For Jews Of Color, Charlottesville Is Personal


When Elle Wisnicki, the 22-year-old daughter of a black mother and Ashkenazi Jewish father, scrolled through pictures of men holding tiki torches and waving Nazi flags in Charlottesville, Va., last week, she felt as though her grandparents were by her side.

The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor on her father’s side and only three generations away from American slavery on her mother’s, last week’s convergence of several hundred far-right extremists — some wearing white hoods and carrying Confederate flags, others in polo shirts with swastika-emblazoned armbands — caused her to “feel the weight of both my identities.”

“Everything I represent was under attack,” said the recent college graduate, now working for a health-care consulting firm. “Both sides of my family have been been persecuted and oppressed for no other reason than who they are. This came at me from both sides.”

The events that took place last weekend — a far-right rally to protest the removal of a Confederate War statue that ended in rioting, violence and a car attack that killed one counterprotester and injured 19 — left thousands around the country stunned. President Donald Trump’s statement on Tuesday equating neo-Nazis and white supremacists with those protesting against them that drew praise from far-right leaders including former Ku Klux Klan head David Duke — left an already unsettled nation reeling.

Jewish groups widely condemned the violence and criticized President Trump for saying that the hatred and violence came from “many sides.” (Read more of our coverage of the events here.)

Still, for young Jews of color — many of whom balance a complex and sometimes-challenging intersection of identities — last week’s events were uniquely painful, and personal.

“These are different players at a different moment in history, but it’s the same playbook.”

“As a black person in this country, I am not surprised,” said Yehudah Webster, 24, a leader of the Jews of Color caucus for the social action organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). “But as a Jew, I am.”

While “American racism never went away,” the “bold, anti-Semitic rhetoric” that reared its head at last week’s rally was “shocking for me,” said Webster — marchers from extreme right groups chanted “Jews will not replace us” and the infamous Nazi slogan “blood and soil.”

The Guyanese son of formerly Christian pastors who converted to Judaism at age six, Webster described the new alignment of identities as “surreal.”

“These are different players at a different moment in history, but it’s the same playbook,” he said. “The question: Will we get it right this time?”

On Saturday night, Webster helped organize a Havdalah Against Hate rally on the Upper East side. Over sixty people turned out.

“White supremacy is here to hold down and exploit all of us alike,” said Webster, who hopes this will be a coming-together moment for people of color and Jews. “We need to stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Webster was not alone in feeling simultaneously disturbed and unsurprised by last week’s events.

“I am familiar with this type of racism,” said April Baskin, vice president of Audacious Hospitality for the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). Baskin, the daughter of an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and a black Jewish father, grew up in South Dakota and then Blacksburg, Va. “I could easily have lived near someone who attended that rally,” she said.

As a young girl, Baskin recalled facing taunts and discrimination because of the color of her skin. In first grade, one of her classmates threw racial epithets at her “every day” — the little boy’s father was a leader in the KKK. Everyone knew about it, but “no one said anything.”

“What we saw [in Charlottesville] last week didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is that racism and hate are being shown so brazenly,” said Baskin, 33.

For the Jewish community, the events of last week are a “painful wake-up call.”

“How can we take this terrible moment and translate it into a moment of unity?” asked Baskin, who helps congregations across the U.S. become more boldly inclusive through her work at URJ. “Before this, a lot of Jewish people did not understand the depth of anti-Semitism and racism in this country. Now that we’ve seen it — and we can’t unsee it — let’s use the tools we have to help people understand how systemic oppression operates.”

Jews of color are uniquely equipped to heed that call, Baskin said.

“I have access to a wider view,” she said, speaking to her own experience directly after the details of what took place in Charlottesville surfaced. “Everything my Jewish people were saying, I could see it. Everything communities of color were feeling, I could feel it.”

The experience reminded her of watching her parents — both Jewish, but of different races.

“I love both of them, but they enter into conversations differently,” she said. “Can we see where both communities are coming from? I want these two peoples to accept each other, empathize with one another, just like a child wants her parents to get along.”

Jason Daniel Fair, 32, the son of a white Jewish mother and an African American father, described a heightened awareness of his “intersectional identities” after Charlottesville.

“I felt attacked on multiple sides, all at once,” said Fair, who works for The Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide hotline for LGBT youth as a senior major gifts officer. (Directly after the 2016 presidential election, the hotline’s call volume more than doubled. After Charlottesville, numbers jumped 20 percent, according to Fair.)

Even so, the events did not surprise him.

“That’s what Nazis are about — attacking people who are not like them. Here, it’s blacks and Jews.”

Fair, who serves as a board member for the Jewish Multiracial Network, a non-profit organization that advocates for Jews of color and Jewish multiracial families, said last weekend’s event were “doubly triggering.”

“Attacks on Jews are attacks on people of color.”

“Attacks on Jews are attacks on people of color,” he said. “When folks are shouting ‘blood and soil’ in the streets, we — religious and racial minorities — know what that means.”

Fair also expressed the hope that this would lead to increased bridge building between Jewish and black communities across the country.

“The challenge is not to see this as a one-off moment,” he said.

Still, right now, in Charlottesville’s shadowy aftermath, the priority is to heal.

“We make progress when we operate from a place of strength,” said Fair. “First, we can mourn this. Then, we’ll dust ourselves off and keep fighting.”