I began my rabbinical career in Charlottesville, Virginia. From 1988 to 1991 I was the director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center (today called the Brody Jewish Center) at the University of Virginia. The Charlottesville and U.Va. Jewish communities were a lot smaller than they are now. Besides Hillel there was one other Jewish organization, Congregation Beth Israel, and until shortly before I arrived it did not have a rabbi. My Hillel predecessor, Rabbi Dan Alexander, left Hillel to become the rabbi of Beth Israel and served there for 28 years until he retired last year. Although Beth Israel is Reform, it has Conservative services on Shabbat morning and I attended those on Saturdays when there were no services at Hillel. I also played on the Beth Israel softball team.
When rioting broke out in Charlottesville and then three people died as a result, Keleigh and I were out of the country. But as I read and learn about what happened, and as I listen to the President’s remarks, I grow more and more concerned.
Let’s be very clear here. On Friday night Nazis marched through the U.Va. “Grounds” (U.Va. uses its own terminology and has “Grounds” rather than a “Campus”) carrying torches, chanting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”
On Saturday, three Nazi militiamen dressed in fatigues stood across from the synagogue carrying AR-15 rifles. The leadership of the synagogue, fearing trouble, asked the city for police protection which was denied. (In fairness, it should be noted that the whole City of Charlottesville has only 127 police officers and they were understandably stretched thin.) So the synagogue hired an armed security guard and removed the Torah scrolls for safekeeping. On Saturday morning, after services, congregants left the building through the back door so they wouldn’t be seen by the Nazi protestors.
Let’s be very clear about what happened. There can be no moral equivalency and no equivocation. The President said that what happened was the fault of both sides. Were there anti-Nazi protesters who acted violently? Yes, there were. But the overwhelming majority were there to silently oppose racism and support equal rights for those of all races, religions, orientations, etc. Clergy from all over the country, including a very close friend who is a Methodist minister from Richmond, locked arms to keep the Nazis away from the counter-protesters. And yet, they were met with violence, and one person was killed -- as were two state police officers in a helicopter crash nearby.
The President said on Tuesday that while there were bad people on both sides, there were also some “very fine people” on both sides. No. Very fine people do not march with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. This was not a rally about a statue, although the argument over the Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of Lee Park to Emancipation Park was the cause celebre to which the Nazis and Klansmen hitched themselves. I absolutely agree that good and decent people were on both sides of the November election and that good and decent people can disagree about whether Confederate monuments should be allowed to remain or not.
But this rally wasn’t called “Save the Statue.” It was called “Unite the Right” and the posters and advertisements for the rally had Nazi, KKK, and anti-Jewish imagery. If you march in a Nazi - KKK rally, you are not a “fine person.” I often get invited to sign a statement or participate in activities initiated by the National Action Network. Very often I agree with the letter or activity but I will not participate in anything that the National Action Network does because it is headed by Rev. Al Sharpton, and as far as I’m concerned that makes it a treif organization. If Sharpton is treif, how much more so the Klan and the Nazis?
This really isn’t about politics. Condemnation of Nazis and the Klan shouldn’t be a political issue and it shouldn’t be difficult. As I was writing this, I received a press release from the Republican Jewish Coalition which I think sums things up very nicely:
The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are dangerous anti-Semites. There are no good Nazis and no good members of the Klan. Thankfully, in modern America, the KKK and Nazis are small fringe groups that have never been welcome in the GOP. We join with our political and religious brethren in calling upon President Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and antisemitism. As representatives of the Party whose founder, Abraham Lincoln, broke the shackles of slavery, and of an organization with many members who experienced firsthand the inhumanity of the Nazi Holocaust, we state unequivocally our rejection of these hatemongers - you can expect no less from the Republican Jewish Coalition.