This weekend, neo-Nazis will descend on the Bay Area to flaunt white supremacist views and decry our Bay Area’s pluralistic values. The Jewish community faces a strategic dilemma, but not a moral one.
History has shown us that the legal protections that enable our Jewish community, a tiny minority, to participate in American society were not automatic. We have had to fight hard in legal courts and in the court of public opinion to ensure our freedom to assemble, speak, practice religion, and express individual and immutable characteristics. And in many, many cases, these freedoms are not yet universally guaranteed.
This weekend, avowed anti-Semites’ rights to these freedoms will be tested, as will our community’s political will to stomach it.
One can anticipate hate speech at the “Patriot Prayer” rally on Aug. 26 in San Francisco. Demonstrators’ abhorrent rhetoric in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 provides ample evidence of the hate speech we can expect here at home. Indeed, the Charlottesville demonstration resulted in violence, with dozens hurt and one counter-demonstrator tragically killed by a white supremacist. Some have pointed to this as evidence that the demonstrators’ speech is threatening, and therefore demand that the National Park Service not grant the permit to march on Crissy Field.
It is important that, as American Jews, we take a different approach. The American Jewish experience has demonstrated that where speech is protected there are extraordinary advances in society and minority rights in particular are secured.
In fact, JCRC was founded because the American Jewish community recognized that it had a special need to safeguard democracy. In the aftermath of the Holocaust we understood well that our democratic freedom in America must be cherished and fought for at every turn if we are to live freely and contribute to the building of a strong, cohesive civil society. However vile, hate speech exercised in public is protected free speech. As Jews, the best way for us to ensure the sacred right to speak freely and to assemble is to ensure that others also have this right — irrespective of the content of their views. We should not bow to the intimidation these groups promote, but instead utilize the Bay Area’s sensible gun-violence prevention legislation, coupled with strong law enforcement at the demonstrations, to prevent violence.
At the same time, we are called upon to respond morally, vociferously, strategically and with a strong collective voice. Confronting these racist bullies head-on would qualify as vociferous, and surely satisfy our need to disallow this hateful and divisive vitriol in our cities. But it would only advance the PR campaign strategy they crave. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and others have cited serious safety concerns and warned that any confrontation could result in the very violence the neo-Nazis seek in order to spread their adversarial and parochial worldview.
The greatest antidotes to hate are the inoculation against this scourge, the diminution of these demonstrators’ visibility so that their voices are returned to the fringes of society, and the amplification of our Jewish and democratic values of justice and humanity. Together, we can restore to the center of society the mainstream majority who will not tolerate this vile rhetoric.
Some will gather for a dance party, others will gather in safe space at Grace Cathedral. Some will convene at City Hall, others are “adopting” each neo-Nazi demonstrator and donating dollars in their honor to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Check JCRC’s website for a listing of these and other events throughout the Bay Area.
In addition, we invite you to a special intercultural service with civic and faith leaders from all walks of life. We will gather this Friday, Aug. 25 at Temple Emanu-El for “An Interfaith Gathering Against Hate.” There, we will celebrate our cherished democracy, pluralism and the civility with which we treat people different from ourselves. We need you to participate so that, together, we drown out the unwelcome messages coming to town.
This Shabbat, we turn to Deuteronomy in the Torah, to Parashat Shoftim, which provides the imperative “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” Our reading of the sacred text reminds us of the value of a justice system to ensure fairness and liberty. We must continue to call for the greatest possible amount of liberty to be distributed across our society, and we must fight to ensure that no one group in our society is able to infringe upon the rights of any other member. This is a moment for moral action, and we cannot afford for any Jew to sit this one out.