Lipstadt Takes the Stand

Lipstadt Takes the Stand

The Emory University scholar testified against organizers of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Deborah Lipstadt testified that the rally organizers demonstrated a “great deal of overt anti-Semitism and adulation of the Third Reich.”
Deborah Lipstadt testified that the rally organizers demonstrated a “great deal of overt anti-Semitism and adulation of the Third Reich.”

In keeping with the protocol for nominees, Deborah Lipstadt has said little publicly about her nomination to be the U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism while that issue is before the Senate.

Nonetheless, Lipstadt had plenty to say Nov. 3 about anti-Semitism when she testified in a federal trial stemming from the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., during which marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

The Emory University professor, renowned as a scholar of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, testified on behalf of nine plaintiffs who filed suit, alleging a conspiracy to violate their civil rights by 14 men and 10 groups named as defendants.

The civil trial was held in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, in Charlottesville, before a jury of four women and eight men. [As of Nov. 10, the trial continued.]

About a week before her testimony, Lipstadt posted on Twitter: “Very gratified to be part of this effort for justice and accountability.”

In July 2020, Lipstadt filed a 48-page report with the court, in which she said that “the ideology, symbols, and rhetoric that were on display at the Unite the Right rally fit comfortably within a long tradition of antisemitism and share in the tradition that led to the violent murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust.”

The rally’s ostensible purpose was to protest plans by the city of Charlottesville to remove a statue of Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which had been the subject of ongoing demonstrations. That weekend saw a mixed bag of right-wing, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups clash with counter-protesters.

On the evening of Aug. 11, 2017, a few hundred marchers — men who appeared to favor khakis, many carrying flaming tiki torches — walked through the University of Virginia campus, chanting “White lives matter,” “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.”

In advance of Shabbat services on Aug. 12, members of Congregation Beth Israel removed all but one of its Torahs for safe-keeping, while armed men clad in camouflage threateningly stood in front of Charlottesville’s only synagogue.

That afternoon, a car driven by one of the defendants, James Alex Fields Jr., plowed into counter-protesters walking away from the rally site, killing Heather Heyer and injuring numerous others. Fields was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder and other charges.

In advance of Lipstadt’s testimony, the Forward reported: “At times the trial has deteriorated into farce, with many of the defendants representing themselves in court. Christopher Cantwell, known online as the ‘crying Nazi,’ has held forth at length on ideas only tangentially related to the case.”

When Lipstadt took the stand, an attorney for the plaintiffs asked her to expound on her report. The language used by “Unite the Right” organizers in advance of and during the Charlottesville rally demonstrated a “great deal of overt anti-Semitism and adulation of the Third Reich,” she said.

The communication between defendants constituted “Jew hatred,” Lipstadt said, explaining the term to mean: “You know they’re a Jew and you despise them and you want to do them harm.”

Another topic of Lipstadt’s testimony was the “great replacement theory,” a phrase used by more extremist right-wingers not only in the United States, but also in Europe. Lipstadt defined the phrase as: “Jews control other nonwhites to destroy society that have been predominately white, European. If you [fear] the nonwhite and believe they are doing bad things, blame the Jews for it. The message is the Jews are at fault.”

Lipstadt was cross examined by Cantwell, one of the defendants. “There’s no such thing as an innocent anti-Semitic joke?” he asked, suggesting that the terms Lipstadt deemed anti-Semitic actually were examples of humor. “If somebody was going to make a joke about the Jewish people, would the Holocaust be an easy target?”

“I find it hard to imagine using a genocide, which killed 6 million people, irrespective of their religion, their identity, their nationality, as a topic of jokes,” Lipstadt replied.

The case is titled Sines v. Kessler.

Sines is Elizabeth Sines, a 2019 graduate of the University of Virginia, who witnessed the march and the car that drove into counter-protesters. In 2018, she told the Virginia Law Weekly that she joined the case as a plaintiff because “I never want anything like this to happen again. No one should have to go through what the residents of Charlottesville have gone through this past year. I joined the lawsuit because black lives matter, because antisemitism is on the rise around the world and cannot be left unchecked, and because white supremacy is a disease. White supremacy will not go away by itself.”

Kessler is Jason Kessler, one of the “Unite the Right” rally organizers, a University of Virginia graduate with a history of white nationalist activity. Also on trial is another University of Virginia alum, neo-Nazi Richard B. Spencer. The defendants’ attorneys have argued that any violence was the result of self-defense.

A year after the Charlottesville rally, Geoff Schmelkin, who then was chair of Congregation Beth Israel’s security committee [and is the author’s nephew] told the AJT: “Some of the images that stick with me are frightening: weapons, fights, people injured, running and crying. Other images are inspiring: interfaith services, volunteer medics, people standing together. As a Jew, one image is particularly emblematic. We left the sanctuary after Saturday morning services and entered the social hall to make Kiddush and hold an oneg. Without the music of our prayers reverberating in the sanctuary, it was quieter, and for the first time I could hear the thumping of the police helicopter overhead. Word spread that Nazis were outside of the synagogue. I looked out the window and saw their armed mob at the edge of our courtyard. It is a chilling image that I hope I never see again.”

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