Charlottesville: Reflections from a Jewish Leader and Former Ambassador

Responding to: Anti-Semitism in Charlottesville

By: David Saperstein

September 13, 2017

Nazis in America are not new. Rallies of American Nazis and Hitler's supporters took place in the years leading up to World War II. In 1978, American Nazis chose the location of their march to be Skokie, Illinois, the city with the largest percentage of Holocaust survivors in America.

While American Jews have suffered anti-Semitic harassment and even tragic violence, that Saturday morning in Charlottesville marks the first time in American history that armed, self-proclaimed Nazis gathered publicly to intimidate a synagogue at worship, sending a chilling resonance through Jews everywhere. Of course, for the African-American community, this was far from the first time armed white supremacists had threatened their community. 

For over two years beginning in January 2015, I travelled the globe, on behalf of the United States, to meet with religious communities (almost always minorities) facing discrimination or persecution. I engaged on their behalf, and on behalf of our American commitment to the value of religious freedom for all, with ministries of justice, security, and foreign affairs, committees on religious affairs, and, occasionally, heads of state. Some were eager to work with us to improve human rights and religious freedom and were pleased to have U.S. support. 

Tragically, too many pushed back. One thread of that pushback was to challenge the United States’ authority on this matter, citing America’s infringement upon human rights, civil rights, and religious freedom. Such pushback intensified with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, his inflammatory verbal attacks on political opponents, Muslims, refugees, and undocumented Latino immigrants.

Anyone who works in the field of human rights trying to assert universal norms can tell you how events such as Charlottesville hurt the efforts of American diplomats and NGOs. There are answers: We have a free press that exposes these problems, allowing us to confront them. We still have a strong rule of law and a free court system that can offer protections to the weak and vulnerable. We have free elections that allow us to elect officials who are committed to addressing these problems. And we have a vibrant civil society and non-profit sector able to speak out, to protest, to organize for change.

But make no mistake. Events like Charlottesville weaken our leverage on repressive regimes. We hear: “What right do you have to criticize our standards of human rights, civil rights, and religious tolerance when your own minorities face gross violations of their rights, when your police are part of the problem, and when your president seems to condemn intolerance only when he is pressured to do so?" 

For the Jewish community, the scene of armed Nazis was absolutely stunning. Even some of us who had painfully defended the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie (and then actively supported the much larger counter-demonstration there) felt Charlottesville had crossed yet another line. This scene was due to the confluence of several factors: the growth of right-wing extremism, the escalation of hate crimes against various minorities, and the passage of “open carry” laws. Many of the racist protesters were armed with loaded guns in the streets across from the synagogue, shouting, “Jews will not replace us,” thereby boldly threatening the community of Charlottesville.

Throughout much of our long history Jews have been perhaps the quintessential victims of religious intolerance, persecution, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing, banished or forced to flee from land to land seeking safety and freedom. Where such protections were granted, Jewish communities flourished, adding immensely to the cultural, social, and economic capital of those nations. 

Nowhere was this truer than America. The United States was special–giving the Jews more rights, more freedoms, more opportunities than they had ever known in diaspora life. After World War II, the question arose repeatedly: Could it happen again? Could it happen here in the United States? Could the day come when Jews could be threatened publicly and our nation’s leaders would not move to confront and delegitimize it? Most believed it could not, even though with alarm we have watched anti-Semitism rear its ugly head in democratic countries in Europe in ways we never expected to see again after the Holocaust. We see attacks on Jewish synagogues, schools, and cultural centers. We see Jews harassed on the street for wearing a yarmulke. We see growing restrictions from secular governments on religious practices such as ritual kosher slaughtering and male circumcision. 

But America is different. Extremist groups have had little following here because political, cultural, and civil society, along with religious leaders, consistently act to denounce such messages. When acts of hate occur, people have stood united against hate. Whenever hate groups gather, interfaith and intergroup coalitions of decency respond, often in numbers that dwarf the purveyors of hate. In the main, disgust and condemnation was the response of people across America to Charlottesville. 

But the leader of this country, given the opportunity to delegitimize the white supremacists and anti-Semites gathered in Charlottesville, to stand with the victims of hate, failed the test. President Trump’s delay in denouncing neo-Nazism, his suggestion of moral equivalency between armed extremists and counter-protestors, was deeply dismaying to most Americans including the Jewish community. This led the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist denominations to publish a letter explaining why they could not in good faith facilitate the annual call between the president and American rabbis for the Jewish high holy days. This tradition involved around 1,000 rabbis from all streams in a call each year with the president. The following is an excerpt from the rabbinic statement:

"We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year. 

The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. 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."

I write this while in Israel, where I have come for a Supreme Court hearing that is a vital part of our effort to achieve equal rights for Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel. Almost every government official, every reporter, every personal friend with whom I have spoken here has asked about Charlottesville and President Trump. What also troubles them, as it did many American Jews, was a similar inexcusable delay in condemning the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. The prime minister has generally been forceful and eloquent on this issue, not hesitating to chastise prime ministers, presidents, and foreign ministers for indifference to the contemporary lessons of the Holocaust. But he was inexplicably silent for nearly three days after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville.

The Jewish community sincerely hopes the president will learn from this and reflect with consistency and passion in his denunciation of racism and delegitimization of bigotry. He might keep in mind, as a model, the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, speaking immediately before Dr. Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington. Rabbi Prinz spoke in terms as relevant to Charlottesville as they were to America in 1963, as this brief excerpt testifies:

“America must not be a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not [just] for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.”

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Charlottesville: Reflections from a Jewish Leader and Former Ambassador