Written and Photographed by Zachary Brenner
Illustrated by Evan Harris
Charlottesville, North Carolina. August 12, 2017. Tiki torches hoisted in the air, proud neo-Nazis march the streets, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” It was in this moment where I realized that the people who I had assumed were living underground, out of sight, emerged into the forefront of American culture and my own Jewish life. I had assumed for so long that the legacy of the Holocaust haunted most Americans. With discourse seemingly revolving around guilt and disgust associated with stories from Holocaust survivors about the treatment of European Jews in the 1930s and 40s, I believed most Americans were pained and repulsed by the history of state-sponsored execution of Jews and other marginalized groups. I also assumed that the neo-Nazi’s main aspiration was to destroy or distort the memory of the Holocaust because I thought that the Holocaust is what made Nazism taboo and reprehensible. I believed that the main obstacle for neo-Nazis rising to prominence in American culture was the legacy of the Holocaust. I was wrong – their goal was not as subtle and devious. It was worse.
Forgetting the Holocaust was not on the agenda of these anti-semites responsible for the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. The goal was to preserve the Nazi legacy – to outrightly announce that Jews will not replace ‘truly white’ individuals (whatever that means, as whiteness is not definite but socially constructed). The question for me becomes this: in the midst of such atrocious, disgusting, evil behavior, what do we do? How are we meant to respond?
The common responses I see to this event are as follows: extreme anger, fear, utter disgust, and desire for vengeance. At the risk of sounding radical, and at the risk of disgusting myself in the process, I am going to argue the case that these neo-Nazis in Charlottesville deserve our empathy. For those feeling the impulse to curse me out and slam the journal closed, I hope that you hear me out.
Here’s a little thought experiment: there are five people in a field of strawberries. Four of them share the strawberries equally. One, however, eats more than their fair share. Suddenly, the whole group suffers from a shortage of strawberries. So what to do? There are a few options.
- You can expel the thief of the strawberries.
- You can, in response, collect all the strawberries for yourself and hide them from the greedy bastard.
- You can confront the person and ask them why they stole the strawberries and hope to reach a resolution to the issue.
So how does this relate to neo-Nazis marching the streets? How dare I use such a petty analogy to discuss the very real and dangerous reality of neo-Nazis? Firstly, because the same basic dilemma lies behind each scenario: we either drive neo-Nazis out of society, through direct exclusion or deprivation of resources, or confront them and seek to understand why this problem persists. And secondly, when it comes to a field of strawberries, there are fewer emotions that interfere with rational thought — and rational thought is crucial as a first step in confronting any serious issue. Inevitably, emotions will become a significant factor. By beginning with rational thought, one assesses the situation and can logically think of what the realistic consequences of any particular decision will be, rather than how it will feel to make a particular decision. By beginning with emotions, we focus our attention toward making cursory decisions that will feel great (such as taking revenge), but ultimately may not solve the problem.
Still, neo-Nazis will likely have much stronger and more personal reasons for being publicly anti-semitic and white supremacist than an eater of strawberries would for stealing fruit from a group. It will be difficult for a neo-Nazi to change. It will be even more challenging for a Jew to confront a neo-Nazi rationally, when we are obligated to remember the history of our people that has manifested in millions and millions of state-sponsored executions in the previous centuries. But in this dilemma lies my point: anti-semitism has persisted for centuries, sometimes publicly and sometimes privately. It seems to me that the solution is to confront the issue systemically — we must confront the people and their personal histories behind these horrible actions. How else are we supposed to resolve the issue? I argue that resolution is key, not avoidance and not revenge — which will only persist the problem indefinitely.
So, how do we confront this predicament systemically? Some believe we should drive the neo-Nazis underground. This, I admit, is incredibly attractive. On the surface, this plan appears perfect: scare these atrocious humans enough to get them out of the public sphere so we can live our damn lives in peace. After all, these are the reprehensible individuals who would have wished us dead and shipped us off to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau, or Bergen-Belsen. These are the people who if we attempted to speak to them might scorch us with their tiki torches and laugh as we burned alive.
However appealing and personally satisfying it would be to resort to exclusion of these individuals, there is still a key issue with this tactic: it does not actually address the issue. What happens when a leader who does not actively and explicitly condemn neo-Nazism rises to power? The neo-Nazis crawl out from their hibernation with unaltered opinions — ready to march the streets proudly. Perhaps they even have more desire for revenge in their blood given the fact that they have been forced into hibernation. This is what is happening today in our country. After decades of seemingly living underground following the Holocaust and Nuremberg Trials, the Nazis have reemerged ready to take the world by storm, with the state-sponsored support of the President of the United States, affirmed by his lack of condemnation of the neo-Nazi activity in Charlottesville.
Driving them underground won’t work. They will re-emerge eventually, for our kids and grandkids to have to deal with more than we have to now.
So what about this solution: let’s do what our animalistic desires tell us to do. Let’s just kill them all. Let’s go all out Inglourious Basterds and collect their Nazi scalps. Perhaps not quite so violently in reality, but you get the point. And while I love Basterds as a piece of cathartic entertainment, I would never abide to that logic in my everyday life. I stand adamantly behind the idea that we should not kill in order to fix our problems. Perhaps these are my Jewish values speaking, but I believe that unless there is a direct threat to your life or the lives of your loved ones that is unavoidable unless you kill, we should not kill to fix our problems.
The question that drives me is this: why should we ask oppressors to understand our suffering if we are not going to understand theirs? I admit, it troubles me to write that statement. How dare I say that oppressors struggle? How dare I say that neo-Nazis who are determined to preserve a murderous legacy and subjugate all who are not considered a part of them are sufferers? Here is why I dare: they are suffering. They suffer from a lack of education. They suffer as a product of their upbringing that taught them that it was okay and even admirable to torture and potentially kill in the name of white racial purity. And mostly, they suffer because they do not see the miracle behind life itself. Why would we attempt to kill anyone who is a product of billions of years of evolution on a planet that is placed at the precisely correct distance from a huge ball of fire that permits a comfortable existence for creatures with the ability to think. That sounds like a miracle to me. And it also reminds me that neo-Nazis are not mindless creatures: they have brains — they can be reached.
The point is: neo-Nazis aren’t going anywhere unless we attempt to change this ideology. We should not be fighting fire with fire, we should be fighting fire with education, with the ability to confront certain ideologies we disagree with and learn about why it is happening and then educating in order to change the issue. How are we going to educate these individuals to see who they perceive as non-white groups of people as people. What is at the root of their evil?
Why is it important to empathize with the people in our society who we most hate and oppose? The people who are to blame for so much suffering? Because I believe that it is important for us to understand why this is still happening. And it’s important for us to understand that these people have been corrupted. To an extent, we all have. No one is irredeemable in my view. There is a positive role in this world for everyone. Avoiding the oppressors will not amount to any progress. Killing the oppressors, I believe, will result in a prevailing tendency for murder. Violence and anger are addictive — once you unlock the valve, it’s difficult to change course. In order for true progress to exist, we must confront the people behind this evil and understand why — then we must find a new role for them in this world. A role that is not fueled by hate and violence.
And while this may seem too ambitious and idealistic, I choose to live my life as an idealist. Because even if my plans and wishes do not amount to as much as I want them to, I believe it will make at least a small difference and things will change, for the better. If my plan does not work, and we cannot rid the world of this ideology through conversation with openly proud neo-Nazis (which, admittedly, I am skeptical about), I believe that even the worst of the worst can have a positive role in this world. We should not police those who we only suspect to be neo-Nazis, as it is not our role in a civilized society to police one’s mind (even though it seems we may be participating in this sort of activity presently). But for those with this ideology that are committing acts of violence despite our efforts to confront and change their minds, their positive role can still be something as simple as committing their lives to community service in chains. At least then, nobody is dying.
For now, though, we must change our thought-process. I’m not suggesting any one blueprint for a confrontation that would practically solve this issue: as each confrontation will manifest in different ways. What I am urging for is a necessary change in perspective and to grapple with this idea of empathy.