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Federation’s Advocacy at Work 

More than 225 people attended Virginia Jewish Advocacy Day. Photo by Adrienne Winkelmann Epstein.

By Amy Melnick-Scharf, JCRC Chair, Jewish Community Federation of Richmond

and  Basya Gardenstein, JCRC Director, JCFR

This year’s legislative session provides us with much to learn from and much to celebrate.

The session was consumed by three pieces of legislation that emerged from Governor Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism. At every stage of the legislative session, the Richmond JCRC and JCFR worked closer than ever with our partners in Tidewater, Northern Virginia, and Peninsula to suggest changes to the Governor and his sponsors’ legislation to ensure these bills are constitutionally sound, garner bi-partisan support, and to advocate for their passage.                           

Our Jewish Federation supported: 

  • HB 2208/SB 1184: adding the term “ethnicity” to the code, ensuring that Jews are a protected class whether targeted for ethnic or religious attributes 
  • HB 1606/SB 1252: affirming the IHRA definition of antisemitism as a non-legally binding tool for education, training, tracking and to ensure public safety 
  • HB 1898/SB 1375: prohibiting significant state contractors from participating in Israel boycotts 
  • HJ 543: celebrating Jewish life and history in the Commonwealth 
  • HB 1821/SB 1360: supporting a thriving Jewish future by increasing educational tax credit scholarships 
  • $3 million in state security funding                                    

As session comes to a close we celebrate: 

  • Renewal of $3 million of state security funding 
  • HB 1606 passing unanimously across party lines soon to be signed by Governor Youngkin  

 These successes are a result of the collective efforts of our Jewish community – a notion that our elected officials at times found hard to understand. 

In producing these wins, our education and advocacy repeatedly met one challenge – confusion about how the Jewish people identify and how best to address prejudice and discrimination. This has been coupled with legislators pointedly asking “the Jews” to convey what we think about any given issue. As if we all “think alike”. 

  On the surface, the question of what “the Jews” think is innocent enough. Our elected officials seek policy positions to execute solutions to problems. But antisemitism is multifaceted, as is addressing the roots of the problem. Asking what “the Jews” think about an issue relies on the very essentialization that allows antisemitism to fester. 

Impatience with a multitude of perspectives was most acute when defining antisemitism. 

Let’s break that challenge down– 

Antisemitism is known as discrimination toward Jews and Judaism. However, hatred or aversion toward Jews within the framework of racial ideology can be distinct from anti-Judaism – hatred toward the Jewish religion and of Jews as its followers. For example, being accused of killing Christ and “evil in nature” resulted in the mass murder and expulsion of Jewish populations throughout the centuries. 

 Antisemitism and anti-Judaism have long co-mingled, a subject that Susanne Heschel (daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel) has illuminated through examining the key role that the Reichskirche (German Church) played in elevating Hitler’s ideology. While Nuremberg Laws segregated Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors; nationwide “dejudaization” was an attempt to purge any hint of Judaism from Christianity. 

 Since the establishment of the state of Israel, criticism of Israel and Israelis walks a thin line between legitimate concern about instances of injustice and violence, and that concern morphing into/being infused by antisemitism and anti-Judaism. For example, anti-Israel sentiment can be most dangerous when criticism of Israel’s government and its policies blanketly targets Jews and utilizes imagery of Jews with large noses, evocation of blood libel, and more. 

These elements play out in varied forms in our state and across the USA. In Virginia, the majority of hate crimes are perpetrated by white supremacists – who utilize age-old tropes to persecute Jews. However, anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses is bleeding into antisemitism on a regular basis, and school systems are maintaining anti-Jewish barriers which prevent observant students from partaking in student life and Jewish high holidays simultaneously. Shoehorning the problem of hatred toward Jews into a singular issue undermines the morphing and multi-layered nature of antisemitism. 

 Only our collective Jewish voices, preserving our diversity in identifying both problems and solutions, can result in protection for all. Those who heard varied voices and insisted that “the Jews” are confused are part of the problem. The answer to our challenges emerges from all of the views espoused. A key example would be concerns for first amendment rights and protecting Jews from anti-Israel sentiment that bleeds into antisemitism. These are not mutually exclusive goals, but each matters of concern to the Jewish community. 

 “The Jews have become a political football” is a claim we have heard all too often during the legislative session of 2023 and JCRC works each day to avoid. 

 The moment antisemitism is branded as a Democrat versus Republican issue, it encourages antisemitism being used as a partisan tool to advance political agendas. And who loses? “The Jews” – yes, all of us. We must equip ourselves to identify the characteristics and manifestations of antisemitism, and use the varied voices in the Jewish community to create holistic and robust solutions. 

 This unprecedentedly short and polarized session produced a historic moment for the Jewish community. Our legislators worked on more bills directly related to Jewish security than ever before, and JCRC led the way in cementing groundbreaking successes. 

 After urging our legislators to create structural changes to benefit our community, it is now upon us to ensure that their hard work is recognized and celebrated. Please reach out with personal thanks to your legislators for their hard work.

This is also a reminder that education for next session begins now. Please reach out to bgartenstein@jewishrichmond.org to get involved in educating our intergroup partners and elected officials about Jewish issues. We need your voice! 

Editor’s Note: For a statement on the passage of  HB1606, visit https://www.jewishrichmond.org/jcrc/public-statements/jcrc-statements-comments-articles/virginia-jewish-communities-statement-on-hb-1606