I honestly didn't know how to approach a drash tonight. How can I talk about anything other than what happened in Charlottesville last week? And what has happened and not happened in Washington in the days since? It's why many of us are here tonight – to take refuge together during a frightening time. To compare notes, share fears, and look for hope.
It has been a week of great grief, many different layers of grief. One layer is grief about the city of Charlottesville itself. Because Charlottesville is a very cool place. An artsy town; a liberal enclave in a less-than-liberal part of the country. I've performed there several times, in a gay bookstore/art gallery/theater space called Gravity Lounge, alas no longer in business. I took my mother to Charlottesville once on a daytrip from Washington DC. We saw Jefferson's Monticello and we had pizza and chatted with students from UVA. A sweet place, the statue of Robert E. Lee notwithstanding. And so I feel the grief of the people of Charlottesville whose town will, for the near future at least, be referenced symbolically, in connection to something awful – the way we speak with sad knowingness the names of Columbine and Laramie.
And then there's the grief for the loss of Heather Heyer, who could have been any of us, and sadness for her family and friends. And grief on our own behalf too. We've all spent the week wondering how, in 2017, in the USA, Nazis and Klansmen can again be on the march. We've spent the week wondering what next, and realizing for the first time with great certainty that there will be a next. This is a great loss. If not a loss of innocence, then a loss of longstanding and very useful kind of denial. And that is something to grieve too.
So how do we assimilate this week? Are there lessons for us in moving forward?
By this point, I imagine we are all saturated with news coverage, editorials, Facebook posts and statements from many, many organizations. I don't know what I have to add to the conversation. But I will offer a couple of my most persistent thoughts this week. And I will tell you that I'm saving something hopeful for the end. So hang in with me.
My first thought is this, and it's about language. I think it's time we let go of the word "hate" in our sloganeering. I mean yes, neo-Nazis and racists are certainly fueled by hate. But in our bumper stickers and internet memes, when we say, "Love trumps hate" and "No more hate" and "Stand up to hate," we are inadvertently constituting hate as something that exists in the world, independent of people and their contexts and their motivations. It sounds nice to talk about hate this way; it's nice to convey your values in three words. But hate isn't a thing out there in the world that we can fight. When someone says, "Fight hate," I am really at a loss for what it is I am supposed to do, other than repost the meme.
Another problem with it is that once hate is decoupled from the histories and purposes of real people, then all hate is kind of the same. All hate is equal, regardless of how it's acted on. And that plays into the kind of moral relativism that our president showed this week in seeing "all sides" as being blameworthy.
Everyone feels hate. We might be ashamed of feeling it, but we feel it. But the actions and purposes of the neo-Nazis and Klansmen were very different from those of the people protesting. What they did – with tremendous success – was to make People of Color and Jews and Queers and other Others feel unsafe, vulnerable, frightened for their lives. That was the whole point of coming to Charlottesville. A classmate of mine works as the cantor at the Reform synagogue there. She described hearing the Nazis chanting outside of their Shabbat morning service; the decisions about whether to hide the Torah scrolls or try to get them out the back. Striking fear, making Jews feel like they were in Nazi Germany, was exactly what these people came to do.
And they came to remind Black people what it is like to be threatened with mob violence. There doesn't need to be a rope for lynching when your mob is joined by a militia of men in fatigues carrying assault rifles. And for the record, witnesses say that one of the chief taunts the Nazis hurled at counter-protestors was "faggot." Lest anyone feel safe.
So I think we need to resist when people oversimplify by talking about hate. And come back to the purposes and methods of these people. So that we are all clear what we're talking about.
Besides letting go of our simplistic use of the word "hate," I think we also need to let go of the myth that this country was founded on principles of freedom and equality, no matter what the Declaration of Independence says.
This country was born in a great wave of European expansion and colonization. It relied on a willingness to dehumanize others, to exploit others, to own others, to see those of a darker skin color as expendable. It is these values that made America and the whole New World possible. Mowing under ancient civilizations is what gave England and Spain and Holland and France land to expand into, land that we all think of with hardly a blink as home, a place we belong. The willingness to kidnap dark-skinned people and make them property – for centuries – is what made this whole hemisphere profitable, habitable, capable of supporting economies, armies, and lifestyles that we think of as American.
It's tempting, and easy, to see the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville andwho will soon march elsewhere as upstarts; young people led astray by extremist ideas. But these are, in a way, mainstream ideas. They are the natural inheritance of a country born the way ours was.
And the anti-Semitic rhetoric? That too is an inheritance from Europe, from centuries of persecution of Jews. Of a rhythm in which Jews gain a foothold and then are expelled or massacred. A rhythm in which Jews are only allowed certain professions and then are punished for having those professions. We know this story. And somehow, in our more-peaceable-than-not America, we've come to think that Jews have left anti-Semitism behind. That it might still happen in Europe. But that when someone desecrates a Jewish cemetery here it is just some renegade copycat. But the dance of anti-Semitism has not concluded yet. And every time we or the media make the Holocaust about Hitler and not about the millions who followed him –- who followed him not because they were duped, but because hatred of Jews was a part of their mainstream culture, then we are living in a kind of denial about what the culture we live in is and is capable of.
So I promised something of hope. And I fear you're going to be disappointed with the hope that I'm going to offer.
The hope I'm feeling today comes from the fact that our eyes are open. We are much more aware today than many of us were a week ago of what we have to change in this country. It is a taller order than our experience led us to believe. But now we see it for what it is.
Are our progressive hopes delusions? No. I believe that Dr. King got it right when he said that the arc of history bends toward justice. We just have to know that the arc is a longer trajectory than we'd like. We will be part of the change, even though we won't live to see its completion. We know now that addressing racism and anti-Semitism can't be done with civil rights laws alone, even though those are important. But instead we must keep the conversations deep. We must insist on looking at history. Looking at this country's history. It is not enough to condemn hate. We must look at why white people have been conditioned to hate black people; why non-Jews have been conditioned to hate Jews. We must do our own work to look at how we also subscribe to racism and anti-Semitism, because we do. And how in many cases we benefit from it, because we do. We must show up at the marches, we must stand in solidarity, we must keep learning and we must never simplify.
There is work ahead. Beautiful work. Meaningful work. It is inviting us, calling to us. Asking us to give up our platitudes and our memes and to plumb the depths of our culture's psyche and our own. And we will invite the country to do it with us. And this new, deeper task excites me. And the thought of our doing it together gives me more hope than I could have imagined.