a senior leader to this position, which is tasked with coordinating U.S. policy and working with allies to combat antisemitism. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised that he would fill the position in the immediate aftermath of the Unite the Right rally. He left office without fulfilling that pledge. In responding to questions posed during his nomination process, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo likewise agreed to fill the position expeditiously. Despite recently leading a high-profile international ministerial meeting focused on religious freedom, fourth months into his tenure Pompeo has yet to act on his pledge.
The Charlottesville rally ended in deadly fashion when James Alex Fields, Jr. rammed his car into a group of protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Fields’ actions were a hate crime, and were appropriately prosecuted as such in federal court. Such a high-profile incident should have been a turning point for hate crime legislation in this country. But over the past year, hate crimes are still woefully underreported, while the rate of hate crimes have continued to rise. Perhaps most alarmingly, hate incidents against childrenin K-12 schools reflected the most severe rise. Improvements in hate crime tracking and reporting are a necessary step, and the No HATE Act, sponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Lee Beyer (D-OR), would build the capacity of states to collect and report accurate data, establish hotlines to improve responses to hate crime, and protect victims. The bill still has not found a Republican co-sponsor.
As we address antisemitism in the United States, we should also demonstrate our interest in working with other countries to prioritize this scourge abroad. One such piece of legislation, the Combating European Anti-Semitism Act of 2017, passed the House of Representatives last year. The bill reflects a bipartisan effort to address the serious and dangerous problem of rising antisemitism in Europe. The legislation, which would enhance the State Department’s role in counteracting bigotry across the Atlantic by expanding reporting in the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, now needs momentum in the Senate, where a companion bill was introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in January but has since languished in committee.
Charlottesville should have provoked shame and a determination to proactively address the hatred manifest in our streets. It is up to politicians who oppose antisemitism to do more than denounce bigoted views. Clearly, there is more need than ever for politicians who resent all forms of bigotry to push for tangible progress.