Shocked by anti-Semitic graffiti painted recently on a Henrico County high school and an increase in anti-Semitic acts, leaders of the Richmond-area Jewish community met with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Friday to discuss those and other issues.
Much of the discussion between Warner and members of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, held at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center in Henrico, focused on what government could do to respond to hate crimes.
Henrico authorities filed felony vandalism charges in May against three high school students suspected of making swastikas and threatening graffiti at Mills Godwin High School and around Regency mall. And Jews remain unsettled by the October attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed 11 worshippers.
Painting a swastika is a symbol of the Holocaust and a personal attack on Jews, said Amy Melnick-Scharf, chair of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, whose daughter just graduated from Godwin.
“It might appear as just simply graffiti (but) it’s a very visceral and painful symbol to us,” she said.
During the forum, Warner took questions from about 20 rabbis and federation members. They said one of their challenges is an increase in time and money that must be spent on security and asked what government could do to assist — including with costs.
“When we see anti-Semitic activities and when we see swastikas painted, that is an attack on all of us as Virginians,” Warner said.
“I don’t have a simple solution,” he said. “I do believe at times, and I would say this in any settings, when sometimes the messages that come out of the White House seem to take people who advocate anti-Semitism, people who advocate racism and somehow say ... there’s good people on both sides — no.”
“The job of our leadership is to call out racism, is to call out discriminatory behavior.”
Warner said the proliferation of Americans getting information from the internet and social media companies like Facebook as opposed to newspaper and TV news has allowed a new forum for racism and anti-Semitism that, along with foreign bots in a “Wild West” approach to the internet, is part of an assault on American democracy that needs to be guarded against.
“One of the things that foments this is the ability on social media for haters and evil to find each other,” he said. “Like in anything when innovation takes place, there’s good things and then there’s a dark underside.”
Rabbi Yossel Kranz, the executive director of Chabad of Virginia, said “the citizens need protection” and asked Warner what more his office could do on a local level. Warner said, candidly, he could do more in his former job as governor, but as a senator he can call out hatred.
Rabbi Dovid Asher of Keneseth Beth Israel told Warner that he appreciated the senator going beyond issuing a statement by meeting directly with the Jewish community.
He said Jews feel a sense of “being hunted” while traveling or going to their houses of worship and asked Warner to convey in Washington how it feels for families to be Jewish in America today.
“Unfortunately, we are moving towards this model where we’re going to need government assistance to protect our institutions,” Asher said.
The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution Thursday, sponsored by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Tim Kaine, D-Va., condemning anti-Semitism.