I had never heard of the Proud Boys. In fact, I hadn’t even tuned in to the debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Sept. 29. “I can’t watch,” I insisted, so my husband Matt appeased me by securing a pair of headphones over his ears as he streamed the event on his computer.
But not knowing began to feel worse than knowing. I periodically peered over Matt’s shoulder, sabotaging the brief attempt at self-preservation. When debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to publicly condemn white supremacy, Trump hedged. Wallace pressed, asking for a yes or no. Trump refused to answer. Then, came the moment. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” he declared.
My first reaction was confusion. I typed “Proud Boys” into my search engine for more information. There it was, listed by the Anti-Defamation League as a right-wing extremist group known to be “violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic.” They marched alongside neo-Nazis in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The Southern Poverty Law Center listed one chilling quote from an alt-right podcast, in which an organization member claimed that “ … like 90% [of the Proud Boys] would tell you something along the lines of ‘Hitler was right. Gas the Jews.’”
My second reaction — disbelief (or perhaps naiveté) — led me to the dictionary to make sure I correctly understood the terms. Merriam-Webster noted that “stand back” meant “taking a couple of steps back,” but torpedoed any hope of ambiguity by defining “stand by” as “getting ready or prepared.”
Just shy of the two-year mark of the massacre at the Tree of Life building and the president of the United States not only refused to condemn white nationalism, but seemingly issued a call to arms. At least, that’s what the Proud Boys thought. Some of them promptly incorporated the presidentially coined slogan into their logo and celebrated their newfound legitimacy with shout-outs on social media. Within a day, they were selling T-shirts and reporting a spike in new recruits.
My third reaction was fear. I wanted to grab my kids and hide them somewhere safe, though I wasn’t sure where that might be. My memories took a tragic path littered with Trump’s dangerous words, from the “very fine people” at the far-right rally in Charlottesville to the man who stalked my children’s Jewish day school later that week, to desecrated cemeteries and the proliferation of swastikas, to a Saturday morning in October.
I remembered the panic of calling my brother, then president of Tree of Life, again and again to see if he was alive. I remembered each face of the 11 members of my community murdered that day. I remembered that I am and will always be Other.
I’ve read many rationales about Trump’s comments. I’ve read a Trump campaign assertion that the public misunderstood; that Trump didn’t know of the Proud Boys; that he merely used the wrong preposition, which might be the most surreally believable theory, if it weren’t for Trump’s well-recorded history of similar comments.
I’ve read assertions that the far left is equally repugnant. Does it matter? When did the freedom for all people to be treated equal regardless of their race, sex or religion become a partisan issue? On the debate stage, President Trump could have clarified his position to all violent extremist groups, and to the world, with a simple declarative statement. All he needed to say was, “Yes, I condemn and denounce white supremacy.”
Instead, he invited them to load their guns. Our community knows all too painfully what it’s like to feel those guns pointed at us, and for the trigger to be pulled.
It took the president two days to say, “I condemn all white supremacists,” but only after public outcry.
We will never feel safe by hiding, only by negating the need to hide. I pray that Jews will vote in prodigious numbers this election, but what more can we do?
This past Yom Kippur, my friend, Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife, reminded me of the long game. She planned a day of conversation and dialogue — the first of many — centered on anti-racism, pointing out the common struggle of all minorities and emphasizing that our freedom is connected to the freedom of other marginalized groups.
Her comments helped me later to refocus my fear, and allow my memories to take a different trajectory. I remembered the voices that may not be as visible or as powerful as the president’s, but which will, I hope, matter more in the end.
I remembered Wasi Mohammed, then director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, standing before us at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall on Oct. 28, vowing to protect his Jewish brothers and sisters.
I remembered the gifts — thousands of them — given to the Tree of Life congregation from all over the world, and how the Jews of Pittsburgh donated thousands of dollars for the victims of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
I remembered all the hours and work my friend Marnie Fienberg, daughter-in-law of victim Joyce Fienberg, poured into creating 2forSeder, an initiative created to forge interfaith connections and tolerance.
I remembered how the survivors of the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre traveled to Pittsburgh from Charleston, South Carolina, numerous times in support. I remembered the trip I took with my brother to visit Mother Emanuel in Charleston this past February, keen to show our support in turn.
If we work harder to join hands with our fellow oppressed, perhaps our unity will turn fear to action, and action to justice.
That is the feeling of hope. PJC
Molly Pascal is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.