By Hayley Crandall
Eric Ward, activist and executive director at the Western States Center, shared his expertise on the relationship between white nationalism and antisemitism during the Milwaukee Jewish Community Relations Council “Deconstructing White Supremacy” virtual discussion last week.
“In short, if white supremacy was built upon the paper of racism in America, white nationalism would be built upon the paper of something else and that something else is known as antisemitism,” Ward said.
Earlier in March, a report from the council revealed that antisemitic activity has almost doubled in Wisconsin over the past two years. In its 2020 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, the council reported a 36% increase in incidents from 2019.
Ward explained how antisemitism is the core of what is known as white nationalism. He described it as a reaction to civil rights. White nationalists demonize Jewish people as they cast them in the same villainous roles and believe them to be a force behind white dispossession, he explained.
“At the foundation of the modern-day movement is the explicit claim that Jews are a separate race and that their ostensible position as white is the greatest trick that the devil ever played,” Ward said. “Jews despite, and indeed because of the fact, that many people identify the majority of Jews as white, are placed within the white nationalist narrative as an enemy race.”
White nationalists are fueled by fantasies that Jewish people drive marches for change for various minority groups and are working to annihilate the white race, Ward said.
“This antisemitic thinking allowed segregationists in the post-civil rights movement to maintain their white superiority,” he said. “By buying into this fake Jewish conspiracy, it allowed them to see Black people as nothing more than puppets of their Jewish puppet masters. That allowed this country to deny the agency and the legitimate grievances of the Black community, of the LBGTQ community, of immigrants, of workers, of women and of poor people.”
This is not only a problem faced just by Jewish people, Ward explained, as the non-Jewish population can be targets for white nationalists, too. He deems it a modern form of racism that should be approached as such.
“We need to understand that that antisemitism is race-based which means that we have to lean into race equity in order to respond to it effectively,” he said. “We have to look at it alongside other forms of racism.”
The panel for the event also featured Rabbi Dena Feingold of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha. Feingold leads the temple, and works, in partnership with other religious leaders, to combat racism and strive for equality in her community. She shared the temple’s experience being in the middle of the Kenosha riots and dealing with an antisemitic incident during them.
Feingold found someone ad spray painted “Free Palestine” and “BLM” in front of their building. While still a notable incident, Feingold said that she didn’t feel it was exactly the most serious of attacks witnessed last year.
“Whoever was doing this, it was a message to the entire community and the Jewish community got a little special message,” Feingold said. “Maybe this person who wrote this feels that in another part of the world or maybe everywhere, Jews are oppressors too, but I felt that was a side issue compared to the bigger issue that was facing our community.”
Feingold and Ward took time to engage in conversation and listen to each other’s experiences and expertise on such matters. During their discussion, Ward asked Feingold what the aforementioned uptick in antisemitism has meant for her area. Feingold discussed the adjustment her temple has made in regards to upping security, which has drawn some mixed emotions from people.
“That’s been a huge change for us,” Feingold said. “I think most people feel comforted by it and yet, it is a little unnerving to walk into the building for services or a program and there’s a couple of officers standing there, that never used to be necessary. And for some people, it’s not comforting at all.”
Feingold feels that there’s room to grow community relations with the police. While their actions during the August riots still concern her, she hopes residents can continue to have a dialogue with law enforcement for the future.
Feingold is continuing her activism throughout the community and in her own faith. The temple has a racial justice subcommittee and held a mini racial justice book club hoping to educate people, she said.
“I think it has to get down to that level where everybody in the community needs to be reached because otherwise there isn’t going to be any movement,” Feingold said.
When both asked what people can do from here, Feingold shared the belief that this is a team effort. Ward stressed that it is not just enough to address the problem – there must be a look at the entire system.
“Every single one of us, we can’t solve these huge problems by ourselves, but we need to engage in the work in whatever way we can,” Feingold said. “We have to engage in the work, or nothing is going to change.”
“Let us remember this: addressing the white nationalist movement is not enough on its own,” Ward said. “We have to address the underlying inequality that exists in our society.”