Commentary  Remembering Blaze Bernstein

Murder by anti-Semitism and homophobia

Content warning: graphic descriptions of anti-Semitism, Nazism, homophobia, violence

Writing gives me my voice, which is why my stories are in a constant state of flux. Even if I don’t change a word or a single letter, they move with me down corridors of memory, through seas of emotion, and into worlds both real and imaginary. As I change, they change, but even after days or months or years I can still find a version of myself (a time traveler from the past, present, or future) sitting there in the text and waiting to speak to me,” — an excerpt from Blaze Bernstein’s university admission essay.

Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania, was Jewish and queer. He was an artist, a scientist, and a writer. He used his voice to call out injustice, criticising his university for setting up empty task forces to avoid expending resources on tackling (let alone acknowledging) sexual assault on campus. His mother, in response to Bernstein’s relentless pursuit of justice on campus, was quoted saying, “Culturally for us, as Jewish people, I feel, it’s thought [that] you do things like that, you stand up for what you believe in. […] He was kind of raised to be an activist.” He was just as proudly gay as he was Jewish, embracing both identities wholeheartedly. I cannot do his legacy justice, and neither can any letter I write bring light to his corridors of memory, through my own seas of emotion. As someone who, like Bernstein, embodies similar identities and values of Jewishness, queerness, and a compulsion to speak out, I feel that I must try, if not to honour his name, then to call for justice.

As someone who, like Bernstein, embodies similar identities and values of Jewishness, queerness, and a compulsion to speak out, I feel that I must try, if not to honour his name, then to call for justice.

Blaze Bernstein was Jewish and queer. And Blaze Bernstein was murdered because he was Jewish and queer. However, such phrasing makes his Jewishness and queerness seem responsible for his murder, rather than ascribing blame to the white supremacist revival of Nazism in America, or even more broadly, the very values that America was built on. Supremacy of a white, Christian, male, straight, land-owning class — these are America’s roots. The U.S. often positions itself as the antithesis to the core tenets of Nazism, and many of its patriots define themselves as combatants against Nazi ideology. However, the Manifest Destiny of settler colonialism in Christian, white-supremacist hegemony, especially one that is still obvious in the United States today, allows for young, white, cishet, non-Jewish men to embrace ideas of Nazism. Neo-Nazism is viewed as a way to enhance America’s structural integrity, and (to quote Donald Trump), “make America great again,” in hopes of returning to a white America which never existed, one free of Indigenous peoples and home to puritanical cleansing.

Samuel Woodward, may his name be smeared, is the prime suspect for Bernstein’s cold-blooded murder. He publicly identified as a Neo-Nazi, and a ‘national socialist,’ and according to three of his friends, was part of Atomwaffen Division. Atomwaffen Division, which means ‘atomic weapons division’ in German, is an American neo-Nazi group that espouses violence against those who are queer, Jewish, Muslim, Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Colour. The group draws from a pool of “alt-right” white supremacist young men, but considers the mainstream “alt-right” to not be ‘militant enough’ to achieve the goal of spreading white-identity politics to establish a “Fourth Reich,” or second coming of Nazi German government. It is believed that Woodward participated in Atomwaffen’s violent, race-war military training camps, and learned to employ violence to target minority groups. Atomwaffen believes that non-white people pose an existential threat to the purity of the white race, and that Jewish people are carefully orchestrating the infiltration and subsequent downfall of white people. They regard Charles Manson and Hitler as heroes, stating that “[t]he failure of democracy and capitalism has given way to the Jewish oligarchies and the globalist bankers resulting the cultural and racial displacement of the white race.”

Police still haven’t labelled Bernstein’s murder a hate crime. His murderer was a Neo-Nazi. Bernstein was queer and Jewish. We have to call this what it is: a murder motivated by white supremacy, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. By refusing to ascribe blame, we are only making it easier for white supremacists to pursue their terrorist agendas without consequence.

We also cannot be tempted to distance Blaze Bernstein’s murder from the systems in which we exist, and from which many of us benefit. It is easy to write Bernstein’s killer off as a lone wolf, or as a radical from a nigh-nonexistent group. It is true that the Atomwaffen Division is small, and it is fringe, even for the “alt-right.” But minorities are being targeted and murdered regularly. Thirty-eight unarmed Black men were shot in the U.S. in 2015. Indigenous women in Canada are seven times more likely than other women to be victims of a homicide.

We have to call this what it is: a murder motivated by white supremacy, homophobia, and anti-Semitism.

While it’s disconcerting to know that murderous neo-Nazi groups are still active in America, it’s even harder to look at the systems we take for granted and examine their responsibility in the deaths of marginalized individuals on Turtle Island (North America). Blaze Bernstein’s murder proves that bigotry is rampant, and that anti-Semitism and homophobia are pervasive tools of white supremacy. His murder compels us to look at other murders, especially those of non-white, non-wealthy folks; to fight against Nazism, punch back, and combat white supremacy driven hate crimes in all of their forms.

This article was written in honour of Hannah Mae Weiss, zichronah lebrachah.