Let’s play Jeopardy. The $200 clue: Everything!
The correct answer: What’s wrong with replacement theory?
If the phrase “replacement theory” hasn’t entered your consciousness, it’s time to learn about it. Replacement theory is the guiding light of a white supremacist movement that believes “normal” Americans (i.e. themselves) are in danger of being replaced by non-whites. Their goal is to negate everyone who threatens them… even if there have been no threats whatsoever.
These people – mostly white males in their late teens and early 20s – have bought into a skewed world-view that is spreading like wildfire. The idea that they may be replaced has made them fear for their way of life. They have been radicalized by the white supremacist movement, which has led them to do such hateful things as hang signs from highway overpasses that proclaim, “Hitler was right.” They are the ones who drive hours from home to murder Blacks who are innocently shopping at a grocery store. They are the ones who randomly attack elderly Asian women on city streets.
According to Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, “[Replacement theory] is the most mass-violence-inspiring idea in white supremacist circles right now.”
We should not be lulled into thinking that these attacks are the actions of so-called lone wolves. That thinking lets the replacement theorists off the hook, and allows the rest of us to comfort ourselves in the mistaken belief that the attackers are a crazy few.
They are many, and they’re not going away. Not until we decide to counter their rhetoric with the truth, and shout it from the rooftops, loudly and repeatedly. Because the truth about replacement theory is that it has no basis in reality. Add up all the Jews, Asians, Blacks, Latinx, and Muslims in America, and together we remain a small minority in a mostly White nation.
The white supremacists’ message is a weapon wielded by fear-mongers to spread hatred and prejudice. They are succeeding with young impressionable boys – I have no other word for an 18-year-old – because no one is competing with their message. At least, not loudly enough.
The lies that the white supremacists spread are insidious. They are like a poison that enters into the bloodstream and attacks the brain, eating away at a person’s humanity and replacing it with irrational fear and hatred.
Their fear has created a corresponding fear in me, my co-religionists, and minorities across the nation. Like many other places of worship, my synagogue employs armed guards for protection. This despite the fact that we have never experienced a direct threat. The sad truth is that I don’t need to be threatened to know that there are people who would harm me simply because of my heritage and the way I worship.
We know what’s wrong with replacement theory. We know who it has poisoned, and how it is being used against minorities. But we don’t seem to know what to do about it. The result is that we don’t do much of anything. When the inevitable happens we shake our heads, pray for the dead, condemn the murderers, write a letter to the editor. Those of us who are clergy give sermons and decry the violence. We tell each other to act, yet we aren’t exactly sure what to do.
The Talmud has a teaching; shtika k’hoda’ah dumia, “silence is assent.” The message is clear – we must not remain silent if we disagree. But although speaking out is valuable, it can be insufficient.
The Talmud also offers this: v’lo medrash hu hekarayleh ha’ma’aseh, “it is not what one says; rather what one does.”
What can we do? We can speak out; loudly, forcefully, and repeatedly in tangible ways. Not only to our friends and family, but to everyone. If you are a member of a minority, speak out on behalf of other minorities as well as your own. Write letters to the editor. Post your opinion on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube. Write blog posts.
Write to every politician you can think of. Write letters of support to the churches, synagogues, and mosques that are attacked. Send a letter to the Tops Grocery Story in Buffalo where this week’s shooting took place (1275 Jefferson Ave, Buffalo, NY 14208) as well as to the Buffalo News (One News Plaza P.O. Box 100 Buffalo, NY 14204). Send emails and snail mail.
And when you’ve written all the letters and postcards and emails, it’s time to get involved and show up. When there’s a community forum or a public meeting or a march, take the time to attend. Sign up to speak at school board meetings and county commissioner meetings and any other local forum you can find.
Share a positive message of support for the entire community, regardless of race, religion or creed. Tell the world that Jews and immigrants and gay people are the same as everyone else. Speak your truth, whatever that may be. Don’t let yourself be silenced because other people are shouting.
Will it make a difference? I don’t know. I wish I could say that we’ll wake up one morning and discover that overnight the world has changed for the better, but I’m old and experienced enough to know that’s not true.
But what if you make a tiny difference, like the air that’s stirred by the movement of a butterfly’s wing? What if your voice convinces just one young person to turn in a different direction? Encourages just one parent to let his child read a book that the state wants to ban? You’ll never know what effect you’ve had on the lives of others. But you might know that you feel better by getting involved in the affairs of your community.
Two millenia ago a Jewish sage said, “The day is short and the work is plentiful… it is not your duty to finish the work [of repairing the world] but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” It’s time for us to get to work.
A version of this essay appeared on the opinion page of the Sarasota Herald Tribune 5/19/22