What An Alaska Rabbi Said About Charlottesville

Rabbi Abram.jpg

What An Alaska Rabbi Said About Charlottesville

By Cody Liska


The purpose of this interview is not to advocate, justify or reinforce any specific agenda, least of all hateful ideals like those recently represented at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, but rather give a better understanding of the current mindset of certain groups in the Alaska community, if for no other reason than to have it be part of public record.


Last Friday, Rabbi Abram Goodstein held up  Beth Shalom’s Holocaust Talmud and told his congregation, “this has seen more hate and more humanity than we’ll ever know.”


There were other faiths and community leaders at the synagogue that day. Their intention was clear, to support community and to speak out against the violence and hate exhibited at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.


I asked Rabbi Abram many of the same questions I asked Alaska militia groups last week, with the same margin for independent follow-up questions, depending on his responses. Here's what he said.


What do you think about what happened in Charlottesville?

We were very galvanized by what happened in Charlottesville, especially by the HBO Vice video that came out. What we did, in reaction to that, is we created a special service on Friday where we asked different faith leaders and nonprofit leaders to come and talk. For example, we had Hilary Morgan of the YWCA [Young Women’s Christian Association] come and we had Reverend Matt Schultz who runs the First Presbyterian church come. [It was] a service about how we respond to messages of hate and how we heal from that. And the response is community—we do this together. 


We had a very meaningful experience on Friday. Even though it was a Jewish service, it was very interfaith, there were a lot of people who came. This [synagogue] was packed and it was a way for us to heal. After the service and after the speakers, we had a discussion and we talked about our experiences and what we can do to move on.


There’s a group called AFACT [Anchorage Faith & Action Congregations Together] and they’re an interfaith group and they ran a vigil on Sunday that I was part of as well. It was a similar idea: how can we respond as a community to these messages? It’s not necessarily fighting fire with fire—the [Southern] Poverty Law Center shows that that’s not a good idea—it’s about how we come together and make those events that are really horrible meaningful for us. 



Was there a point when you didn’t feel safe after you saw what happened at the rally?

Yes, that’s kind of a Jewish thing, we don’t feel safe after these things. This rhetoric, we hear it all the time. We don’t always feel safe in these situations, but I think we came together and we saw that Anchorage has a wonderful community that said, “we support you, we don’t like what happened in Charlottesville either.” I’m really proud to be a member of this community. 



At what point should free speech not be protected?

I think free speech should always be protected, up to a point. It’s the same problem with the Confederate flag—is it a symbol that incites hate? I haven’t fallen one way or another on that, the verdict is still out. I think free speech is so important and I think it needs to be protected, but I think if it incites violence then there’s a real problem. I feel like what happened in Charlottesville did incite violence. There was a death and so many injured. I think that’s an issue.



I’m not against weapons, but if you’re carrying one at an event like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, you’re saying something without saying something. When you’re marching around in a place called Emancipation Park with torches and guns, waving Nazi flags and saying things like “Jews will not replace us,” none of that is accidental and it's not just about free speech.

You’re right. Symbolism has so much power. When we see Nazi memorabilia, it hits us in the gut. Collectively, [as Jews], that symbol is rough. You’re right, they don’t have to say anything, they just have to show these images and it’ll have the same effect.



Why do you think certain people still believe in such a hate-driven ideology?

Jews have a collective history of being hated. It wasn’t just the Holocaust, it was the Pogroms in Russia, it was the Crusades. Time and time again we’ve felt it. And what the idea is, is that Jews are often considered to be the other. Being the other is being the people that you can blame for not participating in whatever experience the rest of the nation is participating in. 


There are a lot of conspiracies around Jews and Judaism. The Protocols of Zion always pops up—[the idea that] Jews run everything. Where does that come from? I think it comes from people who have a limited education—I’m not saying they’re not educated, I’m saying it’s limited. I think they don’t necessarily have the job opportunities they wish they did and I think that they live in an environment that constantly enables that kind of behavior, everyone they know believes the same thing that they do, and from that creates messages of hate and I think it’s unfortunate. I wish some of these industries would move to these areas and give these people jobs and help them be successful because I think the reality is that they need someone to blame.


[Jews] have been blamed in the past, but it’s something that we’re aware of and so we want to support other groups who also get that blame. We want to show them that we’re here and that we’ve been in that situation before and we support them. We were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement. We played a large role in that because we had the same feeling the African Americans did about being portrayed as the other. As Jews, we have a responsibility to align ourselves and ally with those who feel like they are a target.


Beth Shalom hand-out describing the Holocaust Torah in their collection. 


Book on Left / Holocaust Talmud, written in Vienna and found in Austria. "This has seen more hate and more humanity than we'll ever know," Rabbi Abram preached in last week's sermon. 


If you could say anything to these neo-Nazis and white supremacists, what would it be?

That I’m a person, I’m a human and I have feelings and what you say hurts my feelings. I have normal, everyday problems. I have a child that I want to grow up in an environment where he feels safe. And that I don’t hate you and I wish you could understand us better.



Do you think that if one of these neo-Nazis were to spend a day with you, and see that you're just another person, might that change their mind?

I don’t know. I think it’s probably something that has been tried in the past, but I think the reality is that it’s such an emotional argument that it’s hard to stop and think, “how am I emotionally involved in this and how can I manage my emotions?” I’m hesitant to say “yes” to something like that, but if someone called me up and said they wanted to come to the temple to see what was going on here and they told me their background, I wouldn’t say “no” to them. I’d invite them in—I’d be very careful—and I’d show them that we’re just trying to be a loving community—that’s our "big agenda," that’s our goal.



I don’t usually feed into media buzzwords, but I think the word “emboldened” is so appropriate right now because President Trump has emboldened these people to come out of the woodwork.

And we were all waiting for a strong response from the president and, of course, that’s not what we got. In a very interesting way, that really created more of a desire to do what we did on Friday and on Sunday, which was to have a community gathering to express our frustration with the situation. The more the president didn’t give any sort of response, the greater the numbers it gave us at these events because people needed someone to say, “this is wrong" and "we don’t agree with this” because they didn’t get that from the president, so they got it from a local source instead.