On Saturday, February 17, my 12-year-old daughter, Carlie and I joined with hundreds of others to protest the lecture of a well-known anti-Semitic white supremacist, Matthew Heimbach of the Traditional Workers’ Party on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tn. One core part of my rabbinate is the concept of V’ahavtah Lereiacha Kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This quote may sound familiar as it comes from the Biblical book of Leviticus: 19:18. I have always tried to live my life by this very important ideal. I was raised to treat everyone with respect and love, so I expect to be treated the same from everyone else. When I heard that a member of the TWP would come to the University of Tennessee campus, I jumped to action.
After attending a meeting with Vice Chancellor for Communications Ryan Robinson and about 15 University of Tennessee professors, I was encouraged and challenged at the same time. I was encouraged because it was clear the University of Tennessee would not accept or support any kind of hate speech. I was challenged because with the 1st Amendment of the Constitution allowing free speech, I knew there was a lot of work to do to educate students and protest against the hate speech of the TWP. I took these responsibilities very personally. As a leader in the Jewish community, I knew I needed to act. And, as a father, I wanted to make sure to make my daughters and son proud of me.
One of my congregants, a professor at the University of Tennessee, asked me a simple question. She wondered if anyone had reached out to Matthew Heimbach and invited him to have a conversation. Perhaps he had never met a Jewish person before, she remarked. 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; while I 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 Matthew Heimbach. Unfortunately, though, 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 very 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 against 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 (where I serve as the Senior Rabbi), Carlie and I, along with our friend Stacy Beyer walked to the UT Campus and found the section where the protest was stationed. When we arrived at the protest location, we were greeted with a heavily guarded security check point. We emptied our pockets, were checked for weapons and then allowed to cross into the protest area. What we saw was a sectioned off area with armed local and state police stationed every 3-5 feet. We were surrounded…we were protected. We were there to protest peacefully while being protected at the same time.
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 their speaker, Matthew Heimbach, gathered. There was intense anticipation from the protesters as we anxiously awaited our opportunity to protest loudly and clearly against their hate speech and ideology. After about 30 minutes, another much larger group (probably around 200 or so) of students appeared, marching 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 get to the building where they were meeting, both of the protest groups raised their voices even louder as we chanted against the hate of the TWP. “We will win…” “Hate speech is not free speech…” “You are not wanted here…” These were a few of the chants from our protest. After about another hour, the rain really began to pick up and it was time to go home. The TWP was still meeting, but the group across the street were getting a bit rowdy, and my daughter became a little nervous and scared.
On our way back to our car, we passed a group of 4 or 5 of the protestors 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 began to sing with her. She looked out at us with a smile and tears streaming down her face as she felt the connection between us. It was at that point that my daughter, no doubt intimated somewhat by the overwhelming presence of police and loud protestors, told me 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 for sure. Standing up against those that hate us and in support of others is something very important to me, my family and my congregation. It is about loving your neighbor – no matter who your neighbor is.