“I plan to build my talk around the theme that Jews in Virginia and Charlottesville have been both insiders and outsiders to the mainstream culture in America. There were times when they were fully integrated into civic, political, and cultural life of the Commonwealth and times when they felt less welcomed. In the 18th Century Thomas Jefferson’s early insistence on religious toleration and the Virginia Statute or Religious Freedom meant that Jews could be officeholders without swearing allegiance to the Anglican Church,” Dr. Phyllis Leffler said in an interview with the Gazette.
Leffler, a professor at the University of Virginia for nearly 30 years, is a specialist in public history, the history of the university, oral history and the Jewish history of Charlottesville. She will be in town to give a talk at Colonial Williamsburg’s Hennage Auditorium titled, “Jews in Virginia: Living New Lives, Facing Old Fears.”
Her talk is presented by Temple Beth El of Williamsburg in collaboration with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and with the support of Virginia Humanities.
Leffler explained that by the early 19thcentury, Virginia was a place where Jews could be officeholders and full citizens. But by the 20th century, because of the rising number of Eastern European immigrants, there was a nativist backlash and the beginnings of anti-Semitism and racism, which affected the lives of American Jews through World War II.
The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and discrimination based on race and country of origin also affected Jews. The Unite the Right Rally of August 2017 reflects a national resurgence of white supremacy and a glorification of Nazi ideology, specifically targeting Jews and reifying hate speech and violence,” Leffler said.
She was not present when the Unite the Right Rally took place in Charlottesville. “My husband and I were on vacation in Yellowstone National Park. However, I have talked with many people who were there, have seen the videos and images. I view the mobs that descended on Charlottesville as angry, hateful people who wish to see a white ethno-state…. I see them as dangerous to civil society.
“We are living in an era which has unleashed a permission to hate,” Leffler said. “Our current president unfortunately continues to assert that there are ‘good people on both sides’ and refuses to condemn the bigotry, hatred, and violence of the Alt-Right. There is a long strain of anti-Semitism in Western history that lives under the surface, ready to erupt when given legitimacy. The current condition in the United States – economic frustrations of groups of people who do not see opportunity, the growing socio-economic divide in this country have given rise to this.”
I asked Leffler what she sees as the correct response to the rise of anti-Semitism.
“The right response is to call it out, loudly and clearly. We should never fear responding to these despicable ideas and acts. I find that there are so many concerned and well-meaning non-Jews who want to be good neighbors and who want to be supportive. We must not be afraid to educate and tell our story.”
Leffler grew up in New York and moved south in the 1970s, “I do not recall any specific act of anti-Semitism toward me personally,” she said. “But I view it as an act of social activism and justice to speak out about the Unite the Right rally and tie it to the deeper history of Charlottesville and the South. That is what promotes empathy and understanding. That is what I hope to do in my talk in Williamsburg.”
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.
Want to go?
Dr. Phyllis Leffler’s talk will be at 5 p.m. May 15 at the Hennage Auditorium in The Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. Free and open to the public