That is not America; this is America

That is not America; this is America

“In a way, I’m glad he didn’t live to see this moment,” my wife told me on a plane waiting to take off on our way home, having just finished sitting shiva for my father, Dr. Gerhard Levy. My wife’s words echoed loudly in my heart because I had been thinking the same thing. 

It was the Saturday evening in August after the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va. We had just emerged from the cocoon of the mourner. Checking our phones, we were confronted by videos of angry torch-bearing mobs chanting anti-Semitic hatred. 

My father was a Holocaust refugee who, in his later years, shared his stories with us. Perhaps the most powerful one involved Kristallnacht. At the time, forced out of public school, he was a student at a residential Jewish boys’ school in Caputh, Germany. It was a place that he remembered as paradise until that fateful day in November 1938. 

When he told his Kristallnacht story, his voice shook as he described watching torch-wielding townspeople descend on his school. He spoke of the terror he and his classmates felt as rocks came through the windows and teachers led them into the nearby woods to escape. He never returned to that school, and even into his later years, he mourned those teachers who stayed behind to hold off the mob and whose fate remained unknown to him. 

Those stories echoed in my mind as I watched the white supremacists and neo-Nazis wielding their torches, marching through Charlottesville, spewing hatred, and engaging in violence. This was not the America of equality and freedom from fear that welcomed my father after the war. I wondered what he would have said if he had lived to see this moment. I’m glad he did not.

We Jews know all too well the harm associated with apathy and the risk of silence in the face of extremism. My father took great pride in the fact that through my work at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), I was devoting myself to a mission that includes the fight against anti-Semitism, hate groups, and extremism. As AJC CEO David Harris stressed in his open letter to President Trump: “We hope you will make clear that our nation does not countenance the warped views of bigots, as was on display in Charlottesville. Their approach tears at the pluralistic fabric of our great country, just as it has done for centuries, and endangers the notable progress we have made in recent decades…. Those who preach racial supremacy, religious bigotry, and ethnic division should be deemed well beyond the pale.”

In the days since Charlottesville, sadly, those words have largely gone unheeded as some have tried to diminish the evil actions of those merchants of hatred with false moral equivalencies, while others have continued to engage in despicable acts, such as the anti-Semitic and white supremacist graffiti found on the Airport Diner in Wantage in Sussex County the Sunday before Rosh HaShanah. 

At the same time, we have also seen the best of America, as leaders and lay people, and entire communities have risen up to speak out. More than 270 leaders and laity representing a rainbow of communities — including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, African-American, Latino, and LGBTQA — joined in a gathering convened by AJC New Jersey and our partners to declare that such hatred has no place in our community. It was just one of many similar gatherings that are taking place around the country.

The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a joint bipartisan resolution condemning the violence and domestic terrorism that took place, “rejecting white nationalists, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups,” and urged the administration to “use all available resources to address the threats posed by those groups.” The resolution also urges the attorney general to investigate acts of violence by these groups. Trump signed the measure, and now we must be vigilant in making sure that its call is answered fully.

As we begin a new year, let us examine whether we have been too complacent as incivility, divisiveness, racism, hurtful words, and other seeds of hatred have been allowed to enter our political and civil discourse. And then let us use these reflections as a catalyst for doing better, redoubling our efforts to make our country a more perfect union.

My father came to America because it was a place of opportunity, equality, and freedom from fear, a place where his children would not know the hatred he had known. He came because what we saw in Charlottesville is not America. As we enter this new year, let us commit ourselves, through our words and our actions, to declaring: Hate is not America! America is a home for all, a place where we can gather together in unity and stand together against hatred.

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