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August 16, 2017 12:15 pm

Leading Rabbi Urges Attorney General to Investigate Lack of Police Protection for Charlottesville Synagogue During Far-Right Protest

avatar by Ben Cohen

Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. Photo: Screenshot.

A prominent American rabbi is urging Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation into the Virginia police over widespread claims that officers failed to adequately protect a synagogue in Charlottesville during last weekend’s neo-Nazi rally in the city.

Shmuel Herzfeld — the rabbi at Washington, DC’s Ohev Sholom Synagogue — told The Algemeiner on Tuesday that a probe into the actions of the local police was essential. “From what I saw, the police protection didn’t appear to be sufficient, so I would like the attorney general to investigate,” Rabbi Herzfeld said. He added that he would also be calling Virginia Senators Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) seeking their support for an investigation.

As neo-Nazis and other far-right activists gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday, about 40 Jews were attending Shabbat morning services at Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel. In a Facebook post, the congregation’s president, Alan Zimmerman, described the terrifying scene of white nationalists armed with automatic weapons parading outside the synagogue.

“For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple,” Zimmerman wrote. “Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them.”

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Zimmerman added that, “Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ and other antisemitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.”

Zimmerman said that he advised congregants to leave the synagogue in groups through the back entrance after services ended. Later that day, he continued, “we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue. I sat with one of our rabbis and wondered whether we should go back to the temple to protect the building. What could I do if I were there? Fortunately, it was just talk — but we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.”

“Again: This is in America in 2017,” Zimmerman added mournfully.

Rabbi Herzfeld said he had spoken with Charlottesville police captain Victor Mitchell about the lack of protection at the synagogue. “He told me he did not assign a specific officer to the synagogue, but that there was adequate protection,” Herzfeld reported.

Herzfeld said he had been deeply impacted by the entire episode. “I’m unable to sleep, I feel pain that there is a synagogue in this country where there are men outside holding automatic weapons with ill intent to those who are praying,” he said. “And the response is that the Jews have to leave through the back and cancel services. This is Nazis versus Jews in America, and where is our protection?”

Herzfeld added that he had driven to Charlottesville on Tuesday with a group of other rabbis in order “not to be silent, not to be mute, when there are Nazis with guns marching in front of synagogues.” On the journey, he said, the rabbis had sung a song with the chorus, “Do not be silent, do not be mute, oh my friend, do cry out.”

Herzfeld’s demand came as other US Jewish leaders across the spectrum expressed anger toward President Donald Trump over his insistence that anti-fascist protesters were as much to blame for Saturday’s violence — which claimed the life of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer, as well as two police officers whose helicopter crashed as they were monitoring the situation — as the neo-Nazi groups, as well as his comment that some “fine people” had marched with the far-right agitators.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rabbi Herzfeld spoke with Capt. Al Thomas, and not Capt. Victor Mitchell.

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