Jewish Groups Express Concern Over Fallout of Charlottesville Violence

NEW YORK -
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Police officers form a line ahead of protesters in Philadelphia Wednesday, at a march in response to a white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Jewish groups expressed concern over the potential effects of statements made by President Donald Trump regarding the violence in Charlottesville, which have been interpreted by many as creating a “moral equivalency” between white supremacist groups and the counter-protesters with whom they violently clashed over the past weekend.

After the president faced wide criticism for failing to condemn the extremist groups who organized the protest, he then issued a strong statement calling out white supremacists. But a day later at an impromptu press conference, he said that fault lay on “both sides.”

Moreover, the size and attention that the event, which put Nazi symbols and ideology on display, drew and especially its violent ending, was seen as a cause for alarm by leaders of several Jewish organizations.

“We seem to be at a very fragile moment, “Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia. “On a certain level there was violence that was instigated on both sides, but even if that’s the case, this was a rally organized by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups to promote racist and anti-Semitic philosophies, which is dismaying and frightening…For the Jewish community this is a wake-up call that there is a tremendous amount of hatred and danger for the Jewish People.”

He called the president’s most recent statements “a missed opportunity,” but said that “it’s hard to know” if in the long-term they would serve to legitimize or empower extremist groups.

“In general, it’s difficult to say if paying more attention to [white supremacists] is good or bad,” said Rabbi Zwiebel. “Will it just give them more reason to coalesce? On the other hand, when we see people shouting Nazi slogans in the streets, it seems clear that not responding at all and pretending they are not there will not make them go away.”

Orthodox Union president Rabbi Moshe Bane told Hamodia that irrespective of the president’s intentions, the effects of his statements have been troubling.

“I don’t know if [President Trump] meant to give these groups legitimacy, but that is certainly how [the groups] are taking it, which is a problem,” he said, pointing to how extremist voices have parsed the president’s statements and timing. “We don’t know where this will go, but Jews have learned from history that once society becomes unstable and dangerous movements break out, there is very little that can be done to control where they will go.”

Rabbi Bane said that it was important for the Jewish community to be “diligent and vocal” regarding the seeming ascendency of extremist groups, but not to overstate the level of threat.

“We are not boiling over with concern, but it is certainly significant,” he said. “Ignoring it would be irresponsible, but making it out to be more dominant and more of a rampant danger than it is could lead to even greater problems.”

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), issued a sharp statement directly addressing the president’s statements.

“The RCA joins with politicians of all parties, citizens of all political persuasions and people of all faiths calling on President Trump to understand the critical consequences of his words. We call on all the leaders of our country to denounce all groups who incite hate, bigotry and racism, while taking action and using language that will heal the terrible national wounds of Charlottesville.”

Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Hamodia that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have shown signs of feeling “emboldened” and that they have made statements in recent days taking the president’s words as “a window” for their ideology.”

“Their numbers have grown, but these things go in cycles, like everything else,” he said. “These are not the old Nazi and Klan groups; they are a much looser constellation, mostly tied through social media. For the most part, they do not have membership lists or hierarchies… it makes them more dangerous in a certain way.”