On August 11 and 12th of this month, a cadre of white supremacists – made up of alt-rightists, Ku Klux Klan supporters, and ethnonationalists – converged on Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee commanded an army that fought to maintain the slave system. Like the confederate flag, his statue and those of other confederate leaders and slaveholders celebrate a history that is a source of collective grief and anguish to African Americans. The statues symbolize a living commitment to “the Old South,” a legacy of white rebellion against the North, and the extraordinary violence that accompanied white political, social, and economic control over the black population. Yet throughout the protest in Charlottesville, the white supremacists spent little time calling for a return to a segregated South or chanting anti-black slogans. Instead, they indulged in vulgar anti-Jewish invective. Swastikas were on prominent display, protesters chanted Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil,” and they held signs that read “the Jews are Satan’s children,” and “Jews will not replace us.” Make no mistake: these were the watchwords of the rally.
While the ubiquity of Nazi sloganeering in Charlottesville may seem surprising to some, this was hardly the first time that a defense of the confederate legacy found expression in Jew-hatred. During the organization’s revival in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan made African-Americans and Jews the objects of their fury. It was common during that decade and beyond to explain the origins of the moniker KKK by its targets: “Koons, Kikes, and Katholics”. African Americans who challenged entrenched racial, economic, and political hierarchies throughout the South were often met with white violence and terror. But fears of black power often went hand-in-hand with the claim that African Americans lacked the capacities to act on their own. Instead, they were cast as the dupes of Jewish conspirators who exerted outsized political and economic influence. This claim undergirded all sorts of theories in the early decades of the twentieth century: that Jews were a kind of “fifth column” within black political organizing, whether in the Communist Party, the NAACP, or what anti-Semites derisively called the “Jew Deal.” On the other side of the Atlantic, Nazis developed their own internally contradictory theories of African American-Jewish relations. In the 1930s and 1940s, Nazis assiduously studied the model of Jim Crow segregation, which they simultaneously admired from afar and linked to Jewish power structures. In their convoluted reasoning, segregation was at once a defensible white response to the threat of racial intermixing and growing black self-assertionandthe result of trickery by a powerful Jewish “plutocracy” that had used their considerable wealth to repress African-Americans. The Jews, according to one Nazi political cartoon from the 1930s, even took special pleasure in consuming images of lynching. The cumulative effect of such theories was to cast Jews as the secret, clandestine agents behind both white dominationandblack protest.
These braided histories of anti-black and anti-Jewish racisms hung over Charlottesville last weekend. White nationalists chanted that the “goyim know,” invoking a Yiddish term for non-Jews. But what exactly do the goyim know? Do the alt-right marchers honestly believe that Jews hatched a “plot” to remove Lee’s statue? What can these activists possibly mean when they declare that Jews (who make up less than two percent of the U.S. population) “will not replace us”? These declarations signal what can only be described as a deeply paranoid and perverse understanding of how contemporary power works.
As a Jewish-American committed to racial justice, I feel a call to action by being in the crosshairs of today’s alt-right. For however distorted it may be on the particulars, the alt-right is correct about one thing: historically, there have been powerful affinities between Jews and African-Americans. The two groups do have a long tradition of cooperation and solidarity built on shared–if also distinct–histories of oppression. To take just one example, during the height of the black freedom movement, white Jewish Americans headed south in disproportionately high numbers to aid the fight against segregation. The mid-twentieth century Black-Jewish alliance has frayed in recent decades. In the 1970s, some Jewish intellectuals who had once supported civil rights goals became neo-conservatives who opposed affirmative action. In the 1980s and 1990s, expressions of anti-Semitism among prominent figures like Louis Farrakhan eroded trust. And over the last four decades, the relentless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians have complicated Black-Jewish relations, as many African-Americans have come to identify less with Jewish people and more with the Palestinians, whom they see as the victims of colonial oppression.
The growing white supremacist, anti-Jewish discourse in the post-2016 public sphere cannot erase this complex history, nor should it. But it does make certain demands of those of us who see ourselves as opponents of white supremacy. People of all backgrounds must speak out against racism and anti-Semitism loudly, repeatedly, and without qualification. They must resist the tendency to treat anti-Semitism as a footnote or side issue, because it is not. But the urgency of the political moment also makes a specific demand of Jewish-Americans: let us continue to earn the wrath of the alt-right by standing on the side of justice for all.
Jonathan Wiesen is Professor of History and Distinguished Teacher at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He is currently writing a book about how Germans looked at anti-black racism in the United States from 1918 to 1968.