When neo-Nazis and their supporters announced that they would march in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, August 12, as part of the second “Unite the Right” rally, I immediately recalled what happened the previous year at their rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
When this same group had marched in Charlottesville, it led to the murder of Heather Heyer, a counterprotester.
In addition to this horrific tragedy, as a Jew and as a rabbi, I was shaken by the fact that heavily armed supporters of Nazi ideology had marched in uniforms past Congregation Beth Israel of Charlottesville and intimidated the Jews who had been attending Shabbat services and had to leave through a back entrance.
Members of that congregation spoke of the fear they felt as they watched anti-Semites standing outside their synagogue with fully loaded automatic weapons. That Shabbat afternoon, the Charlottesville synagogue had to close its synagogue doors out of fears for the safety of its members.
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How could it be that in present-day America there is a synagogue where it is too dangerous to hold services? How could it be that there weren’t thousands upon thousands marching against the anti-Semites and supporting the good people of Charlottesville?
The answer is that we were all unprepared in Charlottesville. We didn’t take seriously enough the threat of this bigoted group.
So when I heard that they were coming to my own city, Washington, D.C., I felt a personal responsibility to not take their presence lightly.
Many other local rabbis, myself included, communicated our concerns in advance to elected officials and the local police. Our synagogue even made a point of taking extra security measures.
This past Shabbat I made an announcement from the pulpit that I would attend the neo-Nazi rally as a counter demonstrator, and invited the congregation to join me and hold signs that read, “Nazis=Evil” and “There are no good Nazis.”
I traveled to their rally with members of our congregation and a shofar in order to blast the sacred sound and drown out their evil words. When the other counter- demonstrators saw that we brought a shofar they quickly ushered us to the front of the crowd so we could be heard loud and clear.
In the end, their rally of hatred was a complete failure. Hardly any of them showed up, the numbers of the neo-Nazis were dwarfed by counter-protesters, and at the first sight of rain they dispersed out of fear of melting like their spiritual ancestor, the Wicked Witch.
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But that’s not an indication that we overreacted to their presence and gave them unwarranted attention. Just the opposite. It’s a sign that these Nazi lovers are cowards who were afraid to stand up to the many people who organized against them in D.C.
Actually, we have to be careful not to be over-confident. Washington, D.C. was never an advantageous location for them to hold a rally. True, they probably loved the image of standing in front of the White House dressed in their racist garb. But at the same time their supporters in this diverse city are almost nonexistent. In addition, Washington D.C.’s strict gun laws and experienced police force certainly minimized the physical threat that they may have posed.
But let’s be clear: the threat that they still pose to the Jewish community and other vulnerable targets of theirs is very real. It is especially dangerous in smaller Jewish communities that don’t have the resources of a major city like Washington.
I saw firsthand the way this group shook up and scared the Jews of Charlottesville. I remember meeting with the rabbi of the synagogue soon after the neo-Nazis marched and seeing how seriously he took their presence. I also remember seeing how the so-called alt-right threatened the Jews of Whitefish, Montana. I remember traveling to Whitefish and hearing firsthand from local Jews about physical threats and online intimidation.
In short, the threat is real and the danger is growing.
We should not misinterpret their recent setback as an indication that they are incapable of doing damage. Instead, we should take is as a sign that only when we prepare properly and take them seriously will we negate their efforts.
And yes, they and we are looking right at you President Trump. Despite what you said, there were no “fine people” that marched with the Nazi lovers in Charlottesville. Your words matter. You must speak clearly and denounce them for what they are: bigots and racists who have no place in America. Any equivocation on this matter will only fuel and inspire these hateful people. It is your responsibility to speak up and denounce them. Failure to do so may lead to horrific consequences.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiHerzfeld