As the neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched in rows of two past Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va., last Saturday morning carrying swastika and Confederate flags, shouting the Nazi greeting “Sieg Hiel” and giving the Nazi salute, the synagogue’s president stood at the front door in disbelief.
“If I could have filmed these guys marching past our synagogue, you would have thought it was an historical film,” said the president, Alan Zimmerman. “It was so surreal.”
Not long after they left, Zimmerman said he heard “lots of noise and shouting” coming from Emancipation Park a block away. The violence that erupted in the park was between several hundred members of far-right extremist groups — including white supremacists, Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis — and hundreds of counter-demonstrators. Several people were injured in the melee, and a 32-year-old woman was killed and another 19 were injured when a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist from Ohio ran into a crowd of counter-demonstrators.
What the alt-right had billed as a “summer of hate” gathering may have been just a precursor of things to come.
“They believe that Charlottesville is the start of the white civil rights movement and they plan to continue organizing white supremacist rallies throughout the country and Charlottesville,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“The rise of anti-Semitic incidents and the number of white supremacists who are taking to the streets are both indicators that hate is becoming mainstream,” he added.
Equally troubling is the fact that more and more people are carrying firearms in Virginia. Although Virginia’s Constitution permits the carrying of weapons, a longtime Jewish leader in Charlottesville, Russ Linden, observed that “in the past two years — perhaps emboldened by the election last fall — we have seen more people walking around with guns. There are now storeowners here who have asked people with guns to stay out.”
Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, a Reconstructionist rabbi and founding board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, was at Emancipation Park Saturday and witnessed some of what happened along with two rabbinical students from Hebrew College in Boston. They had responded to a call for clergy of all faiths to congregate in Charlottesville in the hope of staving off violence.
“They were definitely looking for a fight,” Rabbi Liebling said of the far-right protestors. “You don’t come wearing mouth guards unless you’re looking for a fight. They also had on helmets and carried shields — they were spoiling for a fight. … It is very important for there to be a visible Jewish presence at these things. Jews need to see rabbis as moral leaders standing up for love and God and what is right in moments like this. These people were ready to kill people they hated. As it says in the Torah, ‘Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.’”
One of the rabbinical students, Bryan Mann, 28, of Boston said that as he linked arms with about 50 other clergy on the perimeter of the park, some of the neo-Nazis went around the police barricades and “marched around us banging on their shields, and one said ‘Look, it’s a bunch of kikes.’ Some chanted ‘blood and soil’ [a Nazi rallying cry], and ‘You will not replace us.’ Some thought they heard, `Jews will not replace us.’”
Rabbi Liebling, 68, who said he has attended countless anti-war and other demonstrations since the 1960s, said he has “never seen the kind of hatred” he saw Saturday.
“At least the KKK wore hoods,” he said. “These people are not ashamed to show their faces. We have seen a deterioration in the moral fiber of this country, and I think it is directly traceable to President [Donald] Trump because he has made it acceptable to spew that kind of hatred in public; he has eroded the decency of this country.”
The other rabbinical student at the park, Salem Pearce, 38, of Manhattan said the clergy witnessed “several minor brawls” before “the local clergy that had organized us said we had better leave” fearing the violence would soon get out of hand.
“I think [Trump’s] election has emboldened a lot of hate in this country that we have not seen in a long time,” she said. “I think the president bears a lot of responsibility for what has happened. We have seen an increase in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents and the terrible hate on display in Charlottesville.”
Segal said the ADL believes “public discourse has an impact on what happens on the ground.”
He explained that the “divisiveness that was a hallmark” of much of the recent presidential campaign played a role in the increase in anti-Semitic incidents since 2016, which that year saw 1,266 acts targeting Jews and Jewish institutions — a 34 percent increase over the prior year. And he said there has been an 86 percent spike in such incidents during the first three months of this year.
(About 150 of those incidents involved bomb threats to Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions between Jan. 9 and March 23 that are believed to have been made by an 18-year-old Israeli-American Jew who was arrested in Israel.)
For example, Segal said, graffiti found on a wall in Denver in May 2016 read, “Kill the Jews, Vote for Trump.”
Among the most recent anti-Semitic incidents was the hurling of a rock through a large pane of glass at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston Monday evening. Police arrested a 17-year-old after he was tackled by witnesses as he tried to flee. Just six weeks ago, a 21-year-old with a history of mental illness was arrested for breaking a different window in the exhibit.
Segal stressed that there is “very little indication” that white supremacists have been responsible for the rise in anti-Semitic incidents.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, told reporters in a conference call that the violence in Charlottesville was “unconscionable and shocking” and that he believes this is “a pivotal moment” for this country to begin to seriously address this problem.
“We desperately need leadership,” he said. “What we didn’t hear in the hours after the event was strong criticism from the president. Today [Monday] he finally said racism is evil and he mentioned the groups that showed up and spoke of the tragedy. But statements are not sufficient at this step of the game. We need to move from words to action — real action.” (On Tuesday, President Trump doubled down on his initial statement, telling reporters at Trump Tower that there is “blame on both sides” and lashing out at the “alt-left,” which he said was “very, very violent” in the confrontations in Charlottesville.)
“We should use fire and fury to eradicate these groups,” Greenblatt said, using Trump’s words in his warning to North Korea not to launch an attack against the U.S.
Without naming names, Greenblatt said the president needs to fire those on his staff who “have ties to those who condone bigotry of any kind.” And he said it is “time for other leaders to engage — Congress, governors, mayors, city councils — everyone who has a responsibility to speak about hate. … Freedom of expression is not freedom for violence or to slander someone.”
In addition, he called for the president to appoint a White House director to focus on hate, who would help to protect Jews on college campuses. He also called for a White House liaison to the Jewish community and a special envoy on anti-Semitism to deal with the rise of the extreme right in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. And he said the Department of Education should prioritize anti-bias and anti-hate content in schools nationwide, that federal law enforcement officers should be trained to deal with hate and extremists, and that funding should be restored for the Countering Violent Extremism program.
Meanwhile, many of Charlottesville’s 2,500 Jews are still trying to process what their community of 45,000 experienced last weekend — not only Saturday’s deadly confrontations but also the experience of watching about 500 white supremacists and neo-Nazis march through the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia carrying lit torches and chanting “blood and soil” in a scene reminiscent of Nazi rallies in Germany 80 years ago.
About 50 congregants came to the city’s only synagogue Monday evening to try to make sense of it all. Rabbi Thomas Gutherz, senior rabbi of the congregation that was founded in 1882 and conducts both Reform and Conservative Sabbath services, told The Jewish Week that “100 percent” of the far-right activists who staged the protests and violence last weekend were from out of town.
He said his congregation held Friday night and Saturday morning services despite the tumult outside, but started the Saturday morning service one-hour earlier, at 9 a.m., in order to be completed by 11 to enable people to leave before the white supremacist rally got started at noon.
“We had a good turnout,” Rabbi Gutherz said. “People wanted to be together and be in a place to pray. … It is a scary sight to see neo-Nazis and haters like that marching through town with different flags. You knew they were hateful people and many were armed with semi-automatic rifles of all kinds. There was a lot of tension.”
While there might have been some congregants who opted not to attend services last weekend out of fear, Rabbi Gutherz said, the congregation “definitely made a point to have services.”
“We wanted to affirm our connection to one another and not be intimidated by these people,” he said. “My message that morning was to look beyond the violent language and the hate messages they were putting forward and that we reject it 100 percent. That is not the language we use. We see ourselves as bound to one another — all races and groups — and our conversation should be about finding the common good and a way forward that is good for all of us.”
Zimmerman, the congregation’s president, said the congregation hired an armed security guard to stand outside the synagogue during the Saturday morning service. He said it was only the second time the congregation had hired a security guard. The first was on July 8 when the Ku Klux Klan held a march through the city.
“There were 40 of them from North Carolina and 1,500 local people from the community surrounded them and yelled, `Racists go home’ and drowned them out,” he recalled.
Zimmerman noted that both that march and the far-right demonstration last weekend were to protest the city’s plans to remove a statute of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous general during the Civil War, from Emancipation Park. Had the Confederacy won the war, it would have meant the continuation of slavery.
“They were saying that in removing the statute, you are trying to erase white history,” Zimmerman said. “Until this weekend, I understood both perspectives. Now, I think it has to go. I have a better understanding of how some of our African-American citizens view that statute.”
Zimmerman said he stayed with the security guard at the synagogue’s entrance during the Friday night and Saturday services. They were joined by a man in his 50s who “took it upon himself to stand there with us.”
“He is a doctor — he’s not Jewish — but he said he thought it was the right thing to do. He stood out there all during services on Friday night and Saturday. I thought that if those guys are going to be out there, I believe as Jews we have to be willing to stand up for ourselves.”