Five years ago this week, white nationalists strolled the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, barking one phrase over and over: “Jews won’t replace us.” The most prominent response from counter-protesters was a three-word chant now familiar to all Americans, “Black Lives Matter.”
It’s a mismatch that answers the larger question of how anti-Semitism connects to racism in contemporary America. In Pittsburgh, Buffalo and beyond, every recent episode of white nationalist violence features anti-Jewish conspiracy theories deeply tied to color-based racism. Yet, just as in the case of Charlottesville, Americans struggle to analyze the relationship between race and religion in white supremacist ideology. Instead, we either gloss over anti-Semitism or divert to debates over analogies to the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even as white supremacy stalks American democracy, we find ourselves unable to agree on its origins and goals.
The truth is that contemporary white supremacy represents a fusion of two different American ideologies: a deeply rooted racial hierarchy derived from slavery and an age-old Christian messianism. The two are not the same. Nor have they impacted Jews, African Americans, and other minority communities proportionately throughout American history. Yet they have long coexisted and periodically converge to shape moments of radical violence and undemocratic politics.
Today, it is precisely their cross-pollination that gives white supremacy its enormous power far beyond the fringe. To verify its spread to the center of American politics, we must therefore first decipher this confusing grammar of hate. This task begins with decoding the strange slogan in the heart of Charlottesville.
Last fall, I spent a month in federal court in Virginia witnessing the civil trial of the 2017 Unite the Right March leaders and their organizations. The Sines v. Kessler lawsuit was filed by a group of abuse victims in Charlottesville. They received a measure of justice in the form of large monetary awards for damages.
Yet the Charlottesville trial also brought the replacement theory to light, both in the form of courtroom speech and extensive digital evidence taken from social media. What the case revealed was that beyond a fevered conspiracy theory about non-white birth rates and American demographics, the replacement ideology of white supremacy is a tight braid of three interwoven myths about race, religion and power.
The Charlottesville defendants were charged with civil conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence against the victims. Their defense strategy was to repeatedly insist that they were the real victims, the real minority pursuing historical justice. They had only come to town to defend a Confederate statue, exercise their First Amendment rights and confront the totalitarian left. Any resulting violence was self-defense. The rise of non-white America, through mass migrations, Democratic electoral machinations and communist plots, has truly jeopardized their future.
Given this color-based binary, white Jews may seem irrelevant as a threat. Yet precisely because of their pseudo-whiteness, in the supremacist narrative, Jews constitute racial imposters, who have taken over American society. The proper transformation of American society would restore the demographic and political hierarchy and eliminate the “Zionist occupied government”. Without it, however, violence was inevitable.
For some, like Dillon Hopper, the time had already come. When I get to Charlottesville, he said in words read back to the court, my whole speech will consist of six words: “Gas the kikes, race war now.”
So why did the Charlottesville marauders skip the city’s synagogue (the community was no less traumatized) to focus on street fights with Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists? The answer lies in the second dimension of replacement theory. Our enemy, said Defendant Michael Hill of the Southern League, is the “Jew-led communist horde” that threatens to destroy the white race.
This statement and others like it reveal that “the Jews will not replace us” also works in a transitive sense; it is the hidden hand of Jewish power replacing whites with inferior races and “whites against whites”. In this view, like that of Pittsburgh killer Robert Bowers in 2018, Jews do not need to be physically present to manipulate others to promote interracialism, communism and other evils. Some of these groups – communists, globalists, Black Lives Matter, Antifa – are practically Jewish even if their members were not. Not just Jewish bodies, but invisible Jewish power threatens white replacement.
In the face of this immense evil force, white supremacists imagine themselves weak and helpless, but only temporarily. Their generation is caught between lost greatness and future triumph. In their defensive posture lurks another, third trope of replacement ideology. This idea, however, inverts the image of Jews replacing whites to imagine Christians eventually replacing Jews. In his opening and closing statements to the trial, alt-right leader Richard Spencer spoke of “two kinds of justice”. Describing himself as related to the biblical scapegoat, then to Jesus, he opposes Christian mercy to Jewish revenge. At the root of this discourse, and so many other white supremacists, is an ancient Christian dream of theological supersessionism. This messianic view, that Jesus and the New Testament replaced the Torah and all Jewish law, also has deep roots in American society. Christians since the Puritans have dreamed of replacing false Jews with true Christians, the new divine elect destined to redeem the world. Even in its secularized form, this religious myth fuels a thirst for purity in an all-Christian America.
Five years after Charlottesville, the leaders of America’s far-right have failed to launch the radical revolution they hoped to achieve. Yet their ideology of violence has only continued to spread, and replacement theory has now fully entered the mainstream. Meanwhile, the politics of anti-Semitism has turned into a zero-sum game of partisanship. Conservatives remained extremely quiet during the trial, as many of their own talking points about racial demographics and the treachery of dark elites were traced back to far-right origins. Yet blaming political hypocrisy will not stop the creeping spread of white nationalism. Nor will debating definitions of anti-Semitism or ranking anti-Jewish threats across political spectrums lead to greater moral insight. The more we simplify dangerous ideas, the less equipped we are to explain their origins and counter their influence.
This brings us back to “the Jews will not replace us”. Charlottesville was a defining moment in the history of American democracy. The events of this weekend exposed all the moral depravity of the incumbent Republican president and galvanized the rise of his Democratic successor. The clash over a Confederate statue revealed that public monuments were a new battleground for old struggles for national memory. Images of street clashes have led to dueling narratives about who is ultimately responsible for racial violence and social anarchy on America’s streets. The political extremism on display over the weekend hinted at what was to come four years later on January 6, 2021.
No less, however, the muddled response to the anti-Jewish chant has exposed a gap in our public understanding of how race and religion interact in creating white supremacy. Recognizing the Jewish dimension in this story should not hurt, but rather add to our moment of national awareness. Charlottesville reminds us how extreme racism puts Jews in its sights in ways that endanger American communities of color as a whole. Deciphering this virulent myth is a prerequisite for dismantling it. Better slogans alone will not be enough to defeat the enemies of democracy. Illiberal ideas can ultimately only be stopped through democratic politics and legal action. For that to happen, Americans will have to fashion a new language of justice.
James Loeffler is the Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia, where he directs UVA’s Jewish Studies program. He is the author of Grounded Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.