When Racism and Antisemitism Collide: Charlottesville's Ugly Legacy | Opinion

Five years ago this week, white nationalists trudged through the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, barking one phrase over and over again, "Jews will not replace us." The most prominent response from counter-protesters was a three-word chant now familiar to every American, "Black Lives Matter."

It's a mismatch that speaks to the larger question of how antisemitism connects to racism in contemporary America. In Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and beyond, each recent episode of white nationalist violence features anti-Jewish conspiracy theories deeply entwined with color-based racism. Yet, just as in the case of Charlottesville, Americans struggle to parse the relationship between race and religion in white supremacist ideology. Instead, we either pass over antisemitism in silence or divert into debates over Holocaust analogies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even as white supremacy stalks American democracy, we find ourselves unable to agree on its origins and aims.

The truth is that contemporary white supremacy represents a fusion of two different American ideologies: a deeply rooted racial hierarchy derived from slavery and an age-old Christian messianism. The two are not the same. Nor have they impacted Jews, African Americans, and other minority communities in commensurate ways throughout American history. Yet they have long coexisted and periodically converged to shape moments of radical violence and anti-democratic politics.

Charlottesville Anniversary
Virginia State Police guard the statue of Robert E. Lee on August 12, 2018, in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images

Today it is precisely their cross-pollination that lends white supremacy its enormous potency far beyond the fringe. To check its spread into the center of American politics, then, we first need to decipher this puzzling grammar of hate. That task begins with decoding the strange slogan at the heart of Charlottesville.

Last fall I spent a month in a Virginia federal court attending the civil trial of the 2017 "Unite the Right" march leaders and their organizations. The Sines v. Kessler lawsuit was brought by a group of the victims of violence in Charlottesville. They received a measure of justice in the form of large monetary awards for damages.

Yet the Charlottesville trial also put the Replacement theory on full display, both in the form of courtroom speeches and extensive digital evidence culled from social media. What the case revealed is that beyond a feverish conspiracy theory about non-White birthrates and American demography, white supremacy's replacement ideology is a tight braid of three interwoven myths about race, religion, and power.

The Charlottesville defendants were charged with civil conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence against the victims. Their defense strategy consisted of a repeated insistence that they were the true victims, the actual minority pursuing historical justice. They had come to town only to defend a Confederate statue, exercise their First Amendment rights, and confront the totalitarian Left. Any resulting violence was self-defense. The rise of non-White America, through mass migration, Democratic voting machinations, and Communist plots, genuinely imperiled their future.

Given this color-based binary, white Jews might seem irrelevant as a threat. Yet precisely because of their pseudo-Whiteness, in supremacists' telling, Jews constitute racial imposters, who have taken over American society. The proper transformation of American society would restore the demographic and political hierarchy and remove the "Zionist Occupied Government." Barring that, though, violence was inevitable.

For some, such as Dillon Hopper, the moment had already arrived. When I get to Charlottesville, he said in words read back in court, my entire speech will consist of six words: "Gas the kikes, race war now."

So, why did the Charlottesville marauders skip the town's synagogue (the community was no less traumatized) to focus on pitched street fighting with Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists? The answer lies in the second dimension of replacement theory. Our enemy, said defendant, Michael Hill of the League of the South, is the "Jew-directed communist horde" that threatens to destroy the White race.

This and other similar statements disclose that "Jews will not replace us" also functions in a transitive sense; it is the hidden hand of Jewish power that replaces Whites with inferior races and "anti-White Whites." In this vision, like that of the 2018 Pittsburgh killer Robert Bowers, Jews need not be physically present to manipulate others into promoting interracialism, Communism, and other evils. Some of these groups—Communists, Globalists, Black Lives Matter, Antifa—are virtually Jewish even if their members were not. Not just Jewish bodies, but invisible Jewish power threatens white replacement.

In the face of that immense, evil force, white supremacists imagine themselves as weak and disempowered—but only temporarily. Theirs is a generation caught between lost greatness and future triumph. Within their defensive posture lurks another, third trope of replacement ideology. This idea, however, inverts the image of Jews replacing Whites to imagine Christians ultimately replacing Jews. In both his opening and closing statements at the trial, alt-right leader Richard Spencer spoke of the "two kinds of justice." Depicting himself as akin to the Biblical scapegoat, and then to Jesus, he contrasted Christian mercy with Jewish vengeance. At the root of this speech, and so much other white supremacy, lies an ancient Christian dream of theological supersessionism. This messianic view, that Jesus and the New Testament has replaced the Torah and all of Jewish law, also has deep roots in American society. Christians from the Puritans onwards have dreamed of replacing false Jews with true Christians, the new divine elect destined to redeem the world. Even in its secularized form, this religious myth fuels a thirst for purity in an all-Christian America.

Five years after Charlottesville, the leaders of the American far right have not succeeded in launching the radical revolution they hoped to achieve. Yet their ideology of violence has only continued to spread, and replacement theory has now fully entered the mainstream. Meanwhile, the politics of antisemitism has devolved into a zero-sum game of partisanship. Conservatives fell egregiously silent during the trial as many of their own talking points about racial demography and the perfidy of shadowy elites were retraced to far-right origins. Still, charging political hypocrisy will not stop the creeping spread of white nationalism. Nor will debating definitions of antisemitism or ranking anti-Jewish threats from across the political spectrum lead to greater moral insight. The more we oversimplify dangerous ideas, the less equipped we are to explain their origins and counter their influence.

This brings us back to "Jews will not replace us." Charlottesville was a defining moment in the history of American democracy. The events of that weekend exposed the full moral depravity of the Republican presidential incumbent and galvanized the rise of his Democratic successor. The clash over a Confederate statue revealed public monuments to be a new battleground for old struggles over national memory. The images of street clashes led to dueling narratives over who is ultimately responsible for racial violence and social anarchy in America's streets. The political extremism on display that weekend hinted at what was to come four years later on Jan. 6, 2021.

No less, though, did the confused response to the anti-Jewish chant lay bare a gap in our public understanding of how race and religion interact in the making of white supremacy. Acknowledging the Jewish dimension in this story should not detract from, but rather add to our moment of national reckoning. Charlottesville reminds us of how extreme racism centers Jews in its sights in ways that endanger American communities of color as a whole. Decoding this virulent myth is a precondition to dismantling it. Better slogans alone will not defeat the enemies of democracy. Illiberal ideas can ultimately only be stopped by democratic politics and legal action. For that to happen, Americans will need to fashion a new language of justice.

James Loeffler is Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia, where he directs the UVA Jewish Studies Program. He is the author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.