Jews in Virginia and across the country are facing troubled and perilous times, says professor Phyllis Leffler.
The University of Virginia professor of 30 years, an expert in public history, oral history and the Jewish history of Charlottesville traveled to Colonial Williamsburg Wednesday to deliver a lecture on the history of Jews in the state.
The event “Jews in Virginia: Living New Lives, Facing Old Fears” was presented by Temple Beth El, the only synagogue in the Historic Triangle, in collaboration with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Rabbi David Katz introduced the speaker to the more than 200 people packed in the Hennage Auditorium.
The nearly 60-year-old synagogue is the center of Jewish life in the area, Katz said. Between 300 and 400 Jews live in Williamsburg and James City County, and about 2,000 Jews live on the Peninsula.
“Now, we as Jews are under attack,” Katz said.
“In the last six and a half months, our brethren have been shot and killed while simply going to synagogue to read, chant and sing prayers in Hebrew and English … to read and talk about the Hebrew Bible and to be together with each other.”
In October 2018, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life congregation massacre killed 11 people. In April 2019, on the last day of a major Jewish holiday, someone opened fire at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California, killing one.
Leffler began her discussion by sharing some statistics: The United States has seen a dramatic rise in hate crimes. Hate crimes against African Americans account for half of all race-related hate crimes in 2017. Jewish hate crimes constitute 58% of all hate crimes motivated by anti-religious bias, the majority of religion-motivated hate crimes.
Virginia is of particular concern, Leffler said. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 was an epicenter of group violence that led to anarchy in the streets, racist and anti-semitic hatred and the death of counterprotestor Heather Heyer.
The Virginia State Police annual crime report cited 202 hate crimes in 2017, a 47% increase from 2016. Of those hate crimes, historically under-reported, 44 were motivated by bias against religion and 22 were anti-Jewish in a state where 1.8% of the population is Jewish.
This is not the America we recognize, Leffler said. Her lecture went on to address the questions: When and how did all of this happen? And where do we go from here?
Leffler focused on the general history of Virginia, and Charlottesville in particular.
“My major claim is that Jews have been both insiders and outsiders in America as anti-semitism ebbs and flows, often in direct relationship to the virulence of white supremacy and racism,” Leffler said. “American Jews have been defined as both white and non-white, sometimes welcomed among the dominant elites and sometimes restricted and shunned both as non-white and religiously as outsiders.”
There were Jews in Colonial Virginia that were insiders and outsiders at the same time, Leffler described. Despite being religious outsiders, Jews became prominent merchants and Jews who were landowners adopted the values of the south — many owned slaves.
Based on immigration patterns, at times Jews in America faced almost no anti-semitism and were even welcomed, valued and found Virginia as a land of opportunity.
The first anti-immigrant party came in 1849 following a large wave of immigration.
“Anti-immigrant sentiment has always been a part of American history when the numbers become large enough to be a threat to those who are already here — this is often what sparks nativist sentiments,” Leffler said.
Marguerite Goff, a Williamsburg resident, said she came to the lecture because it’s important for people to come together and encourage each other to stand up for the same issues.
“I decided to come out because hate crimes (are) widespread, not just among Jewish people but people of color and I feel that it’s important if people come together for the same issues and rights,” Goff said. “I think it was really inspiring.”
And she learned the events in Virginia are not isolated.
Virginia’s history and the events that took place in Charlottesville in 2017 are deeply connected, Leffler said. The anti-semitism witnessed, still present today, is a part of the institutional racism that exists in the United States.
“I do know we all need to be vigilant, to stand up to those who would erode our cherished civil society and to be kind to the other,” Leffler said. “If we do not, we are all in peril.”
Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.