Protesting Hate Speech at UT-Knoxville
OpinionStanding Up to Neo-Nazis

Protesting Hate Speech at UT-Knoxville

When a white supremacist came to the University of Tennessee, hundreds stood in the cold and rain to protest.

Rabbi Erin Boxt

Rabbi Erin Boxt is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Knoxville, Tenn.

The Traditionalist Worker Party doesn’t hide its Nazi aspirations on its website.
The Traditionalist Worker Party doesn’t hide its Nazi aspirations on its website.

My 12-year-old daughter, Carlie, and I joined hundreds of others to protest the lecture of a well-known anti-Semitic white supremacist, Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party, Saturday, Feb. 17, on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

One core part of my rabbinate is the concept of v’ahavta lereiacha kamocha, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This quote may sound familiar, as it comes from Leviticus 19:18.

I have always tried to live my life by this important ideal. I was raised to treat everyone with respect and love, so I expect to be treated the same by everyone else. When I heard that a member of the TWP was coming to the University of Tennessee campus, I jumped to action.

After a meeting with Vice Chancellor for Communications Ryan Robinson and about 15 professors, I was encouraged and challenged at the same time. I was encouraged because it was clear the university would not accept or support any kind of hate speech. I was challenged because, with the First Amendment ensuring free speech, I knew there was a lot of work to do to educate students and protest the TWP hate speech.

I took these responsibilities personally. As a leader in the Jewish community, I knew I needed to act. As a father, I wanted to make my daughters and son proud of me.

One of my congregants, a professor at the university, asked me a simple question. She wondered whether anyone had reached out to Heimbach and invited him to have a conversation. Perhaps he had never met a Jewish person before, she said.

She was challenging me to see what I perhaps had not seen: the humanity of someone who despises or hates me. While I was intent on educating the students at the University of Tennessee and was set on teaching my children right from wrong, was I not seeing that those on the other side are humans too?

I had to think about that a bit. You see, I believe it is OK to detest the ideas of another person; however, it is not right to detest the other person. We must find a way to love them, looking beyond the hate speech. So after some deep reflection, I decided to reach out to Heimbach. Unfortunately, I did not hear back from him or the TWP.

When I decided to ask my daughter to join me in the protest, I was sure this was the right thing to do. And, yes, I am glad she joined me. I believe it was a learning experience for her and for me. This was her second protest: She joined me at the Atlanta airport in January 2017 to protest a proposed travel ban.

But this was different. This was someone coming to our town, to our home, and preaching hatred against not just “the other,” but against us. So it was personal.

While I wanted her to learn, I did not want to put her in any danger or for her to feel unsafe at any time.

After parking at Temple Beth El, Carlie and I, along with our friend Stacy Beyer, walked to the university campus and found where the protest was stationed. When we arrived at the location, we were greeted with a heavily guarded security checkpoint. We emptied our pockets, were checked for weapons and then were allowed to cross to the protest area.

What we saw was a sectioned-off area with local and state police stationed every 3 to 5 feet. We were surrounded, and we were protected. We were there to protest peacefully while being protected.

We stood in the cold and rain for several hours. Across the street and about half a block away in a parking garage, about 30 members of the TWP, including Heimbach, gathered. There was intense anticipation from the protesters as we anxiously awaited our opportunity to loudly and clearly protest their hate speech and ideology.

After about 30 minutes, a much larger group of students (probably around 200) marched in from the opposite direction. Armed with signs and bullhorns, the students made their presence known, even if from afar. They wound up gathering across the street from us about half a block away in the other direction from the TWP crowd.

Once the TWP group started to cross the bridge to the building where they were meeting, both protest groups raised their voices as we chanted against the hate of the TWP.

“We will win,” “Hate speech is not free speech” and “You are not wanted here” were a few of the chants. After another hour, the rain picked up, and it was time to go home.

The TWP was still meeting, but the group across the street was getting a bit rowdy, and my daughter became a little nervous and scared.

On our way back to our car, we passed four or five protesters who were being arrested for stationing themselves in the middle of the street. One of these brave souls was singing “Shalom Aleichem” (“Peace be upon you”). Stacy and I stopped and sang with her.

She looked at us with a smile and tears streaming down her face as she felt the connection with us. At that point my daughter, no doubt intimated by the overwhelming presence of police and loud protesters, said she wanted to go home.

I am very proud of my 12-year-old daughter and her desire to live in a better world, a world in which all of us can truly be equals. She has only one voice, but a strong one.

Standing up against those who hate us and in support of others is important to me, my family and my congregation. It is about loving your neighbor — no matter who your neighbor is.

Rabbi Erin Boxt, who formerly served at Temple Kol Emeth, is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Knoxville.

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