This week, JCRC sponsored a program with Integrity First for America (IFA), a new organization that is literally taking white supremacy to court, by bringing a lawsuit against the masterminds of the violence in Charlottesville. With this week’s news of the foiled attempt to kidnap the Governor of Michigan by violent extremists, the topic was alarmingly relevant once again. Our featured speakers were IFA Executive Director Amy Spitalnick and lead attorney on the case, Michael Bloch. Moderating the panel was Pastor Jeremy Battle of Western Ave Baptist Church, who traveled with JCRC to Israel and has become a dear friend. A third-generation preacher, Pastor Battle grew up outside of Birmingham Alabama in the post-Civil Rights era, in the aftermath of the 16th Street Church bombing.
At one point, Pastor Battle interrupted the flow of details about legal strategy and posed this question of our speakers: What is your personal connection to this moment? Where does your conviction to this work come from?The answer was not surprising, for Jewish advocates committed to pursuing justice; both speakers were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. For Amy, whose grandparents were the only ones in their families to survive, this was deeply personal, with their stories “seared into her brain”. Michael told us with pride about his grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany and then returned to fight for America in World War II, and about his parents, who used their law degrees to advance social justice – with his mother clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall.
This profound Jewish commitment to combating the hateful ideology of White Supremacy is one that resonates deeply for us at JCRC. The mission that guides all that we do includes the commitment to advance an “American society which is democratic, pluralistic and just”. Since our founding 76 years ago, we have understood that achieving this vision is not only about the common good – it is essential for our own Jewish community to thrive. There is no more powerful example than the threat that White Supremacy poses, both to us and to our equally vulnerable friends, who are targets of the same toxic hate.
“They hate all of us on this call”, Amy said of the 24 defendants that IFA is suing. Motivated by the “great replacement” theory, in which Jews are the puppet masters orchestrating the replacement of the white race, the mob they mobilized marched in the streets of Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us”. They surrounded a local synagogue mid shabbat prayer, forcing the members to flee out a back door, taking with them a Torah scroll that was rescued from Nazi Germany.
Observers of American – or Jewish – history know that this chilling spectacle is not a new one. But where Klansmen once felt the need to don robes and hide in the forest to engage in extremist violence, these contemporary haters are now emboldened to wage their war on democracy and justice in plain sight. Much to their delight, their rhetoric and tactics have become mainstream. Groups such as the Proud Boys called for a race war after they were name checked in a Presidential debate, and the Department of Justice is no longer prosecuting these cases; their investigation of them is down two-thirds in recent years. So, the haters continue, unabated in their efforts, masterfully leveraging social media platforms to spread their diabolical message. We have already seen the tragic results in such tragedies as the murders in Pittsburgh and Poway, Charlestown and El Paso. A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security designated white supremacy as the “most persistent and lethal threat to the homeland”.But if these frightening phenomena call to mind the darkest chapter in modern Jewish history, there are important, hope-generating distinctions. As Amy reminded us, unlike her grandparents’ experience, we now live in a society that is democratic and dedicated to the rule of law. Even when the federal government doesn’t take the requisite action to demand accountability, private citizens have options.
So, this small but mighty organization brought a civil suit, employing a creative legal strategy. Using the KKK Act of 1871, passed by Congress for victims of white supremacy to seek redress during Reconstruction, they are suing the 24 defendants for “conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence”. And their work has already reaped rewards. Throughout three years of discovery, the defendants blocked every request for information, and were then fined, had sanctions imposed, bench warrants for arrest issued, and in at least one instance, incarcerated. There has been financial, legal and operational impact on the defendants, and Richard Spencer – perhaps the best known among them – has complained that the suit has been “financially crippling.” A court date is now set for April 2021.
As I listened to these remarkable presenters (full video below) I was struck not only by their legal savvy, but also their unmitigated courage at stirring up this hornet’s nest of violence (security is the biggest line item in their budget). Not all of us are blessed with their fine legal minds or skill, and few of us would likely be willing to imperil ourselves as they have.
So what action can the rest of us take in the face of this dire threat to democracy and to the safety of our community? A few suggestions:
- Learn about the work of IFA. Sign up for case updates and share their video
- Don’t let this issue fall off your radar. Hold local, state and federal officials accountable. Sound alarm bells with social media platforms who take no action when misinformation is spread by this cabal of haters and amplify their message.
- Perhaps the most powerful way to prevent this toxic ideology from gaining traction is through comprehensive education about the lessons of history. A recent survey of Americans under 40 – indicating that 63% did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust – provides a sobering reminder of just how much work has yet to be done. That’s why we at JCRC, along with ADL, the Armenian National Committee of America, and 30 other community organizations, are championing An Act Concerning Genocide Education, which would promote Holocaust and genocide education in schools across the Commonwealth. The bill has already passed the State Senate and is awaiting action in the House of Representatives. Please reach out to your State Representative and ask them to support this crucial legislation.
Finally, let us all take inspiration from these brave litigators, who even when faced with the darkest human impulses and behavior, are unwavering in their belief that hatred and violence can be vanquished in America. Let us employ every tool we have – in the courts and in our schools – to work toward an America that guarantees liberty and justice for all.