The heartbreaking tragedy in Charlottesville, VA captivated the nation and bared the soul of the alt-right and its defenders. Jews rightly feel vulnerable following the vitriol and violence of the "Unite the Right" rally, which left three people dead and many others wounded. The fear we feel helps us empathize with other targeted minorities, and our moral obligation following these heinous events is to unify in nonviolent resistance against hate groups and those who give them safe harbor.
If you’re like me, you’ve been glued to the news since last Shabbat about the horrendous events in Charlottesville, VA. Most profound have been the personal stories and eyewitness accounts of that fearful weekend.
My brother, Joshua, his wife and two-year-old daughter with him, nervously stationed at home a mile from the University of Virginia campus.
My friend Emily, perched atop a wall across the street from torch-bearing neo-Nazis, forced to flee by approaching men shouting, “look at the Jew!”
Another friend, Leah, seeking to help in some small way, collecting trash left forgotten in the grass by Klansmen and those who resisted them.
As many of you know, my wife and I met as students at the University of Virginia.
We love Charlottesville and have many fond memories of the years we spent there. Dear friends and family still live there, and when we later moved to New York City, still we could think of no other place we’d want to be married.
In fact, on one of our wedding planning trips, we pretended to be Charlottesville tourists. We visited all the hotspots we’d taken for granted as undergraduate students so we could see the town through more enchanted eyes. On that trip, we took this picture of the back of UVA’s Rotunda--
—which displays an enormous statue of Thomas Jefferson atop the enigmatic mark of one of UVA’s most philanthropic secret societies.
As you know, that’s the same place where this happened.
Neo-Nazis and Klansmen, shedding their masks in a world they no longer fear, ignited Charlottesville in a blaze of fury sparked by hatred and ethnic pride.
The so-called “Unite the Right” rally was ostensibly about protecting a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Monuments such as this one—though regarded by some today merely as testaments to local history or reminders of intense if misplaced bravery—were erected in their own time largely to intimidate African Americans. In many ways, the taint of chattel slavery cannot be purged from shrines memorializing the Confederacy.
Indeed, this particular statue was gifted to the city of Charlottesville by Paul Goodloe McIntire in 1924, around the same time that McIntire also dedicated land for a “public park and play ground for the white people of the City of Charlottesville.” The statue was commissioned in 1917 and was part of a widespread movement throughout the South to fortify racial segregation. Many of those who marched in protest last weekend have still not given up on the Confederacy’s so-called “lost cause,” committed to an ideology of White supremacy and blood nationalism.
But this rally was not only about the legacy of Robert E. Lee. The extremists who flocked to Charlottesville did so under the banner of the so-called “alt-right,” a term coined by University of Virginia alum Richard Spencer but having very little to do with any actual “right wing” of American politics. At the heart of the alt-right ideology, as analysts from the left and from the actual right have both noted, is a pernicious and persistent anti-Semitism.
Adherents of the “alt-right” regularly rehearse dangerous lies and stereotypes about Jews. They deny and deride the Holocaust, and they mock and threaten Jews and Jewish institutions. Anti-Semitism is inseparable from the alt-right, explaining the torrent of Jew-hatred witnessed last weekend.
Take the experience of Congregation Beth Israel, Charlottesville’s only synagogue. The congregation’s president, Alan Zimmerman, shared his account of Saturday’s events on the Reform movement’s website.
I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard … during morning services. …
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. …
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There's the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. …
When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups. …
Soon, we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue. I sat with one of our rabbis and wondered whether we should go back to the temple to protect the building. … Fortunately, it was just talk – but we had already … [removed] our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises. …
[This is 2017 in the United States of America.]
Tom Gutherz, the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel and the rabbi who officiated at our wedding, said he had “never witnessed anti-Semitism as overt as this.” Rabbi Mordecai Liebling, with whom I have had the honor to engage in social justice activism in the past, agreed. He said in an interview, “I’ve been going to demonstrations for literally 50 years and have never seen the level of chaos and hatred that I saw today.”
Jews in Charlottesville are afraid. Indeed, Jews around the world are afraid. Our Kansas City community knows the taste of this fear all too well, a fear that admits of our smallness and vulnerability. We are hated by angry and violent people whose ideas and ideologies echo through the highest halls of American government. With cemeteries, synagogues, and seminaries defiled and defaced, we wonder for the first time in a generation: are we truly safe in this land we call home?
Many of us know the sting of these fears. Perhaps because of the attack on our own community, perhaps sharpened by the events in Charlottesville, we Jews feel in today’s world much more vulnerable than we expected to. It is a sobering and quieting state of mind.
But it also gives us insight into the experience of so many of our neighbors. We Jews, most of us light-skinned, receive many of the unseen benefits reserved for White people in America. We, by and large, have dodged the bullets both physical and figurative aimed at other minorities. Our fear helps us empathize—indeed, it requires us to empathize—with others who are threatened with violence. If there is any tikkun, any redemptive act of repair, that can emerge from the carnage and brutality of Charlottesville, let it be that we renew our understanding of and alliance with minorities under siege in today’s America.
Black Americans are routinely targeted by policies and strategies designed to strip them of their freedom. They are disenfranchised and imprisoned in perpetuation of a system that has consistently and oppressively sought to benefit from black labor.
Muslim Americans endure society’s distrust and disgust, held responsible for the acts of madmen. They are falsely and libelously accused of subscribing to a scandalous religion and are denied a seat at the table of American democracy.
Women of all backgrounds and colors are assaulted on a daily basis through unchecked sexism, disproportionate and shamefully dispassionate representation, and attacks on their own freedom of choice.
Transgender men and women and queer folk across the gender spectrum face discrimination based only on their own understanding of who they are, and transgender children in particular face routine humiliation at the hands of those who refuse to accept them.
Immigrants from around the world and especially those with Spanish or Arabic as their mother tongue struggle to find acceptance in a country that refuses to admit that there’s more than one way to be American.
The alt-right hates all these groups and Jews right along with them. That’s why the only way to prevail will be as allies with one another. We are all vulnerable separately, each group in its own way and with its own history. And yet, in peaceful collaboration and nonviolent resistance, a coalition of understanding and engagement among these diverse groups can achieve wonders none of us could manage alone. It is up to us, each of us individually and all of us as a group, to build meaningful relationships with people of other targeted minorities. As we bridge the gaps between us, we can form a united front that stands effectively against the defenders of White nationalism, whether they live in Kansas City, in Charlottesville, or in Washington, D.C.
This week is the third Shabbat of consolation following Tisha B’Av, our national day of mourning that warns us against the dangers of baseless hatred. Each Shabbat between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah is paired with a passage of comfort from the prophecies of Isaiah. We read this week of a hope standing strong in the storm, a vision of redemption not totally eclipsed by converging darkness.
Isa 54:11 O unhappy, storm-tossed one who is uncomforted,
Behold, I will set your stones in fair colors
And lay your foundations with sapphires. …
14 You shall be safe from oppression
And shall have no fear;
From ruin, and it shall not come near you. …
17 No weapon formed against you
And every tongue that contends with you at law
You shall defeat.
Such is the lot of the servants of the Eternal,
Such their triumph through Me.
Isaiah assures us that we are not fools to yearn for peace, just as our tradition insists that we be the instruments of its forging. As the Psalmist affirms, “Hope for the Eternal. Be strong and courageous; and hope for the Eternal” (Psalm 27:14).
May we in this period of reflection and in the new year looming ahead summon our courage. May we have the strength needed to resist the forces that would seek to tear us down. And may our friendships flourish and our partnerships grow with allies across the religious and political spectrum as we unite together into a steadfast community of hope.
 The phrasing of this (well-crafted!) sentence is taken from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/nazis-racism-charlottesville/536928/
 On the alt-right’s views on women, see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/25/the-alt-right-isnt-just-about-white-supremacy-its-about-white-male-supremacy/?utm_term=.072ba58708aa.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”