Monday, January 30th | 8 Shevat 5783

August 23, 2017 2:40 pm

Lessons for Jews From Charlottesville

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avatar by Abraham H. Miller /


A Nazi flag on display on Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month. Photo: Andy Campbell via Twitter.

JNS.orgToday, many Jews are asking if we’re back in the 1920s. To me, the scene outside a Charlottesville synagogue is more like Odessa in 1905.

Last Saturday morning, three white supremacists stood across from the Charlottesville synagogue with semi-automatic weapons. And during a torchlight parade the night before, they marched past the synagogue and hurled slogans reminiscent of the Nazi era.

The armed men in fatigues looked as if they were ready to carry out the threats.

The police were called. They never arrived. 

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One distraught police officer claimed that the police were told to let the two groups of demonstrators in Charlottesville have contact with each other, and then stand down — a scenario designed for chaos and crafted outrage.

Although this is completely unverified, I believe that video footage of the event posted by the Virginia ACLU shows just that. The Virginia ACLU repeated on Twitter that the police were told to stand down.

Inside the Charlottesville synagogue, the rabbi and the congregation were helpless. I imagine that, like most synagogues, this institution prides itself on being a gun-free zone. The congregants were likely helpless.

If the neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists had entered the synagogue, they could have slaughtered all the worshippers before the first police car arrived at the scene.

The congregants reportedly left through the back door, and were told to walk in groups instead of dispersing.

But what does this have to do with Odessa in 1905? Odessa was the scene of the bloodiest pogrom to take place in Russia.

Although many Jews (estimates vary from 400 to 2,000) died in the Odessa pogrom of 1905, the Jews had created organized, armed militias and fought back, taking a toll on Russian police and soldiers that were actively involved in the pogrom, along with the Okhrana, the czarist secret police.

Two Russian Jews who took special note of the Odessa pogrom were Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph TrumpeldorJabotinsky, at the time, was a leading Russian-Jewish intellectual. Trumpeldor was a decorated military hero who lost an arm in the Russo-Japanese War.

Influenced by the events in Odessa, the two set about to create Jewish militias, teaching the repelled pogromists that pitchforks, torches and knives were no match for trained and disciplined men with guns. Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor left their mark through the fact that the Russians learned that killing Jews came with consequences.

Surviving pogroms in Charlottesville isn’t very different from surviving them in Odessa.

If Jews want to survive, they need to arm and train themselves. Their other option? Walking out the back door of the synagogue and praying that white supremacists don’t shoot them. Or better yet, Jews can stay home where it is safe.

When a gun-toting hate group showed up outside a mosque in Texas, they were met by armed congregants who greatly outnumbered them. Nobody walked out the back door of the mosque that day.

The NRA was not formed to defend African Americans in the South. But ex-marine Robert Williams and his gun club made it possible for blacks in Monroe County, North Carolina, to create a chapter of the NAACP. Williams and his gun club fought off the KKK, which previously harassed, injured and murdered blacks at will. His NAACP chapter went on to integrate the local library and swimming pool.

During the turmoil of the civil rights era in Louisiana, the Deacons for Defense — which was primarily made up of veterans — armed themselves to protect young civil rights workers from the savagery of KKK violence. The Deacons also protected blacks who wanted to register to vote.

Unprotected by the Los Angeles Police during the Rodney King riots, Korean business owners organized and defended their businesses with guns.

Yes, it is America in 2017. But for Jews, it’s beginning to look like Russia during the era of the pogroms. Jews need to learn from their own tragic history and from other ethnic groups that acted to defend themselves. Walking out the back door of a synagogue should never be the recommended option.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. Follow him on Twitter: @salomoncenter.

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