Charlottesville and Skokie 2017

“Oh please, do you really think people are going to jump on the ol’ Nazi bandwagon?”

“You don’t really think the Nazis could attract a following, do you?” “Remember, we didn’t think so last time.”

“You must not have much faith in the American people”

“You get a bunch of neo-Nazi screwballs out there inciting to riot, something’s going to happen.”

“Guns and rifles are not nice. But if the Nazis come with guns and rifles, Jews will come with guns and rifles”

These are not lines from recent newspapers. They are from a play I’ve been in all summer, called God of Isaac. It was written almost 35 years ago, by James Sherman. He and I grew up in Skokie, around the time the Nazis tried to march in our hometown, and the event is supposed to be a back drop for the title character’s exploration into his own Jewish identity. We do four shows a weekend. We’ve had cast conversations back stage and at talk-backs with audiences, about identity and journeys. But since the weekend of Aug 12, our conversation has been about one thing – Charlottesville, and how bizarre and disturbing this secondary story line has become. We talk about it a lot backstage, each actor re-calibrating our lines almost unconsciously, given the lens we see them through lately.

I’ve been waiting to write about the last couple of weeks, waiting for my emotions to settle and my thoughts to start making sense. My worlds are colliding – my day job as a Jewish professional, as an actor in this play, and then there’s my father.

I have a unique connection to the whole marching-Nazis thing. My father was Richard Salzman. He was one of the attorneys for the Village of Skokie. Up until the mid-70s, it was a pretty predictable job, nothing too exciting. Then Frank Collin came to town and the job got a whole lot more interesting. Skokie wanted to keep the Nazis out; the ACLU said they had a right to march. Over two years, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and ultimately, the ordinances that Dad and his colleagues wrote on Skokie’s behalf to keep the Nazis from marching were found to be what Dad knew they were all along: unconstitutional. Free speech won over fighting words and hate speech.

So, for four shows a weekend, I go back to the 70s in the play, and off stage, I see today’s headlines through my father’s eyes. The time-travel is dizzying, and I find so many conflicting thoughts bouncing around in my head.

For example, one of the things I remember my father speaking a lot about is how unfair the Jewish community was to the Jewish ACLU lawyer who took on Collins’ case. Dad told us how his kids were bullied at school, his family experienced death threats, and how the lawyer basically left town. Dad thought it was a “shandah”, an embarrassment; it was simply wrong. That lawyer was doing his job, defending something we rely on to stay strong for all of us. I think about this when I read about the Nazis and white supremacists from Charlottesville who were outed, “doxxed.” The hoods were off, and they were identified; we have read about some of these people being disowned, fired, and who knows what’s coming next. Will some fool decide becoming a vigilante is justified? I’m not expressing sympathies for these individuals, but how is it different from what the Jewish community did? These despicable human beings, as far as we know right now, didn’t do anything illegal. The ACLU lawyers in Skokie were protecting what they were committed to, no matter how contemptible their clients were. The power we have with social media concerns me.

The social media also concerns me about the Nazis and white supremacists themselves. Back in the 70s, there were a couple of handful of Nazis, far outnumbered by the Jewish protesters. There a lot of people jumping on the ol’ Nazi bandwagon, and it’s no secret how the internet magnifies everything, allowing ideas that might otherwise die natural (and welcome) deaths to find others to follow, and followers to multiply.

I am certain that expecting or seeking ideological purity is never a good thing, yet this morning I heard about college graduates returning their degrees because their issuing institution supports Trump. Sooner or later, we will be in a post-Trump time, and what happens then? Have we completely lost the ability to engage in any conversation or relationship with those with whom we disagree? I know we’ve been divided before, and I have not changed my opinion about the current White House occupant and his detrimental effect on discourse, giving permission for racist and hateful opinions and acts to be acceptable now. That’s on him, I firmly believe. But what happens next? We can’t start firing people who hold different opinions. We can’t physically attack people who hold different political beliefs. We have to return to actual, informed civil discourse. We are going to have to rehabilitate the Presidency, and change the model.

I also think about what the court would have ruled if the situation in Charlottesville had happened in Skokie? Would the military garb, assault rifles, vitriolic and hateful speech would finally qualify as “hate speech” and would therefore be unprotected by the First Amendment? I fear it will take another march, more violence and death, and another case to go up the courts to change the ruling, and at the same time I fear this, I think I welcome it, because if what happened in Charlottesville isn’t incitement and fighting words, I don’t know what is.

Last Shabbat, the congregants of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville had to leave by the back door and spirit away their Torahs for safety. Jewish organizations all over the country are on heightened alert, and the current government is paralyzed even more than usual by the inexcusable comments of the President. There is no excuse for his resistance to state the obvious: Nazis are bad. White supremacists are bad. There are no “fine people” marching with torches and AK-47s, spitting out blatant, purely anti-Semitic and horrific words. There is no “other side” here.

Was there “another side” in Skokie decades ago? I wish my father were around, not just for the obvious reason that he died too early, but because I want his insights, and I wish we could talk about this.

My worlds are colliding every day lately. It’s making my head spin, my heart hurt, and my soul ache for the pain and horror that is taking over our communit and our country. Still, I am heartened by the resistance, the organizing, and the support in places like Boston. I am grateful for the non-Jewish supporters stood guard outside Beth Israel while the neo-Nazis shouted their hate, showing their neighbors that they are not alone.

My father fought for the values and rights in our country, both on the battlefield of WWII and the courtrooms in Chicago. That fight can’t be abandoned now. “We still have work to do”, says a character in the play. Indeed we do. Let’s get started.

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