A frowning Nazi with bloodshot eyes, clad in olive drab military fatigues, a red swastika armband and a T-shirt proclaiming “I’m With Alt-Right” gives a Hitler salute next to the matzo balls and sweet potato latkes on a North Shore diner’s High Holidays catering menu.
The little cartoon fascist is an important message, according to Greg Morelli, owner of Max’s Deli in Highland Park.
Morelli, who co-owns the diner with his brother, says he put the controversial caricature on the menu because he felt he couldn’t remain silent in the wake of a deadly gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month. A 32-year-old woman was killed and more than a dozen people injured when a man, authorities say, drove a car into a crowd of people there to protest against the supremacists.
“When you put Nazi insignia somewhere it’s instantaneously emotional and dangerous,” Morelli said, adding that while he feels afraid in today’s political climate, he’s more afraid of not speaking up.
“I’m a Jew. I cannot pretend, in this movement, that I’m not afraid—but I’m also afraid of being afraid,” he said. “I’m not going to go quietly on a train.”
The 49-year-old small business owner said, for now, the controversial images are only on the website menu—not on the actual menus in the restaurant, because that would be too “bombastic.”
The other image on the site is of a cartoon Sasquatch complete with flies lingering around its shaggy head, donning a T-shirt that reads “I’m With Alt-Left.” Like the Sasquatch, Morelli said, the “Alt-Left” is a “fantasy”—one invented by President Donald Trump. He said the president, who blamed “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, uses “cloaked language” that condones Nazism and white supremacy that has “sent people to the ovens” in the past.
“There are two sides to a story," the president said at Trump Tower in Manhattan earlier this month. "I thought what took place [in Charlottesville] was a horrible moment for the country, but there are two sides to a story."
Trump, in a speech at a heated rally held in Phoenix last week, revisited his comments and condemnation of Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists. He told audience members “our movement is about love.” Pulling a piece of paper form his suitcoat pocket, he recited his earlier remarks on Charlottesville, though critics were quick to point out he failed to include he originally blamed “many sides” for the violence—including the “alt-left.”
The American Jewish Committee, an advocacy organization promoting human rights, says it’s important to vocalize against hate groups.
"The resurgence of neo-Nazis with their hateful rhetoric, violence, and act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville chillingly reminds us of the need to remain vigilant and vocal in countering hate," AJC Chicago Director Amy Stoken said in a statement. "But it also serves as a reminder that our democracy derives its strength from our diversity. If one religious or racial group is threatened, all are endangered. The overwhelming response against hate after Charlottesville shows that America cannot be defined by the extremists who use violence and hate to divide us. Rather, we must use this as an opportunity to face the challenges that confront our country so we can move forward together.”
Following Trump's comments, some rabbis announced plans to boycott an annual Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur conference call with the White House, a tradition that began under former President Barack Obama.
In a joint statement through the Central Conference of American Rabbis, multiple Jewish organizations said the boycott was due to Trump's lack of "moral leadership" after Charlottesville.
"The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia," the statement reads. "Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels."
Morelli said the president deals with "alt-right" members like Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently departed White House aide who returned to conservative news website Breitbart. Morelli says the "alt-right" is dangerous to people like him because they are aligned with Nazis.
“There was one side to blame, the side that wears the swastika, the side that calls themselves the KKK, the side that calls themselves the 'alt-right',” Morelli said.
In Illinois alone, there are more than 30 hate groups operating today, according to anti-extremist organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
Asked if there was a specific reason the cartoonish Nazi appears on a High Holidays catering menu, Morelli said it was because Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana are about atonement and learning from your mistakes.
“I just couldn’t help but feel like, if this president could learn anything from the High Holidays, it's that it’s OK to be wrong,” he said. “You’re making me uncomfortable, man, you’re supposed to be the president.”
Morelli said he hopes that people realize that racism and anti-Semitism aren’t a thing of the past.
“Whenever someone’s quiet, as a group, people get away with terrible things,” he said.