Wisconsin Rabbi David Cohen was horrified listening to the chants from white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia just weeks ago.
Cohen began an op-ed for The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle by saying that the rallying cry “blood and soil” used by “khaki clad, torch carrying clean cut American youth was, in a word, chilling.” The phrase comes from Nazi Germany to define legitimacy of citizenship and race.
He explained that Americans should have seen this coming after “decades of conservative talk radio, television, and some conservative politicians, blaming immigrants, people of color, Muslims and Jews for society’s problems.” Those desperate for opportunity look for a scapegoat when they don’t get it. All of society’s ills are placed on those who’ve been able to pull themselves up.
Meanwhile, “the White House has taken deliberate steps that have amplified racist voices,” Cohen wrote, citing cuts in funding to focus on counter-terrorism and put them on the fight against ISIS. “Programs to encourage people to leave white supremacist groups were defunded. These are not coincidences,” he wrote.
He agreed that the adage “one step forward — two steps back” can too often be true, but the gains in civil rights cannot falter. But he’s not fearful they’ll have to refight battles from the 1960s, he’s worried about having to fight the policies of the 1930s again. The fights over monuments seem like Americans are being forced to relive the 1860s.
“As Jews, none of this is new; we’ve seen such discrimination before,” he wrote. “It’s only recently that we’ve been accepted in America as ‘white’ and, in some corners, are still considered ‘other.’ Witness the Charlottesville demonstrators shouting ‘Jews will not replace us.’ We know these anti-Semites; we’ve seen them before.”
“Having seen all this before, we Jews know what we have to do,” Cohen wrote, urging Jews not to allow this behavior to flourish. He goes on to beg people to hold policymakers, including President Donald Trump, accountable when they allow this racism and antisemitism to continue.
Similarly, “we have to make sure that Holocaust education is expanded and strengthened. As the survivors become fewer and fewer, we now have to speak for them,” he urged.
Finally, he urged people to keep hope because they’ve been through it before and survived. But hold an aware kind of hope “bruised and scarred, and rooted in a realistic and unsentimental understanding of the world, its cruelties and injustices. Hope that understands, as one writer puts it, that ‘there are only two kinds of madness in the world one must guard against … one is the belief that we can do everything. The other is the belief that we can do nothing…'”