“Make no mistake,” writes The New Yorker editor David Remnick, “neo-Nazis and white supremacists are now at the forefront of American politics.” In the three decades since I tracked right-wing extremist groups for a Jewish civil rights organization, the reach of these groups has wildly increased. But their influence? Even in these difficult times, I’m not so sure how effective they really are. The biggest change, of course, has occurred in the way these racists circulate information. Instead of cranking out hate rags on mimeograph machines, they spread their virulence in a millisecond throughout the internet.
And yes, David Duke is back with another crew of white supremacists who are garnering attention. They make a strong case for the resurgence of domestic extremists. But please look closely at the numbers. The ratio of these purveyors of hate to the good people who oppose them is promising. That was the message I took away from the “Interfaith Gathering of Unity, Love and Strength” this past Friday night at Temple Israel of Boston.
There was something sacred and satisfying about gathering with optimistically minded people. On that night, Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy addressed the 1,700-strong congregation as one. They stood alongside civic leaders and elected officials and listened to Temple Israel’s senior rabbi, Elaine Zecher, declare that, “I deputize you to become covenanted to one another—interconnected and dependent on another.”
And yet, I can’t forget how a friend’s house was vandalized with Nazi graffiti. Or the time when my mother, a teacher in the same school for years, unlocked her classroom door and found a swastika on the chalkboard. My friend and his family quietly scrubbed away the anti-Semitic epithets that were aerosoled on the front of their stately white home. My mother erased her board and went on with the business of conjugating Spanish verbs with her high-school students. We didn’t have vocabulary like “hate crimes” to articulate what happened to them.
I once went down South with a friend and astounded him with my knowledge of the Klan cells that dotted the Carolinas and Georgia. But even as I read those sooty newspapers in my office, never once did I think most people gave these hatemongers any consideration. David Duke was more of a sideshow freak than anything else. Although he was an articulate Klansman calmly talking about the Zionist Occupied Government, who could take him seriously?
At Friday evening’s interfaith gathering, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center offered words of wisdom from the prophet Muhammad. “When speaking about the essence of the human condition,” he said, “Muhammad likened it to the body. When one part of that body is in pain, the remainder of the body will stay feverish. Many in our nation are in pain from Charlottesville to Boston, from the Holocaust Memorial in Boston to the streets of Barcelona. It is now time for us to come together and push back with mercy against those elements in our society causing that pain.”
Gov. Charlie Baker proclaimed that good always triumphs over evil. He shared his favorite beatitude from Matthew 5:9, which says: “Blessed are the peacemakers. For they shall be called the children of God.” Baker went on to declare that, “Peacemakers say no to bigotry. Peacemakers say no to violence. Peacemakers say no to hatred.” The governor charged his audience to go out and do the “active hard work” of peacemaking.
As he looked out at the congregation, Mayor Marty Walsh said, “This is what unity looks like.” Walsh said he found strength in his own recovery, which taught him to heal and to share that healing with others. “When hatred strikes one of us,” he said, “it strikes all of us.”
Attorney General Maura Healey asserted that “what we saw this week, what we witnessed, was not only lawless; it was godless.” She brought the audience to its feet in a pointed reference to President Trump when she declared that “anyone who struggles to denounce white supremacy or Nazism does not deserve to be president of the United States.”
Is David Remnick right? Is this the moment of the white supremacist and the neo-Nazi in America? Not if the latest numbers that came out of the Boston counter-protest this past weekend are correct. A group of less than 100 racists—racists grandstanding about their right to free speech—was overwhelmed by over 10,000 people protesting against them on the Boston Common. That ratio has been consistent for decades.
These bigots, though, have caught the attention of an administration that won’t repudiate them. They’ve menaced people who thought they were safe in this country. As Rabbi Zecher noted in her welcoming remarks, “Many of us have been the object of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and bigotry.” That’s true enough. But I never thought it would happen to my children too.