by Rabbi Jill Maderer
I write this having just returned from the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). There, I moderated a panel about important work that is now taking place to combat anti-Semitism. This work was unknown to most of my colleagues, and I thought it may be unknown to you as well. So I would like to share with you what I learned.
The panel was comprised of Amy Spitalnick and Roberta Kaplan. On Shabbat, August 12, 2017, hundreds of Nazis or White Supremacists descended on Charlottesville. Amy and Roberta are the people who are suing the Nazis.
Amy Spitalnick is the Executive Director of Integrity First for America, an organization which holds accountable those who threaten the principles of our democracy. Integrity First is funding and supporting the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit filed by a coalition of Charlottesville community members against the Nazis responsible for the violence. Previously, Amy served as senior policy advisor and communications director to the New York Attorney General, and as advisor and spokesperson for the New York City mayor.
Roberta Kaplan, or Robbie, the founding partner at Kaplan Hecker & Fink, is a commercial and civil rights litigator, and an expert in cutting-edge areas of law. Robbie’s work is “Where Were You When” kind of work. Where were you when the Supreme Court ruled for Robbie’s client Edie Windsor and for marriage equality? I remember where I was. Where were you when the witness of #MeToo became the fighting words of #TimesUp? When Robbie co-founded the Times Up Legal Defense Fund? I remember where I was. Where were you when… the racists, the anti-Semites, chanted “Blood and soil” and then actually shed blood in Charlottesville? I remember where I was.
Both Amy and Robbie connect their work on the lawsuit with their personal purpose in life and with their backgrounds. Both American Jews, Amy is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and Robbie was heavily steeped in Holocaust education in her religious school and family. As they have studied the white supremacy and Nazi organizing that came to Charlottesville, they have learned more about the leaders and followers who once were in their basements playing video games and now, connected by the internet, are planning together to harm others.
They initiated the lawsuit because the white supremacists in Charlottesville were not only holding signs with hateful statements and chanting “Jews will not replace us”; evil as such a demonstration would have been, that alone would have been protected by the right to free speech. And the defendants argued free speech when they attempted to have the case dismissed. But their attempt was rejected by the judge because the accusation goes far beyond free speech. The plaintiffs are suing because these defendants planned harm.
The defendants in the case are white supremacy leaders, including Richard Spencer. The legal team has researched these defendants’ communications with each other and have uncovered all kinds of conversations among them. For instance, they refer to their cars as weapons, calling them “protester digesters.” The conversation makes it clear that these white supremacists hate every group that is unlike them, but also, as much as they hate people of color, women, LGBTQ, immigrants, and Muslims, they hate Jews the most because they perceive that we are not only different, but that we are in control of others. Communications have uncovered intentions to do more violence, and have revealed a slowing down of plans because of the focus and resources they require to fight this case.
The plaintiffs in the case are people who were present in Charlottesville and who were physically injured by the white supremacists. These plaintiffs are unlikely to recover any expenses as the white supremacists’ assets have not been identified. The plaintiffs had the opportunity to sue the police for damages for insufficient protection– such a lawsuit would be their chance to recover some of the medical costs. But they had to choose between one lawsuit or the other. Despite the financial sacrifice as well as the risk to their own safety, they have all decided to join the lawsuit against white supremacists, because they feel passionately committed to the fight against hate.
Robbie and Amy are driven by three goals for the case. First, they are requiring the white supremacists focus and resources, taking them away from other efforts. Second, they are scaring these and other white supremacists, potentially leading to some deterrence. Finally, the power of the case lies in its symbolism. This is one of those cases, one of those moments, that defines what a democracy is and who we are as Americans. Our job? Talk about the case, talk about the critical problem of anti-Semitism and hatred of other groups. Talk to friends and neighbors, co-workers and political representatives.
May Robbie, Amy and their team defeat the Nazis in court, and may we all find ways to support the work of combating hate.