On August 11-12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, several individuals came together for a cause dear to their hearts: white supremacy. This event, known as the “Unite the Right Rally” of Charlottesville consisted of Far-Right affiliated members, which included white nationalists, neo-confederates, neo-Nazis, and other “unmentionables.”

The Unite the Right Rally’s stated goal was to protest the removal of the statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee. However, in reality, the rally was open season opportunity for open displays of prejudice. White supremacists marched through the streets of Virginia, unleashing verbal assaults compounded with hate speech, descending into bloody riots and fatal consequences.

The goal of the Unite the Right Rally was to gather white supremacists together and compound their white pride and inherent hatred of anything related to multiculturalism and liberalism.

Unite the Right
“Unite The Right” Rally Protestors. Charlottesville, Virginia.

What Happened During The Unite The Right Rally

The events of those nights resulted in the deaths of three individuals: two state officials, H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who attempted to keep the chaos under control; and Heather Heyer, a peaceful protestor of the counter-riots who was killed directly by vehicular manslaughter by a member of the white supremacist movement. Dozens more were injured and several individuals feared for their personal safety and lives.

Among those who felt threatened by the Unite the Right Rally included the Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. During those days, members of the synagogue attempted to attend services peacefully, while literal Nazi-sympathizers marched through the streets, right outside their place of worship.

In the events proceeding to the rally, the local synagogue had contacted the Charlottesville police department, requesting extra protection for its congregations in case anything should happen. The request was denied, and instead, the synagogue was forcefully compelled to hire armed security from a private company.

Unite the Right
Congregation Beth Israel. Charlottesville, Virginia.

Recounting of Terror

Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel, recounted what occurred during the riot from his perspective:

“For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either… Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. During the rally, in addition to the racism and Islamophobia that run rampant through the streets those nights, anti-Semitism raged as well, in Swastikas and anti-Jewish slurs, such as “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil,” a phrase used by the original Nazis, nearly a century ago.”

Zimmerman described how on that day of the rally,

“A frail, elderly woman approached me Saturday morning as I stood on the steps in front of our sanctuary, crying, to tell me that while she was Roman Catholic, she wanted to stay and watch over the synagogue with us. At one point, she asked, “Why do they hate you?” I had no answer to the question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years.”

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“Never Again”

In the time following the events of the Holocaust, a popular slogan arose: Never Again. It vowed to prevent future generations from experiencing the same atmosphere of violence that nearly destroyed the world. However, anti-Semitism did not begin and end with the Holocaust.

In Ukraine, my parents and grandparents were treated as second-class citizens for being Jewish. They faced harassment and discrimination when it came to economic opportunities and societal acceptance. One female administrator even had the nerve to ask my mother, my brilliant Mama, why she would even bother trying to apply to this university with her Jewish name.

There have been times in my life, even in liberal New York, where I have come across anti-Semitic microaggressions and remarks, both during times when people realized I was Jewish and when they hadn’t. Because of the lightness of my skin and my American citizenship, I can pass through society with a greater sense of security than a great many other people in this country.

However, in the time signified by sentiments of the Unite the Right Rally, and the increase in anti-Semitic crimes, I am now more conscious of my Jewish identity than ever. If that march taught the country anything that night, it is that given unrestrained ignorance and political intolerance, history will indefinitely repeat itself in bloody circles.

In the time following the Unite the Right Rally, or perhaps even since the most recent Presidential election, I am horrified by the state of this country; and as a woman of Jewish descent, I’m terrified at the message that was sent. To me and to anyone who is not white, straight, cisgender, male, Christian: our lives do not matter; we are not worth protecting. But, some things continue to give me hope, even in these dark times: superheroes.

Jewish Roots In Comics

Growing up, I was enthralled by tales of ordinary people who became extraordinary through their actions and their common will to fight for peace and justice. Coincidentally as I began to develop my geek identity, I also tapped into my Jewish one, discovering some of the Jewish roots that nurtured the very comics I loved.

Going into the historical background of comics books, I soon discovered that many of the original comic book legends, including Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Schuster, Jerry Siegel, Bob Kane, etc., came from Jewish-American families. One reason for this prominence was that at their time many U.S. newspapers and publishing companies had anti-Semitic hiring practices. In addition, the comic-book industry was still considered a “second-hand” field.

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Jewish Metaphors

As I analyzed these classic comics from a Jewish perspective, many things began to seem clear. Stories such as Superman’s came across more clearly as the ultimate immigrant/refugee parable, in which an individual flees from a hostile environment to find shelter in another world, only to still be considered an “alien.”

Benj Grimm, otherwise known as The Thing from the Fantastic Four, appeared to resemble a figure from popular Jewish mythology known as the Golem, a stone figure created by a Rabbi, who brought his creation to life to protect his people in the rise of antisemitism attacks and programs.

For me, the Golem is one of the most potent metaphors there is for a human being. It represents both the will of a marginalized community towards the vulnerable in times of need and the will of someone powerful arising from something as simple and humble as the earth itself.

Unite the Right
Ben Grimm, “The Thing.” Image by Jack Kirby.

When analyzing the motivation behind these great comic creators for creating the work they did, I believe that some cultural symbiosis did occur, pertaining to their Jewish roots. The journey to escape hostile environment only to need to assimilate into another one and hide their “true” identity is a story as familiar as America itself, as well as a story as familiar as Superman. Even Superman’s alternative name “Kal-El” appears Hebrew in origin, echoing the Hebrew “Kal” which means “voice” or “vessel,” appropriate for a hero who acts as the voice of justice.

Art as Resistance

What about the creators themselves, no doubt facing extreme prejudice at the beginning of the 20th century, and reacting by depicting vigilante justice on their pages?

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (whose 100th birthday we recently celebrated), two of the most famous comic book creators in history and both Jewish, reacted to the rising Nazi threat in 1940s America by depicting Captain America punching Hitler on the cover of CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1, the ultimate Jewish fantasy.

Trailing the debut of this comic, white supremacists threatened the iconic comic book creators, even marching up to their offices on 42nd Street. The New York Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, sent police guards to ensure their protection, along with a personal message commending their efforts. He personally testified, “The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you.”

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What Makes A Hero

Just as these characters stood as heroes in their times of personal crisis, so do our modern heroes today. Since Ben Grimm’s conception, more Jewish heroes have joined the fight, including Kitty Pryde, Wiccan, Batwoman, and more. There is no doubt in my mind that these Jewish superheroes would fight in the modern battle against White-Supremacy, and many more would fight beside them.

Jewish
Marvel Holiday Magazine 2011 #4. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Heroes like Luke Cage, America Chavez, and Ms. Marvel would definitely step in to negate the evil that took place at the Unite the Right Rally. They would protect those like the counter-riot protesters or the people at Congregation Beth Israel. For heroes like the Defenders, their vigilante justice originated from the ground up. Their duty is, first and foremost, protecting the people.

These heroes who experienced prejudice and discrimination for their own identities would no doubt stand for others in these dark times. And beyond the pages, real-life heroism persists. Forced to supply their own protection, the synagogue was pleasantly surprised to find neighbors turn into allies in their time of need. As Zimmerman recalled,

“John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, took it upon himself to stand watch over the synagogue through services Friday evening and Saturday, along with our armed guard. He just felt he should… At least a dozen complete strangers stopped by as we stood in front the synagogue Saturday to ask if we wanted them to stand with us.”

The Political is Personal

There is a reason why superheroes are such a substantial part of our cultural consciousness. Superheroes are the ones who will be there when all else goes wrong. Their vulnerability as “outsiders” mimics that of our own. Their strength to combat prejudice, fear, and injustice makes us hope that a better world can exist, populated by those who choose to make it so.

To have any kind of hero, fictional or not, is to have hope. They show that there are people out there who are willing to protect us, despite evildoers who wish us harm, or people who stand passively against horror. Heroes, whether of the super or regular variety, inspire us; whether to take pride in our own identities such as I had, or simply to let us know there is a light among the darkness.

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