White nationalists and neo-Nazis clash with counter-protesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia (Photo/JTA-Chip Somodevilla-Getty Images)
White nationalists and neo-Nazis clash with counter-protesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia (Photo/JTA-Chip Somodevilla-Getty Images)

Bay Area Jews differ over responses to upcoming white supremacist rallies

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Melanie Nathan sees shadows of Nazi Germany in the white supremacist rallies spreading across the United States, and says she and fellow Jews are “complicit” if they don’t fight back.

Nathan, executive director of the S.F.-based African Human Rights Coalition, is among many Bay Area Jews plotting a response to rallies scheduled for Aug. 26 in San Francisco and Aug. 27 in Berkeley.

“That’s what happened at the commencement of the Nazi regime — people were silent or too oppressed to speak,” Nathan said. “We have the luxury of not being too oppressed yet to fight it or speak against it. My main point is to confront the bigotry. Now’s the time. Whatever it takes, we have to be there.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley also plans to be among the counterprotesters. In a post on Facebook this week, he called on congregants and others to join in the “Bay Area Rally Against Hate” on Aug. 27 in Berkeley.

That’s the same day a demonstration, tabbed “No Marxism in America” in its Facebook posting but characterized as a white nationalist rally by Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, has been called for Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Park in front of old city hall. The “Rally Against Hate,” hosted by a group called Unite for Freedom from Right Wing Violence in the Bay Area as part of an Aug. 26-27 national initiative dubbed “Weekend of Solidarity Against Hate,” has been called for Addison and Oxford streets, in front of UC Berkeley’s crescent lawn three blocks away.

Arreguin told the Los Angeles Times this week that no one has approved the “No Marxism in America” rally, that no permit has been issued and that the city “is exploring all options” in terms of the rally.

Meanwhile, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is considering whether to let an event organized by a group called Patriot Prayer go forward Aug. 26 at Crissy Field in San Francisco.

Both rallies are scheduled to occur two weeks after a white nationalist “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia, which included Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis and led to violent clashes with counterprotesters. An Ohio man is charged with second-degree murder after he drove his car into counterprotesters, killing a 32-year- old woman.

Opinion is split among local Jewish activists and organizations as to the correct response to these rallies. While some are urging direct action, others who believe counterprotesting only plays into the white supremacists’ intention of instigating violence and generating media attention are advocating that people stand up for moral values in separate, peaceful gatherings.

Nathan, who was grand marshal of the 2014 Pride march in San Francisco, grew up in apartheid South Africa and said she feels compelled to act against white supremacists.

“I feel like it’s complicit if we’re silent,” she said. “We have an absolute duty to speak out against the KKK and Nazis, not only for ourselves as Jews but for people of color, for immigrants, for women and for all minorities targeted by these people.”

The California Legislative Jewish Caucus also compared the rally in Charlottesville, during which participants carried flaming torches and chanted anti-Semitic slogans, to early Nazi demonstrations.

“White supremacist groups in Charlottesville took us back to the 1920s when a small group of people marched in Germany blaming Jews and immigrants for society’s problems,” said a statement from the caucus, which includes more than a dozen Jewish members of the state Senate and Assembly. “Less than two decades later, Adolf Hitler’s hateful ideology resulted in the Holocaust.”

While Bay Area Jewish groups were still discussing, as of late this week, whether to join counterprotests in San Francisco and Berkeley, some synagogues and other Jewish organizations have planned other types of activities to speak out against bigotry and hate.

Today Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco will join in a faith vigil 6 p.m. at the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco that organizers say is intended “to denounce the racism on blatant display in Charlottesville last weekend and the hatred that is coming to our own backyard.”

Confront the bigotry. Now’s the time. Whatever it takes, we have to be there.

“Faith communities need to stand together in solidarity,” said Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Mychal Copeland. “At a time like this, many will retreat with their confusion, anger and pain rather than reach out to others who are also suffering. There is incredible power when communities of faith unite.”

In Palo Alto on Sunday the Oshman Family JCC, in conjunction with area congregations and Jewish groups, has scheduled a free gathering called “Together at the Table: A Potluck for Peace” from 5 to 7 p.m. The event is part of a quickly put-together national initiative co-sponsored by OneTable (a nonprofit that supports grassroots Shabbat dinners), the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Repair the World, and supported by more than 60 other Jewish agencies and entities. Events around the country are set to take place Aug. 18-20.

“It is hard to put into words how many of us feel following a weekend in which we witnessed white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching openly in America,” said a OneTable statement about the event, which is described as “a celebration of unity and diversity in the face of fear and division.”

Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco is planning what Rabbi Beth Singer called “a major interfaith coming-together to welcome Shabbat and stand united against hate and bigotry.” The plan is to hold it on Aug. 25.

That same evening, at 6 p.m., Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon will join with the Marin Interfaith Council to host a community interfaith prayer gathering called “Love Lives in Marin.”

In a letter to congregants, Kol Shofar Rabbis Susan Leider and Chai Levy wrote, “This week we face the aftermath of deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. This demonstrated to American Jews the veracity of Elie Wiesel’s words: ‘We must always take sides.’”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and California Sen. Scott Wiener are among the politicians who have called for the National Park Service to refuse a permit for the planned Crissy Field rally, saying such an event could lead to violence.

In Berkeley, Arreguin urged residents to ignore the planned demonstration, a tack being followed by some Bay Area Jewish community leaders who are urging people to stay away from rallies and avoid joining counterprotests.

Seth Brysk, the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific region director, counsels against giving white supremacists and neo-Nazis the media attention they seem to crave.

“There are a lot of ways to do a counter-demonstration without being there,” Brysk noted. For example, he added, “You can gather at other locations, like the Oshman Family JCC, for interfaith dinners. These are positive responses [that] draw attention away from the [white supremacist] rallies rather than toward them.”

Rabbi James Brandt, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, said that instead of joining counterprotests, Jews should attend interfaith gatherings that take a stand against anti-Semitism, racism and hate.

“We join with federal and local officials and the leadership of the [S.F.-based] Jewish [Community] Federation to strongly suggest resisting the urge to engage in counterprotests that may serve to escalate the situation and could place members of our community in harm’s way,” he said.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.