Rabbis and rabbinical students traveled from other parts of the U.S. to join counterprotesters at a large white supremacy rally in Charlottesville on Saturday.
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Some were confronted and taunted by white nationalists.
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The white supremacists “were chanting, ‘blood and soil,’ which is a classic Nazi slogan, and ‘you will not replace us,’” said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, a Reconstructionist rabbi and founding board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “I’ve been going to demonstrations for literally 50 years and have never seen the level of chaos and hatred that I saw today,” Liebling told Haaretz.
White supremacists, armed militia members and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia and a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the Civil War military leader of the South who defended the pro-slavery states. Lee has become a hero to white supremacists, who were protesting a plan to remove his statute during Saturday's “Unite the Right” march.
Bryan Mann, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, related that one white nationalist said, "Look at that bunch of kikes" as he walked past him. “I’ve never been called a kike in my life,” Mann said, still sounding shocked. “There were people in military uniforms with big guns getting in our faces a little bit, shouting at us,” he said. Mann traveled to Charlottesville with three friends who are connected with Moishe Kavod House, a Jewish social justice community in Boston.
Richard Spencer, a leader of the so-called "alt-right" white nationalist movement, planned to give a keynote address. Instead, violence broke out between the white nationalists and anti-fascist counterprotestors. The city declared a state of emergency, riot police were called in, a few arrests were made and the protestors were dispersed.
Local and visiting ministers and rabbis spent the morning linking arms in a line of about 100 people bordering one side of Emancipation Park, where the Robert E. Lee statue stands.
“We started outside First Baptist Church and marched two by two to Emancipation Park and met more clergy outside,” said Mann. “We linked arms forming a line. In front of us, scattered, were different white supremacist and militiamen. There were people with machine guns and military looking uniforms.”
“We were standing around the park trying to provide a moral witness presence,” said Liebling, who had come to Virginia from Philadelphia and wore a prayer shawl and kippa. He and other rabbis and rabbinical students left the area just before physical violence broke out. “Tensions were growing and growing and our leadership said it was time to leave,” he said.
On Friday night he and the other Jewish clergy participated in an interfaith gathering at a local church, which was so crowded that people had to be turned away. Local rabbis from Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform Charlottesville synagogue, stood at the front singing “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” ("The World Will Be Built With Love"). Written in 2001 by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, the song has recently become the unofficial anthem of the Jewish resistance movement.
“Almost all the militia, antifa [anti-fascists] and police were men, and very large men who were literally gunning for a fight,” said Salem Pearce, a congregational organizer for T’ruah and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. She stood at the end of the clergy line with a couple of other female clergy members. Militia members were carrying the same type of machine guns that Israeli soldiers carry, she said, but “this was more crazy than anything I’ve ever seen. ... I saw plenty of sticks, batons, other implements that could really hurt people. I felt very vulnerable.”
“We’re going to be back. We’re going to fight another day,” Spencer said in a video he posted later on Twitter. “With movements that change the world, they often start out like this. ... This was a great day, this was a propaganda victory.”
The rabbis and rabbinical students interviewed by Haaretz all said they felt it was their calling to go to Charlottesville.
“As a Jew it felt really important to do this for other Jews,” said Pearce. She wore a prayer shawl and kippa while standing in the line of clergy around the park. “A lot of Jews came up to me and said, ‘to see you doing this means so much.’ That made me feel really proud to be there.”
“As a rabbi, as a Jew, it’s very frightening to see this level of anger and hatred,” Liebling said. “It’s very important for Jews to be out here as a visible presence. So many people came up to me today, Jews, saying, ‘thank you for being here’ and ‘thank you for standing up.’ It’s really important for Jews to be visible in this space and stand up for love and for God and for democracy.”