April 22, 2024
Click here to read this on the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

Six years ago, a group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists orchestrated a violent attack on an anti-racism protest in Charlottesville, Va. held as a counter to their own rally. They planned for weeks, down to what to wear and even what to bring to lunch and how they would claim self-defense when one of them drove down a packed street slamming into protesters.  

At the time of the horrific event that left one dead and several injured, Amy Spitalnick was the communications director at the Office of the New York State Attorney General. Soon after, she got an opportunity to work for Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights group that helped fund a successful $26 million lawsuit against the organizers of the white nationalist rally. 

“I didn’t know how anyone could say no to that let alone someone (like) me as a granddaughter of survivors of the Holocaust,” Spitalnick said during a recent visit to Milwaukee as keynote speaker during the Edie Adelman Political Awareness Lecture, an annual event held by the Women’s Philanthropy of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.  

I was “someone who really thought we were past that in this society. In the last six, seven years they have been emboldened in ways that none of us could have expected,” she added.   

Now, Spitalnick is the CEO of Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a leading national voice against antisemitism and hate in the U.S. 

“What happened in Charlottesville that weekend wasn’t an isolated incident but really a harbinger of the broader extremism and hate that we’ve seen across this country in recent years,” she said.  

Spitalnick said especially after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, antisemitism “is coming from all directions” and  being normalized through political and social rhetoric.  

“What’s unique about antisemitism is that it also operates as insidious, pernicious conspiracy theory related to ideas of Jewish control and power,” Spitalnick said. “Antisemitism just doesn’t threaten the Jewish community …. but it also threatens each and every one of us because this conspiracy theory sows distrust in our democracy and institutions.” 

The event was the brainchild of Edie Adelman, who was an influential leader in the city’s Jewish community. This year’s lecture  was originally planned to address threats to democracy.  

“But after Oct. 7, we felt it was imperative to acknowledge the extremely concerning increase in antisemitism we are seeing,” said Carrie Steinberger, a Milwaukee Jewish Federation board member. 

Spitalnick said over time, those who espouse antisemitic ideas have been more emboldened.  

“The celebration … [and] denial of what happened on Oct. 7 is one of the main manifestations of this,” she said. “The ways that it has continued in different forms over the last five and a half months, is not just heartbreaking, but also deeply dangerous.” 

The key, she said, is not to fall prey to deniers of Oct. 7 and to get lost in their arguments and debates.  

“Rather, really focus our energies on the allies, potential allies and partners who are in that movable middle and open to having constructive conversations,” Spitalnick said. “What we can do as a Jewish community is to recognize that there is nuance and complexity there.” 

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