An attempt by Jewish protestors to literally fight fire with fire has Anti-Defamation League representatives enflamed.
Close to a dozen demonstrators, organized by the Jewish Defense League, gathered to burn Nazi and Confederate flags in front of a Reno, Nev., federal courthouse July 14. The protest took place just one day after five skinheads pled guilty to attempting to firebomb a Reno synagogue.
The JDL protestors were at cross-purposes with six other demonstrators who claimed to be white supremacists and raised Nazi and Confederate flags.
The ADL was not amused by the showing from either side. The JDL, a right-wing group founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, long has advocated a militant response to anti-Semitism.
"The Jewish Defense League may be rooting for the right cause, but their method is oftentimes counterproductive," said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the ADL's Central Pacific region. "They do more harm than good."
According to Bernstein, the JDL is lucky that the situation, which provoked obscene remarks from both groups, did not erupt into violence.
"When the Ku Klux Klan has a rally somewhere, it's oftentimes not the Klan that ends up perpetrating the violence — it's the counter-demonstrators," said Bernstein. "The best thing to do…is just to stay away."
With at least 8,000 hate crimes reported annually, Bernstein said Jews must work closer with law enforcement officials and schools to change attitudes about prejudice rather than resorting to "tactics which inflame and exacerbate situations."
But Irv Rubin, executive director of the Los Angeles-based JDL, said it's the years and years of reactions like those of the ADL that continue to make the Jews susceptible to hate crimes.
"Jews submissively go to their deaths time and time again," he said. "Because of this, in the white supremacists' heart of hearts, they don't expect any resistance."
"Jews should burn Nazi flags, Jews should burn hate group symbols. Jews should stand up to white supremacists and not cower from them."
Calling both the Nazi and Confederate flags "symbols of evil," he said, the Confederate flag represents slavery and "slavery is no damn good."
The burning of evil symbols, he added, "is in accordance with the Holy Torah of the Jewish people, which admonishes them to burn evil from their midst."
Reno ADL board member Hy Kashenberg, however, said protests like those of the JDL reflect badly on the Jewish community and only succeed in creating more hatred.
Because of his many concerns, Kashenberg attempted to halt the protest. But, he said he was met with animosity and hateful words. "When I went to see them, they called me every name in the book and said I was the whole trouble.
"The JDL lives from hatred," he added. "If they looked at history they'd remember, he who lives by the gun, dies by the gun."
Rubin, however, said it is all about fighting back.
"You can take the Jew out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the Jew," he said. "Jews with a ghetto mentality constantly turn the other cheek. They allow themselves to be victims."
Rubin said he is proud of the way Friday's protest went off and hopes it sent a message to Jews that the battle against hatred continues.
"There are other neo-Nazis are out there," said Rubin.
In reference to Friday's counter-demonstrators, he said: "Even if it was only a small number, it was only a small number that attacked the synagogue [in November]. It only takes one or two to throw a firebomb."
Bernstein agrees that hatred continues, but said the best responses are through legal means and education, not enraged and offensive protests.
Kashenberg added: "Remember, it was the law enforcement officials who caught the perpetrators of the synagogue firebombing. Not the JDL."
On Nov. 30, Temple Emanu-El in Reno was attacked with a gasoline bomb which did not properly ignite. The five suspects, all in their teens to 20s, were believed involved with hate groups.
Rather than bringing the case to trial, attorneys agreed on a plea-bargaining process. All six suspects confessed to the crime July 13.
Sentencing is yet to take place, but Bernstein said that the U.S. Attorney's office has indicated "fairly significant sentences," between five and 15 years.
"I think it's really significant that all five will have to pay a price," said Bernstein. "In my mind, that's more important than the length of their terms. It sends a very powerful message that what they're doing is not OK."
If the suspects receive the sentences indicated, Rubin agreed the message would be significant.
"From what we've heard they may be spending many, many, many years in jail," he said. "That's many, many, many years that we don't have to look at them.
"But," he added, "the battle is not over — it's going to continue. We have to be out there, showing Jews in a positive light by reacting to hatred. We can't be submissive. We can't be sitting ducks. We have to stop turning the other cheek."