Charlottesville mayor says social media fed hatred and violence at 2017 rally

Mike Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., began receiving anti-Semitic messages in early 2017, when, for the first time, he started to speak publicly about being Jewish.

JERUSALEM (RNS) — Mike Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., began receiving anti-Semitic messages in early 2017, when, for the first time, he started to speak more publicly about being Jewish.

Signer described some of these hateful messages and the Jewish community’s fears during the sixth Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism, a conference organized by the Israeli government and held in Jerusalem in mid-March.

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The messages began arriving months before the tragic events at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally last August; he says he received hundreds of anti-Semitic social media messages, many of them targeting him personally.

“Someone sent me a cartoon of Robert E. Lee pressing a green button on a gas chamber with my head pasted into the cartoon,” Signer recalled during a session devoted to confronting neo-Nazism in the United States and elsewhere.

Sharon Nazarian, the Anti-Defamation League’s senior vice president for international affairs, noted that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States jumped 57 percent in 2017, from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986 last year. This was the second-highest number since the 1970s, when the ADL began keeping track of such incidents.

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They included 163 bomb threats, 19 cases of physical assault and more than 200 incidents on college campuses in 44 states.

“The hatreds aren’t new,” Nazarian noted. “What we’re seeing is the alt-right version of the white supremacy movement dating back 150 years.”

What is new, Nazarian said, are the “vehicles” of hate. “The internet and social media have changed the landscape of public discourse.”

In a study, the ADL counted more than 2 million anti-Semitic tweets, many of them directed at Jewish journalists.

Signer said that in July 2017, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan marched in Charlottesville carrying signs saying “Jews are Satan.”

White nationalist demonstrators walk through town after their rally was closed down near Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By the time thousands of white supremacists converged on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally a month later, the city’s Jews had relocated their Torah scrolls, out of fear their synagogue would be attacked.

“We had seen a message saying, ‘We need to burn these Jewish monsters to the ground,’” Signer said.

The former mayor, who still serves on the City Council, added that the events of the past year helped the municipality and Police Department learn valuable lessons about how to best deal with neo-Nazis and other anti-Semitic and racist groups.

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The police, who are not under the mayor’s authority, largely dismissed the fears of the Jewish community, Signer said.

“The police were pleaded with to try to have extra security. The community wanted a police car and an officer” stationed in front of the synagogue. “The police responded that that wasn’t necessary because they had snipers on the roof. But this led to a lot of fear of not being adequately protected.”

While the Jewish community was not physically harmed, there could have been other consequences, Signer said.

“What if one of those consequences was Jews saying, ‘I don’t feel safe living here anymore’?

“That,” Signer said of the anti-Semites, “is their goal.”