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Beth Chai

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Read former Charlottesville Mayor's address to Beth Chai

October 11, 2019

 

Michael Signer talked about the aftermath of the violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville and his work to combat extremism at Beth Chai's Yom Kippur services. 

 

His prepared remarks:

 

Thank you for having me here today.

It’s an honor to be with you. I’ve heard about Beth Chai for many years from my aunt

Deborah and Uncle Mark. Both my mom Marj and dad Bob are here as well.

 

I was the mayor of Charlottesville from 2016 to 2018, during the Unite the Right rally.

 

Not only that, I was the Jewish mayor. And you might have some questions about what that

was like.

 

I appreciate how Yom Kippur is a time not only of atonement, but of taking stock of the

past year, as we look forward to the next. I find that it’s a powerful annual moment to consider

my perspective on the biggest questions: my purpose, the meaning of life, the course of human

history, and whether it’s OK to have a cup of coffee while I’m fasting.

 

On this Yom Kippur, I’d like to talk with you about optimism.

 

Just after college, I remember my grandfather Herb Signer—Deborah and Bob’s

dad—telling me, with some mystification, how “everything becomes its opposite.”

He was talking about schemes of government, like the once-bright idea of concentrated

public housing towers, becoming their opposite. But he was talking about a fundamental

paradox of being human. So many of our best-laid plans can become warped beyond

recognition, can spawn their inverse.

 

Before attending law school, I completed a Ph.D. in political theory at Berkeley, where I

wrote my doctoral dissertation about another instance of my grandfather’s observation:

democracy’s longstanding battle with demagogues. The fact that, over time, many

democracies have ended up becoming tyrannies instead, at the hands of mass leaders who

preyed on our prejudices. It happened again and again in the ancient world, so much that it

became the major topic of Plato’s The Republic—how to design a government that would avoid

the instability of the prejudices.

 

It happened in the French Revolution, where the happy visions of liberty, equality, and

fraternity, became, in a few short months, the guillotine, the revolution eating its young.

 

Our founding fathers were obsessed with the issue. The word “demagogue” appears in

the first and last Federalist Papers. We have our checks and balances, and the culture of

constitutionalism, and institutions like the federal judiciary and the Electoral College, in large

part to try and stop demagogues from taking over the country.

 

And it happened in Weimar Germany, the hopeful, post World War I liberal constitution

torn apart by a demagogue who rose up from within the system and swiftly toppled it once he

became chancellor.

 

As a young boy, I was horrified by the fact that my ancestors would have been

murdered by Hitler for no fault of their own. As I grew older, I began to understand another

dimension of the Holocaust. That it was part of a dark pattern in human history, where

demagogues prey on our prejudices in their quest for power.

 

In response to whether the United States would be a monarchy or a republic, Benjamin

Franklin said, “It’s a republic, if you can keep it.” James Madison once wrote, The people who are the authors of this blessing must also be its guardians

 

The lesson of history is that checks and balances are not actually a democracy’s best

defense against a demagogue. It’s not about the courts, or the free press. It’s about the people

themselves, and their resolve to protect themselves from those who would prey on them.

 

Defiance, determination, and resilience are the heart of a healthy democracy. Democracy is

not a statue on a pedestal. It’s a living and breathing organism. Just as it’s constantly under

attack from the diseases it’s carried since the beginning, like the viruses of anti-Semitism and of

demagoguery, it can respond and adapt.

 

As agonizing as Charlottesville was, and Poway, Christchurch, Norway, Charleston, San

Bernardino, and, of course, Pittsburgh were, I also believe they were stress tests, and proving

grounds. “Agony,” after all, is an ancient Greek idea. In the tragedies of Euripides, you can’t

ignore struggle. You can’t escape it. You instead must fight through it as you move forward,

and it stays with you like a scar from battle.

 

Think of how World War II gave birth to FDR’s Four Freedoms, to NATO, to the UN To

the Declaration on Human Rights. Remember how we as a nation came through horrific Jim

Crow laws to ultimately repudiate segregation. Or how in conquering McCarthyism, we

generated a whole new commitment to intellectual freedom.

 

I also see this personally.

 

People ask what it was like to be the Jewish mayor of the city when the Unite the Right

rally happened, when white supremacists carried tiki torches on the UVA campus, chanting

 

 

“Jews will not replace us,” when a neo-Nazi who weaponized a car killed Heather Heyer and

injured 19 others.

 

It was hard. I received hate mail at my house. I got a voicemail on my phone with an

audio clip of Hitler ranting. Someone sent me a photo of Robert E. Lee pushing the green

button on a gas chamber with my face photo-shopped into it. I had to talk with the FBI about

whether any of the threatening attacks online constituted actual threats for the purpose of law

enforcement.

 

My wife and I visited Israel for the second time in 2013, during the 65 th anniversary of

the state. I tell you sincerely that the experience of seeing those sabras at this triumphant

time, watching as a dynamic democracy flourished in a land once dedicated to its destruction,

repudiating once and for all that hateful stereotype of passive Jewish weakness—it gave me the

strength, the backbone, to stand tall in the face of vicious attempts to intimidate me and a

progressive city committed to undoing a racist past.

 

But none of this was easy. Among the challenges:

 

To navigate a complex and confusing governmental structure that did not serve the

people well in this crisis. We have a city manager form of government in Charlottesville and

around Virginia, where the city manager is, by law, the head of government and the emergency

manager of the city. The mayor has no role, is not even allowed one, in policing or the

permitting of events. But it was almost impossible to convey that to people, particularly when

things went wrong, when both state and local police failed to stop people from beating other

people up in our streets.

 

To explain to a city, not just once or twice, but during several white supremacist attacks,

the Supreme Court cases that mandate that governments facilitate free speech events, unless

there is clear evidence of specific planned criminal acts (or incitement to them). It was

miserable to go through cases like Nazis v. Skokie to an agonized population.

 

To lead a revolt from within the City Council to overrule both our city manager and

police chief, who wanted to stick with a plan to hold the rally in downtown Charlottesville, and

try and force the rally to be held at another location, far from the Robert E. Lee statue. It was

rough to hire an outside law firm to relocate the rally, to be sued by the Virginia ACLU, and to

lose in federal court on the eve of the rally.

 

To have to speak up for the city after a terrorist attack occurred—after James Fields

drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19

others—and as a group of white supremacists beat a young African-American man in a parking

garage.

 

To try and provide a mechanism for accountability after both state and local police

inexplicably did not interfere in open street-fighting on the streets. It was daunting to

commission an independent investigation, which took three months to produce, and which was

critical toward many parties—myself included. But it was essential.

 

To continue serving the city in the months after these events, when the wounds were

still so raw.

 

On Yom Kippur, we all have occasion to think about our mistakes. Tapping our chests

isn’t literally painful, but it’s psychologically tender. This year, I’ll yet again have the

opportunity to reflect on mistakes I made during these events. In the spirit of the holiday, I’ll

tell you about just one. Businesses were really hurting after the event, with some taking out

short-term loans to make payroll. A few days afterward, a giant “LOVE” sign was put on the

Downtown Mall by the Virginia Tourism Board. Our staff asked if I would take a picture in front

of it. I agreed.

 

Right before, spontaneously, I jumped—and tweeted the photo along with the line that

Charlottesville was back on our feet and stronger than ever. That was too much, too soon, out

of synch with the city’s wounds and mood.

 

These were all hard experiences.

 

But I’ve also come to understand that they were part of public service and leadership

itself in a democracy, in a time like the one we are experiencing right now. They were the

wages of fighting as hard as we could, on the terms of our rule of law and the form of

government we had, to protect the people and the freedom of speech.

 

There’s the world as we want it to be, one of pure ideals and abstract problems and

leadership challenges that you can solve in a textbook.

 

And then there’s the real world. I can’t get away with talking only about my

grandfather. My grandmother—Deborah and Bob’s mother Esther—worked as a secretary at

the New School in New York, where the great German-Jewish émigré and intellectual Hannah

Arendt taught. I remember Grandma telling me about the “great woman” in her office.

After the Holocaust and World War II, Arendt was troubled by the widespread

temptation to turn away from government and politics entirely. Even in 1968, over twenty

years after the end of World War II, she observed that “more and more people in the countries

of the Western world, which since the decline of the ancient world has regarded freedom from

politics as one of the basic freedoms, make use of this freedom and have retreated from the

world and their obligations within it.”

 

She argued for the opposite: for turning back to the world, with all of its contradictions,

meanness, faults, and even evil—for embracing the whole of it and plunging into it. That was

the duty of the human being as a social, and therefore a political, animal. She called this amor

mundi—love of the world. She urged us to get involved, to get our hands dirty with realpolitik,

not despite of, but because of, the cost.

 

That’s how I see my time as the mayor of Charlottesville.

 

That’s how I see democracy itself. Democracy is rough and tumble. It’s not a controlled

bureaucracy. For better and for worse, to get involved, you have to work with what comes to

you. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to take punches. You have to stand up for

what’s right and what’s true—in the face of fake news, vicious adversaries, and yes, the

disruptive and distorting effects of social media.

 

And there were also rewards. As brutal as the onslaughts online were, I know they

came because of how strongly we were standing against hate. I know that one meaning of

Charlottesville will be to reveal for the nation the violence at the heart of the alt-right

movement, to cause millions of people to recoil from this sordid and hateful reality and to say

this movement must not be allowed to mainstream itself any further.

 

As wrenching as the pain in the city was, directed toward me and other officials, I know

we were there for that purpose: to serve as foils, even scapegoats, for an agonized people

seeking a target for their catharsis, after unspeakable trauma.

 

And as painful as the mistakes were, I knew they could serve some purpose—for other

governments to figure out how to handle this violent time better.

 

It’s a frightening time. In their recent best-selling book When Democracies Die, political

scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the United States is seeing the nascent

emergence of several anti-democratic norms: (1) the rejection of the democratic rules of the

game, (2) the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, (3) the toleration or

encouragement of violence, and (4) a willingness to promote curtailing the civil liberties of

opponents, including the media.

 

Democracy itself is under assault from the most dangerous, most ancient demons that

have been unleashed—naked prejudice, self-interest, and rage. I saw that in the 50,000 person

city of Charlottesville. And I see it on the broad canvas of the 300 million person United States

of America.

 

So what’s the alternative? Do we give up? What do we need to do now, if our country

has become a place where people feel free to chant “Jews will not replace us” on college

campuses? If we see a rise in radical domestic terrorism, radicalized online?

 

For me, it means we must only fight harder for democratic norms, ideals, and

institutions. For the basic ideas of democracy, of liberty and equality, of public policy based on

facts, of institutions that allow us to deliberate among each other rather than shout each other

down or punch each other out,

 

The stakes are incredibly high. We will be hurt in the process. We will be scarred. But

we will also see the power of our values more vividly than before. We will understand why we

have to fight, and how hard.

 

But I sincerely believe we will come out of this moment a better democracy than we

were before. We will emerge more committed to pluralism, to anti-racism, to religious

freedom, to the fight against terrorism, and to justice, than ever before.

 

I will give you an example. Soon after the Unite the Right rally, the City joined with

Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection to successfully

sue a dozen militia groups to prevent them from invading the city again, by dusting off a two

century-old provision in Virginia’s Constitution making militias illegal. This law was put in place

in the 18 th century, when we were still worried about whether private armies would threaten

the legitimate government. We’ve not needed those laws for 200 years. But we need them

now. And they are serving their purpose.

 

These are all the reasons why in the months after the Unite the Right rally I worked to

create Communities Overcoming Extremism: the After Charlottesville Project—to create more

capacity among both public and private sector leaders for the work against extremism, by

creating alliances and developing best practices.

 

The coalition reveals the bipartisan commitment to defend our democracy. We have

the Anti-Defamation League and the Charles Koch Institute, the Ford Foundation and the Fetzer

Institute, the Aspen Society, New America, Defending Democracy Together and Georgetown

University.

 

We held a leadership summit at Washington University in St. Louis last November,

featuring impressive national and local leaders. One panel included Andy Berke, the Jewish

mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which saw a terrorist attack in 2015 and over 130 bias

incidents in recent years.

 

Mayor Berke recently invited me to Chattanooga to help him launch a new Council

Against Hate that convened community leaders in seven different areas—including local

businesses, the local university, the police, and the public schools—to develop specific action

plans to put a quickly-changing city on the offense against extremism.

 

We held a private sector leadership summit in San Francisco this summer, including

companies like Paypal, Patreon, Pinterest, Airbnb, and Eventbrite, all working hard on getting

extremism off their platforms and who want to work together.

 

You can see more information about the project at www.overcomingextremism.org.

 

Yes, it is a frightening time. But there are many signs of hope. As Martin Luther King,

Jr., said, “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

 

To go back to the paradox my grandfather saw, things always threaten to become their

opposite—but they don’t have to. That’s our job. Stopping the vicious cycle.

Forgive a comment on current events. But I see the impeachment battle happening

right now through this lens. On the one hand, the darkest forces that democracy can

unleash—prejudices, abuses of power, the naked will to power, and lies. On the other

hand—deliberation, the facts, the rule of law, putting nation above self and party and politics.

This will be—already is—a clash unlike any we have seen in the modern political era, for

it features those two faces of the democratic experiment. It will be brutal. It will be agonizing.

 

But I am optimistic about what it will yield. I am optimistic that, through the most searing

stress tests, that the fundamental principles of constitutional democracy will prevail and,

perhaps, become even stronger.

 

The reason Charlottesville being a learning moment matters so much is what it says

about democracy as a project of humanity. If the human condition is improvable, it the moral

arc of the universe can be bent upward, then we do have something to work for beyond our

self-interest or gratification.

 

That’s why nationalism is so dangerous. It’s not whether America is great. It’s whether

we can make the human condition great. I am not cynical about our capacity to improve

through self-government. I don’t believe might makes right or that the best performer should

win the day. That’s why learning from Charlottesville matters so much.

 

And, that is why I’m optimistic that Charlottesville will help open a new chapter for a

more hopeful, inclusive, and just democracy.

 

Thank you again for having me, and may you all have an easy fast.

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