On August 11, hundreds of white supremacists carrying torches and Nazi flags and yelling slogans like “white lives matter” descended on the normally quiet university town of Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Over the weekend, the protests turned violent: One woman was killed when a car ploughed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, two police officers died when their helicopter crashed on route to the rally and scores of others were injured. Since then, Jewish leaders and organizations throughout the United States have condemned the violence in Charlottesville and called for Jews to speak and act against hate. Moment spoke with Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor for The New Republic and current contributing editor and critic for The Atlantic, about the events in Charlottesville, Jewish obligations in the face of prejudice and how to respond to the darker aspects of our collective past.
What’s your personal response to the events in Charlottesville?
Revulsion. Revulsion, not shock, because these forces have been in this country for a long time. But outrage that we now have a political culture and a presidency that calls them closer to the center of things.
In particular, as a Jew, what’s your reaction to the presence of Nazi symbols?
It makes me recoil in horror and the blood rushes to my head. And I become intemperate. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the Jews of the United States are in any immediate danger. I think there are other groups in this country who are in much greater danger than we are, and they deserve our solidarity. Even though anti-Semitism in America must be combatted, denounced, exposed and despised, we’re not living in Weimar, America.
Were you surprised that this happened?
No, I was not at all surprised. I recently wrote that, “Violence is just a few provocations away.”
Why do you think this is happening now?
Because these dark forces have been given permission, first by the Trump campaign and then the Trump presidency, as well as by the Republican party, to behave like legitimate and prominent actors in American public life.
How do you assess President Trump’s responses?
Despicable. This man is either amoral or immoral, it’s hard to decide which. Immorality may imply too great a degree of intellectual coherence to be attributed to him. His relationship to morality is dubious at best, and he has a very weird inability to get the question of Nazism and the Holocaust right. It’s hard for me to think of a question that would be easier to get right than that, but somehow he just can’t. He screws it up every time.
How would you advise the Jewish community to react?
With outrage and disgust. Those Jews who supported Trump should welcome the season of introspection that the month of Elul inaugurates. They made a terrible mistake. Jews should respond by offering and displaying our solidarity to those groups in this country who really are threatened by the Trump presidency—meaning immigrants, refugees, Muslims and Mexicans. Right now there are people in this country who are afraid to leave the house because they may get picked up by the police.
Whether or not there is a special Jewish obligation, there is a universal moral obligation. We are human beings before we are Jews.
Is there a special Jewish obligation when events like this occur?
Whether or not there is a special Jewish obligation, there is a universal moral obligation. We are human beings before we are Jews. There is also a special Jewish obligation insofar as we are taught in our most sacred texts to be kind and solicitous of the stranger, owing to our own experience of being strangers in other people’s lands. So yes, there should be a special Jewish sensitivity to these outrages.
What is the role of anti-Semitism in this group’s ideology? It’s not an explicitly anti-Semitic group.
It’s another element in the sewer. White nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, violence—it’s part of the same deranged, angry and dark world view. After the Holocaust there was a view that, if people only knew more about what the Nazis did, they would recoil in horror, and the chances that such a thing could be done again would be decreased. I have always thought that the opposite would be the case, that what the Nazis did actually serves as inspiration and as precedence for certain sorts of twisted minds. That’s why you see Nazi iconography, symbols and language being used.
During the Obama era, it was said with some frequency that we live in a post-racial era. Do these events give lie to that?
We will never live in a post-racial era. The struggle for moral, social and political progress is unceasing. I believe there has been significant progress in this country about race, at the level of law, politics and culture, but I do not believe that the problem of racism is over. We should never be complacent about it. Race is a constitutive element in the underside of America; we have to be honest about that.
Were these events in any way about how we remember the Civil War?
Yes, in that the memory of the Civil War means a great deal more to certain Americans than it does to others. Insofar that this is a conflict about symbolism, particularly symbolism in the public square, some of the people who marched really do care about this. One of the realities that was shown in Charlottesville and all through these debates about the statues and the names of buildings, is that historical memory matters.
How should we deal with Confederate monuments?
I understand why people want to pull the statues down. However, I worry that when you start by erasing part of the past that you don’t like, someone else may start erasing the part of the past that you do like. I don’t particularly like the idea of editing the past into a narrative that is all edifying. Robert E. Lee fought for a racist society and he was defeated. But Robert E. Lee was also a tragic figure. So I have complicated feelings about this. Public education about the Civil War and about the Confederacy should complement, or supplement, any such statues or images. Again, I understand why people would like offensive things removed from their field of vision, but people in this country need to understand that we have a system designed for the giving and taking of offense.
I understand why people want to pull the statues down. However, I worry that when you start by erasing part of the past that you don’t like, someone else may start erasing the part of the past that you do like.
People should thicken their skins, because there are other considerations that may matter. By the same token, I think it’s absurd to say that the music of Richard Wagner should never be played in Israel, or that Jews should not go to Wagner’s operas. These are complicated matters. If the only figures that we’re permitted to admire are those who are utterly devoid of prejudice of any kind, we’re going to have very few people in our pantheon of heroes.
Do you think the group should have been granted a permit for the rally in the first place?
I think so, there are rights of speech here. I know that there are also complications about incitement, and at the rally things were said and shown that should have inspired police action that never came. But they had a right to march.
Is there any good in this group?
No, except in the sense that a broken watch is right twice a day—but they may be the only example of broken watches that aren’t. No. There is nothing socially redeeming about Klansmen and Nazis, nothing, zero.
Do you see any validity to the group’s concerns? Are white men a threatened group?
No, we are a country of immigrants. People of many colors come to our country. In previous eras, there was the same fear that Jews or Irishmen or Italians were going steal the country from the white Protestants. Now the fear is that Latinos will and that brown-colored people will. We are about to become a minority majority society. That’s a strength, not a weakness. Moreover, I don’t know what white identity is. I don’t believe that there is such a thing, or should be such a thing, as white nationalism. In the same way, I don’t believe that there should be such a thing as black nationalism. I believe in American nationalism. We do not define our nations in terms of ethnic homogeneity. We define our nation in terms of its ethnic heterogeneity.
How important is this?
Very important, it’s a watershed event. The darkness is now in the light.
If you were face-to-face with the man who organized this rally right now, what would you say to him?
I’d tell him to go f**ck himself and I’d walk away. My dignity would not allow me to engage in a discussion with him at some high level of philosophy of politics.
More broadly, if you had the opportunity to talk to those who support this group, what would you say?
I would say that they’re guilty of the most despicable immorality and anti-Americanism. I’m not particularly interested in having dialogues with Nazis. They’re not people who dialogue.
There have been many calls for dialogue. Do you think such dialogues are likely to be useful?
As a political matter? No. At an individual level, will somebody perhaps feel contrition? Yes, sure.
In Charlottesville, and in terms of the national conversation, what do you think will happen next?
I think that these people have been emboldened. We’re not yet finished with this problem.