Old Dominion Duty

Under shadow of Charlottesville, Virginia AG sets up antisemitism task force

Attorney General Jason Miyares says the ‘people’s protector’ has a duty to protect Virginia Jews from antisemitism

Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares sits in his office on January 19, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares last week announced the creation of a statewide task force that will monitor and combat antisemitism in Virginia, citing the deadly 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally as the guiding influence behind the move. 

More than five years after neo-Nazis marched in the streets of the college town with tiki torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” the now-infamous rally still casts a long shadow over American politics. Antisemitism and hate crimes against Jews have continued to rise. President Joe Biden has said he decided to run for president following the violence of that August 2017 day. 

“Virginia is particularly sensitive after, I think, one of the most shameful, darkest chapters in modern Virginia history,” Miyares said of the Charlottesville incident, in a Monday interview with Jewish Insider. “Virginia made national news for all the wrong reasons then.” 

The Old Dominion is now at the forefront of growing national efforts to fight antisemitism. The Virginia legislature is currently considering four antisemitism-related bills introduced by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who signed an executive order on his first day in office in January 2022 creating a commission to examine antisemitism in the commonwealth. The commission’s report, which was released in December, included a detailed list of 21 recommendations policymakers could adopt to make the state better equipped to fight antisemitism. The task force was its first and most immediate suggestion. 

“As attorney general, I like to say we’re the people’s protector,” said Miyares, a Republican. One of the key objectives of the task force, which will be housed in the attorney general’s office, is to educate the public and state officials, particularly law enforcement, about the threat of antisemitism. 

“The idea is having a coordinated response,” explained Miyares. “The best way to fight bad information is good information, and having that level of coordination both on law enforcement and education, so everyone knows this is a broad problem. It’s not just siloed in our colleges, it’s not just siloed in raised threat levels at our synagogues. It’s not just siloed on insane conspiracy theories on the internet.”

In December, Miyares sent a letter to college and university presidents and trustees in Virginia, urging them to be aware of and appropriately respond to antisemitism on their campuses. Since then, administrators at three major state universities — James Madison University, George Mason University and Christopher Newport University — have contacted his office to report antisemitic incidents, Miyares said.

“The more information that is shown on the subject, the more victims feel comfortable coming forward,” he said. “One thing, from talking to some of my friends that have been the victims or have witnessed it, is a feeling like they’re alone, and they feel like there’s nobody in a position of power to help or to assist or even be concerned.” 

Federal data shows that more than half of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S. target Jews, who make up 2% of the country’s population. It’s important, Miyares argued, that law enforcement officers who might be responding to an accusation of an antisemitic hate crime are aware of the facts. Virginia is home to more than 150,000 Jews. 

However, many law enforcement officers come from parts of Virginia, “particularly rural areas, that don’t have a very visible Jewish community,” he said. One proposal is to require officers in the Virginia State Police to visit the state Holocaust memorial in Richmond during their training.

“We know from history that people don’t know the history. I hate to be cynical, but I just think that there are a lot of individuals that aren’t familiar with the Holocaust, as mind-boggling as that may be,” Miyares noted. A 2020 survey from the Claims Conference found that 63% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 did not know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. 

“They have no idea that there was this horror that happened, and it happened in one of the most highly educated societies in Europe up to that time, and so it can happen anywhere,” said Miyares. “It’s so critically important that those that are in law enforcement understand that.”

In March, Miyares and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, will lead a bipartisan delegation of U.S. attorneys general to Auschwitz and then to Israel. Weiser’s mother and grandparents are Holocaust survivors

“We thought it was important to start off with seeing the face of antisemitism, the horror of it at its absolute worst, and then the symbolism of then going from Poland to what is the amazing miracle that is the modern state of Israel,” Miyares said, adding that Israel must be part of conversations about antisemitism. “Israel is held to a standard that no other country seems to be held to.” His trip to Israel will include conversations about combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 

Art Sandler, the former president of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and the vice chair of Youngkin’s antisemitism commission, told JI he was surprised to realize the “the lack of knowledge and understanding at the state level, in the various departments from education to law enforcement, of antisemitism.”

Sandler, a Democrat who has been involved in Virginia politics for decades, said the strong focus on antisemitism from state officials is new. Politically active Virginia Jews have in the past focused state advocacy efforts on developing a stronger trade relationship between Virginia and Israel, “not the civil rights violation of antisemitism,” Sandler observed. “That Jew-hatred, that’s the phenomenon, if you go back to Charlottesville, ‘Jews will not replace us.’ It was shocking.”

The members of the task force, which will comprise public officials and private citizens, have not yet been selected. But Miyares pledged “to actively seek out voices from those that are on the left-hand side of the political spectrum, because candidly it makes us better at our job. I would be failing, I think, at our job, if the only voices on our task force are people that think like I do.”

In the state legislature, Youngkin’s proposed antisemitism legislation faces partisan roadblocks. Divided between a Republican-controlled House of Delegates and a Democrat-controlled State Senate, compromise is a necessity — but Democrats are not eager to work with the Republican governor.

“Anything that one side wants, the other side, is going to have a hard time swallowing, and neither side is doing a particularly great job of reaching across the aisle to find common ground,” said Vicki Fishman, director of government and community relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

Earlier this month, the  House of Delegates approved a bill, with significant but not unanimous Democratic support, that would affirm the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. The Senate had opposed the measure, but is expected to consider it again now that the most recent version of the legislation clarifies that the adoption of the definition is “non-legally binding.” 

“It added those words into the legislation so that it would be clear that this was not a codification for the purposes of prosecution, but this was the adoption of a non-legally binding standard — a guide and a tool to help us understand and do education and training about antisemitism,” Fishman explained. Some activists and political figures on the left have opposed the IHRA definition, arguing that it targets pro-Palestinian advocates. 

“The argument is that we try and deny free speech, which I don’t think is a fair description,” said William Kilberg, a Northern Virginia attorney and Republican activist who served on Youngkin’s antisemitism commission. “If what [Democrats] are trying to do is embarrass the governor — he’s become a national figure in the Republican Party, they want to make sure he doesn’t have any legislative victories — I think this is the wrong way to go about it.” 

Virginia’s Democrat-controlled state Senate also voted last month against a bill that would, on state contracts of more than $100,000, prohibit Virginia from contracting with companies that boycott Israel. “The real goal was that taxpayer money in Virginia should not be used to subsidize the BDS movement,” Fishman said, but noted that an earlier version of the bill was less narrowly tailored, and sparked concern from Democrats. 

A fact sheet from the community relations arms of the Jewish communities in Richmond, Washington, Newport News and Virginia Beach aims to address Democrats’ concerns by saying that the businesses “would be free to be as critical of Israel as they want” but could not “actively discriminate against Israeli citizens or businesses and still be awarded a state contract.”

That bill passed the House in February with no Democratic support. The Senate is not expected to vote on it again this legislative session.

Two other bills supported by Jewish advocates in Virginia have faced an easier journey in the legislature. A resolution establishing May as Jewish American Heritage Month in Virginia and explaining the history of Jews in Virginia soared through the legislature. Another bill would update state hate crimes statutes to include the concept of ethnicity because, Fishman explained, antisemitism is not always religiously motivated.

“Hatred against Jews is sometimes based on religious grounds, and it’s sometimes based in ethnic, racial or cultural grounds,” Fishman explained. The Virginia legislative session continues through the end of the month.

A couple hours north of Richmond, similar conversations about the best ways to fight antisemitism are taking place at the national level. In December, the White House announced the formation of an interagency task force to counter antisemitism, Islamophobia and related forms of bias and discrimination. Its first imperative is to create a national antisemitism strategy. 

“I would be delighted if they wanted to collaborate,” said Miyares, although he has not yet been in touch with anyone at the White House.

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