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August 12, 2017. My husband pulled out his cell phone for the first time that day and began reading the news alert that flashed across its screen. “Something’s happened in Virginia,” he said.
My body tensed. “Oh, don’t tell me,” I sighed warily.
We’d just come home from our daughter Jacqueline’s bat mitzvah ceremony at our synagogue in Los Angeles. Seeing my own child carry the Torah, chant Hebrew from the ancient text and deliver her commentary on the week’s passages had me walking on air. I didn’t want the latest heartbreaking headline pulling me down.
Jacqueline was resting in her bedroom before the blowout party planned for that night. I was about to do the same as my husband continued reading aloud, “Witnesses described bodies flying into the air as the driver of a Dodge Challenger rammed—”
My hand shot up like a traffic cop’s. “Stop right there!” I yelped, lest visions of carnage taint my experience of our daughter’s special day.
My husband kept the bad news to himself.
Hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis slithered out from dark corners of the Internet for “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia. Emboldened by a sympathetic White House, they came from across the country to protest the removal of Confederate monuments in dozens of localities nationwide – including the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park – a renaming the protesters detested, as well.
Of course, Unite the Right was about more than saving statues and preserving antiquated park names. The rally was the IRL debut for the racist activists, misogynists and trolls who comprise the far-right subculture known as “alt-right” – a coming out party to save “white identity.”
A bat mitzvah is sometimes likened to a “sweet sixteen” or quinceanera, but a girl doesn’t have a bat mitzvah so much as she becomes a bat mitzvah: a morally responsible member of the larger community. Bat mitzvah literally means “daughter of the commandment.” Inspired by Jewish notions of chessed (kindness) and tikkun olam (world repair), community service has become a popular way to mark the rite of passage.
Jacqueline and I had batted around ideas for a “mitzvah project.” A number of laudable volunteer efforts – after-school tutoring programs, park cleanups – seemed somehow less urgent with Donald Trump in the White House slashing immigration to its lowest levels in a generation and making life miserable for undocumented immigrants. Fear of a ramped-up federal deportation machine was palpable in our home of Southern California – the biggest concentration of unauthorized immigrants in the country.
Jacqueline decided she’d be a friendly face for a nine-year-old from El Salvador whose legal status in the U.S. was in limbo. During meetings when the girl’s mother conferred with pro-bono attorneys, Jacqueline offered smiles and candies to lighten the mood as the lawyers’ questions touched on memories the girl had tried to forget. The girl’s mother quietly described the brutality of life under gang rule in their hometown in El Salvador, the violence that had taken the life of the girl’s father and the atrocities awaiting the girl should the U.S. government force her return. That’s when Jacqueline kept her young friend entertained with amusing SnapChat filters.
During our drives home, Jacqueline laid out a rationale of why her new companion would be an asset for the United States – perfect English, awarded “citizen of the month,” an “A” in fourth grade math. “Did you notice she wouldn’t eat the banana I brought her? She said she was saving it for later because she didn’t want to be greedy.”
250 young white men marched in a torchlight procession onto the University of Virginia campus, shouting Nazi slogans: “Blood and Soil!” “Jews will not replace us!” Their rally was a surprise Friday night kickoff to Unite the Right.
The procession ended at a sculpture of Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, where an interracial group of thirty university students had hastily assembled and linked arms in a show of solidarity against racism. The marchers encircled the statue and the students, mocking them with monkey sounds and shouting, “White Lives Matter!” Some threw lit torches at the sculpture and at the students. There were shoves and punches and chemical irritants sprayed. Other than a solitary campus police officer, law enforcement was nowhere to be seen during the torchlight march nor for several minutes after the skirmish started.
The injured attended to one another until emergency personnel arrived.
That evening, before her bat mitzvah, I took Jacqueline out for frozen yogurt.
The animating purpose of Unite the Right was defending the legacy of the Confederacy and asserting white supremacy, but the marchers were also obsessed with Jews. The same twisted ideology they use to justify looking down on other races and groups leads them to view Jews as the masterminds behind a conspiracy to bring immigrants into the country and destroy the white race.
By this logic, it made perfect sense for men who’d come to rally against the removal of General Lee’s statue to assemble across the street from Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel during Saturday morning prayer services, dressed in fatigues and toting semi-automatic rifles. Alerted that Nazi websites had posted calls to burn the building, congregants exited through the back, taking their Torah scrolls with them.
That was just about when I was sipping my coffee and scrolling through my phone. It didn’t occur to me to check if neo-Nazi Pepe the Frog memes were trending, nor did I check the headlines. Instead I pulled up “Prayer-eoke” on YouTube to practice once more the prayers my husband and I would chant during Jacqueline’s ceremony.
Songs and prayers rang out in Emancipation Park where an interfaith, interracial group of clergy and civil rights activists had gathered ahead of the scheduled noon rally. “This little light of mine,” they sang.
“Our blood! Our soil!” white nationalists roared back. They streamed into the park waving Confederate or swastika flags and posters declaring, “Jewish media is going down” or “Jews are Satan’s children.” Some protesters wore red baseball caps emblazoned with the Trump/Pence campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Some wore body armor or camouflage fatigues and brandished shields, metal poles, wooden clubs, handguns or assault rifles. Estimates put their number at 500.
Sunlight bathed the chapel as the bat mitzvah services began. Jacqueline’s friends, some of whom had never set foot in synagogue, followed along in the prayer books and sang the Hebrew transliterations.
Their voices raised together made me feel like I was floating two inches above my chair: “May the One Who makes peace, bring peace down, bring peace down.” I visualized this wish for peace radiating from my heart, out to my daughter seated beside me, to everyone in the chapel, out beyond the walls of the synagogue – loving-kindness enveloping the world.
Over 1,000 counter-protestors were converging on the park, including local residents, church groups, civil rights leaders, and anti-fascists. Gun-toting militias and young men in helmets and boots were spoiling for trouble. Metal barricades erected around the park were coming down. Brawls were breaking out. Fury was building.
My heart leapt as the congregation sang, “Ku-mah Adonai,” – Arise, G-d – my family’s cue to join the rabbi on the pulpit and form a row for the customary passing of the Torah. I planted myself in my patent leather pumps and braced the scroll against my shoulder as I took it from my mother. I felt the weight of it in my arms, the weight of generations of my family gone and generations to come, the continuity of the Jewish faith for thousands of years, before entrusting the Torah to my daughter.
Two dozen anti-fascists attempted to block access to the park. White nationalists charged the line, throwing punches, swinging sticks, spraying chemicals. Virginia State police and Charlottesville police stationed around the park made no move to break up the fights.
Celebrants surged toward Jacqueline as she carried the Torah briskly through the aisles of the chapel. They beamed and waved and offered congratulations. Her friends called out, “Good job!” and “Good luck!” Some who were Jewish kissed their prayer books or prayer shawls before touching them to the velvet shrouded scroll.
Three hours after people had begun arriving at Emancipation Park, Virginia State Police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly. Officers pushed the white rights protesters out of the park and onto surrounding streets where they made their way to McIntire Park, a mile away.
“This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” one demonstrator complained to a reporter.
A Klansman leaving Emancipation Park drew his pistol, aimed into a crowd of counter-protesters then quickly lowered his arm to fire at the ground, inches from a black counter-protester.
Nearby, six white supremacists cornered DeAndre Harris in a parking garage next to Charlottesville police headquarters. With poles, metal pipes and wood slabs, they proceeded to beat him within inches of his life.
Jacqueline chanted in Hebrew from the scroll unfurled before her on the pulpit:
Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, in order to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not.
At our daughter’s silvery voice, my husband looked at me and smiled.
“Fuck you, nigger! Go the fuck back to Africa,” a marcher screamed at a black woman. “Dylan Roof was a hero!” his companion joined in.
Jacqueline reminded the congregation that in Eikev, the week’s Torah portion from Deuteronomy, Moses enjoined the Israelites to “walk in God’s path,” to care for the widow and the orphan, to love the stranger.
“Unlike the Israelites, I haven’t walked through the desert,” Jacqueline told a rapt congregation… I’m grateful to be an American. The right thing to do with my privilege is to help others who don’t have the same advantages as me.”
Jacqueline described the girl from El Salvador she’d befriended through her community service, one of thousands of “kids my age and younger who fled their homes because they were being recruited into gangs or forced into prostitution. They are victims of rape and assault, witnesses to murder and unspeakable violence.” Jacqueline explained how instead of welcoming these children as refugees, our government has made it a priority to deport these kids. “Is this caring for the orphan? Is this loving the stranger? Is this who President Trump wants to keep out with his border wall?”
“One people! One nation! End immigration!” chanted alt-right marchers through the streets of Charlottesville, along with other anti-Semitic, racist and anti-immigrant slogans.
I stood with Jacqueline before the congregation. She was radiant and fresh in her flowered dress. Gone was my chubby-faced toddler. I marveled at the accomplished, long-legged beauty who’d taken her place.
I felt the same amazement I had moments after her birth, the first time we’d gazed at one another, as I held her hand and recited the special blessings I’d composed for the occasion. “May your heart be open, may your life be filled with love, and may you know that you are loved. May you find inspiration everywhere and experience many moments of awe. And may you use your gifts to spread kindness, wisdom and joy so the world is better because of you.”
Minutes before noon, a hard core of about 100 alt-right protesters who’d reconvened in McIntire Park to hear scheduled speakers were informed Virginia’s governor had declared a statewide emergency. The rally was off.
On a pedestrian mall four blocks from Emancipation Park, counter-protesters were celebrating the decision. A silver Dodge Charger idled at the intersection. Next came the rev of an engine, tires squealing, a car accelerating through the throng. The driver, James Alex Fields Junior, a twenty-year old Nazi sympathizer from Ohio, then threw his car into reverse, plowing through more people before fleeing the scene. “This is what terrorists do!” screamed a bystander as he pleaded with a police officer for help. Nineteen people were critically injured in the attack. 32-year old Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer was killed.
Hours later, Jacqueline’s party got underway. By that time, social media was flooded with images of a black man savagely beaten, people mowed down by a car used as a deadly weapon and a president refusing to single out white supremacists and Nazis – instead insisting there’d been violence “on many sides.”
I was likely one of the only people in that ballroom that night, a good number of the teens included, who didn’t already know about Charlottesville’s day of rage and hate.
“He’d said he was going to an ‘alright’ rally,” James Fields’s mother stammered when reporters tracked her down at her home and informed her of what her son had done with his car. “I thought it had something to do with Trump.”
Jacqueline and her friends crowded onto the dance floor under a sparkling chandelier. Composed of mostly thirteen-year-old girls and a smattering of boys, they formed a beautiful mosaic of ethnicity and hue. The adults dancing were gay and straight, immigrants and native-born, of various religions or none at all. In ballerina flats, Chuck Taylors and high heeled sandals, all of us danced with abandon and sang along at the top of our lungs to Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito.” The DJ kept the party rolling. Even the catering staff seemed to be having a wonderful time.
The day after the rally, the alt-right website Daily Stormer called on its “troll army” to disrupt funeral services for Heather Heyer. “What’s the location of the fat skank’s funeral”? read the post. “I want to get people on the ground there.”
Heyer joined a growing list of victims claimed by alt-right violence, attacks that spiked since Trump’s election. Hate groups have also proliferated, including neo-Nazi, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups. For the first time ever, groups tracking right wing extremism have added male supremacy groups to the list. As disaffected white men interact in-person and anonymously online, calls for radical individual action will likely incite more violence.
I’m proud of my daughter’s social conscience. Still, part of me worries that instead of encouraging her to stand up for her beliefs, to practice her religion, to celebrate her life – I should warn her to keep her head down.
Mara A. Cohen, Ph.D. is a writer, public speaker, civic activist and mother working on a collection of autobiographical stories about family and resilience. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News, the LA Business Journal, La Opinion, National Civic Review, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Trampset, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The Nervous Breakdown, The Hairpin, Alimentum and numerous other literary and peer-reviewed journals. Her greatest joy is cultivating meaningful connections with other humans. Read more of her work at http://maracohen.com/