Leaders of several Jewish organizations were slated to meet in New York Wednesday to begin discussing how best to respond to the white supremacist and neo-Nazi threats voiced earlier this month during demonstrations that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va.
The meeting was one of a torrent of actions taken by Jewish individuals and communal organizations in response to the rally and its aftermath. Jewish groups strategized collective action, rabbis discussed the events in sermons, the ADL teamed up with a mayors’ coalition to campaign against bigotry and Jewish pols rebuked the president, and, in some cases, called for him to be officially censured.
“We’re concerned that they will feel legitimized by the lack of resolve from government officials,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the voice of the American Jewish community on domestic and international affairs.
“We and other Jewish groups are coordinating behind the scenes to develop strategies about what we ought to do collectively and individually to counter the threat of white supremacy. We’re feeling the effects of living in a very polarized society in which [those on] the right become righter and [those on] the left become more leftist and anti-Semites are on both extremes. … We’re going to be asking ourselves what alliances need to be built with other societal and civic groups, what kind of public advocacy needs to take place, and — first and foremost — the nature of the threat,” said Bernstein, whose organization represents 125 Jewish community relations councils nationwide and 14 national organizations.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League and more than 200 U.S. mayors joined in a new 10-point initiative to fight extremism and bigotry. Among other things, the mayors pledged to use their bully pulpits to speak out against prejudice, prioritize anti-bias programs in schools, encourage residents to report hate crimes and ensure public safety while protecting free speech.
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists were allowed to march directly in front of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va., as Sabbath morning services were held Aug. 12. No police were visible as three members of unofficial militia, dressed in military fatigues and carrying semiautomatic weapons, stood across the street from the synagogue. They declined to say which groups they represented or why they were there.
The frightening scene and the violence that followed in Emancipation Park compelled four rabbis, including Rabbi Avi Weiss, the rabbi in residence at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-the Bayit, and Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington, D.C.’s Ohev Sholom Synagogue, to drive to the Virginia college town three days later.
“We met with the deputy city manager of Charlottesville and expressed to him our deep concern over the fact that no specific police protection was provided to the synagogue on Saturday morning,” Rabbi Herzfeld said. “They asked for protection and none was provided.”
He said he would be urging U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation to learn why no security assistance was given.
But also disconcerting to the New York Jewish community was the reaction of President Donald Trump to what had occurred in Charlottesville, as well as three local issues that led them to question just how much political influence the Jewish community has.
One concerned the Queens Museum’s decision — which was later reversed — to cancel the use of its building by Israel’s Mission to the United Nations for an historic commemoration. The building had formerly served as the General Assembly hall of the U.N. where, on Nov. 29, 1947, members approved the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.
The museum’s president said the museum did not hold “political events” and that she was concerned about feedback from “Palestinian friends of the museum.” The museum’s board president later reversed that decision — attributing the cancelation to a misunderstanding — but not before Jewish leaders and elected officials strongly objected.
“We were all appalled,” said Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. “It is unthinkable that she would pull out from Palestinian pressure. What gets me upset is that the Jewish public … is being slapped around with impunity.”
Michael Nussbaum, president of the Queens Jewish Community Council, agreed. “The Jewish community is under siege here and abroad,” he said.
Rabbi Schonfeld cited the vote of New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker against a bill that would restrict U.S. economic aid to the Palestinian Authority until it stops paying those guilty of violence against Israelis and Americans.
And he said he was upset that New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand withdrew her support of the proposed Israel Anti-Boycott Act that would make it illegal to support international boycotts of Israel. (Gillibrand explained that she favored rewriting the bill, which some see as unconstitutional.)
“Here in New York we have the largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel and if we do not react strongly, we will watch our influence as a Jewish bloc be taken away,” Rabbi Schonfeld said. “I’m extremely upset with the two senators — they have done something that would not have been thinkable a few years ago. They can go against the Jewish community and it will not affect them adversely — and that is frightening.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he found it “disturbing” that “the audience applauded when anti-Israel comments were made” during a Gillibrand town hall meeting in upstate New York.
“This is not the time to panic, but rather a time for planning and deliberation,” he said. “This is not just about the Jewish community, but certainly we have seen an intensification of anti-Israel activity, which is just another name for anti-Semitic activity. It should not be taken lightly.”
But it was the president’s comments in speaking about Charlottesville that created the most angst among many in the Jewish community. Shortly after the violence that led to the death of a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, by an alleged white supremacist, Trump referred to the neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan protests as an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
Three days later — a day after denouncing racism as “evil” and saying the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups are “repugnant” — Trump said protestors on the other side “came violently attacking the other group” of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
He added that along with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists were “some very fine people” who were there to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the general who commanded the Confederate Army.
But, as observers pointed out, the protestors never mentioned Lee, but, rather, were heard to chant, “Jews will not replace us,” shout the Nazi greeting “Sieg Heil,” give the Nazi salute and carry Nazi flags and torches through the University of Virginia campus.
Jewish leaders and elected officials were quick to denounce the president’s comments, which some also viewed as an attempt to make a moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis and those there to protest them.
In a sermon last Saturday, Rabbi Heidi Hoover of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn, told her congregation: “You cannot embrace Nazi ideology and be a good person. … That the head of our government will not condemn them unequivocally is worse. The president is bringing a curse on our land rather than a blessing.”
In an email to his congregation, Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center complained that “President Trump, instead of resoundingly condemning the hate groups, has instead elected to place blame all around — on many sides … [igniting] a week of fire and fury with his false moral equivalency arguments.”
Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim wrote to her congregants: “What happened last Shabbat was terrifying. Seeing Nazis marching with torches on American soil touches our deepest vulnerability, our collective trauma. Hearing the leader of our country refuse to take a stand against them … . If you are feeling afraid, please know that you are not alone.”
Political organizations also weighed in, with the Republican Jewish Coalition saying in a statement: “There are no good Nazis and no good members of the Klan. … We join with our political and religious brethren in calling upon President Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism.”
And in its first statement, the newly formed Jewish Democratic Council of America said it was speaking out against the president’s unprecedented rhetoric and hesitance to unequivocally and universally condemn neo-Nazis, white supremacists and racists, empowering and emboldening these groups.
The director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, said many of his members would like to see the president impeached, and that he had seen one poll in which 70 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of the country as a whole favored impeachment.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-Manhattan), who is calling for the president to be censured for his comments, sent a letter to him signed by 17 other Democratic Jewish members of Congress urging him to “consistently and unequivocally fight against racists and anti-Semites.”