Fighting darkness with light: Community united after Neo-Nazi rally at synagogue

Chabad of Cobb is peaceful Sunday, June 25, 2023 after it was the focus of a small group of Neo-Nazis protestors on Saturday.  The synagogue has a normal security presence.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Chabad of Cobb is peaceful Sunday, June 25, 2023 after it was the focus of a small group of Neo-Nazis protestors on Saturday. The synagogue has a normal security presence. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

On a warm Saturday evening, Stewart Levy was driving along Lower Roswell Road to head to a party when his excitement turned to bewilderment. He sensed the hostility and then saw the flags. Red ones with swastikas on them.

They were being held by strangers outside the synagogue in east Cobb that he has attended frequently for more than a decade. People who wanted him and others like him gone. The 65-year-old was scared and angry.

“The fear of seeing it face to face, the hatred — and not expecting it in this environment,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve never been exposed to such blatant antisemitism in my entire life. It’s just crazy.”

The scene was a Neo-Nazi rally filled with about a dozen extremists waving swastika flags and displaying propaganda at the sidewalk in front of Chabad of Cobb.

The demonstration, which lasted about three hours, was held by members of an antisemitic hate group outside the synagogue after a similar rally in Macon on Friday. The extremists called it a tour of Georgia, and Anti-Defamation League officials had been tracking their movements all weekend, according to ADL Southeast Regional Director Eytan Davidson.

“This is a very small pathetic group,” longtime Chabad of Cobb Rabbi Ephraim Silverman told the AJC. “I have colleagues in other parts of the country that have had them on their front door as well. They are obviously trying to provoke a response and get people to post on social media and get attention as much as they can.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, and Georgia U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, all condemned Saturday’s rally. Kemp called it shameful.

“There absolutely is no place for this hate and antisemitism in our state,” Kemp wrote in a Sunday morning tweet. “We remain vigilant in the face of these disgusting acts of bigotry.”

Warnock agreed, writing that Georgians should publicly decry the open hate. Meanwhile, Ossoff said the Jewish community in Georgia “will never be intimidated by anti-Semitism.”

“Today, as symbols of genocide were paraded in front of synagogues, we continue to stand strong, proud, and unbowed,” he added.

At the protest, Levy initially had some choice words with the extremists before leaving to head back to the party.

He then had a change of heart.

“I went back and started trying to engage with individuals in a positive way,” he said, “because the most potent response to darkness is light.”

A Neo-Nazi rally was held outside a synagogue in Cobb County on Saturday June 24, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Stewart Levy)

Credit: Stewart Levy

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Credit: Stewart Levy

Levy walked up to within inches of the demonstrators and their Nazi material as dozens of counter-protesters — consisting of both Jews and Christians — were situated on the opposite side of the street. Cobb police officers were also there to monitor the scene and ensure it didn’t get violent.

Levy said he spoke to the extremists, trying to understand their line of thinking or convince them of the error of their ways. Most if not all were Holocaust deniers, he said. At one point, he said one of the Neo-Nazis mentioned that swastikas stood for prosperity.

“Yeah. It did stand for prosperity before Hitler co-opted the sign,” Stewart told them outside the synagogue, which is also home to a Holocaust memorial. “And now it stands for evil.”

The rally on Saturday comes amid a rise in antisemitic incidents across the U.S., according to the ADL. The organization’s Southeastern region, which includes Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee, recorded 192 such incidents in 2022, a 120% increase over 2021. Georgia saw a 63% increase from 2021 to 2022, and since 2020, the number of antisemitic incidents has nearly quadrupled.

In March, the FBI released a supplement to its 2021 hate crimes report that found that 51% of all religion-related incidents were anti-Jewish incidents.

Davidson said those numbers were both “unfortunate” and “awful.”

“It’s going to require every good person in America to be diligent about fighting hate to get past this moment in time,” he added.

In metro Atlanta last month, flyers with with anti-Jewish messages were left on driveways in Roswell, the latest in what was a string of similar incidents in the suburbs. Others were left in neighborhoods in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs in February. Former Channel 2 Action News reporter Mike Petchenik told the AJC his neighborhood in Sandy Springs, full of people from different religious backgrounds, was blanketed Sunday with baggies full of antisemitic literature. He filed a police report after someone came in a truck and chucked the bags out “like they were delivering a paper.”

“I respect people’s right to free speech, but when you are putting hate-filled propaganda on people’s front lawns, that’s not free speech,” Petchenik said, adding he doesn’t condone hate in any form. “These people can try to scare the Jewish community all they want, but all this does is embolden them to speak out and band together in solidarity.”

Since March, the flyers and hate-fueled propaganda were distributed after Georgia lawmakers considered a bill that would have made crimes motivated by antisemitism part of the state’s hate crimes law. The bill didn’t pass the General Assembly this year, but it will be debated again next year. The legislation wouldn’t have made antisemitic flyers or swastikas illegal, but actions that target Jewish people could have been used in court as evidence of a motive when prosecuting crimes.

“If they knew there was a consequence that any crime they commit would be enhanced under the hate crime statute and maybe they’ll think twice,” state Rep. Esther Panitch, a Democrat and the only Jewish legislator in the General Assembly told the AJC. “I know they left Florida because (the state) just passed a statute.”

No one was arrested at the demonstration on Saturday because no crimes were committed. Panitch noted she would look into other legislation elsewhere to stop the group from rallying.

“But they need to know they’re not welcome in Georgia,” she said. “There’s no cover for them here.”

Rabbi Silverman reiterated that the best way to combat darkness is to “turn on the lights.”

“It’s more important on how we capitalize on this to make the community better, inspire people lift people up and focus on the positive that’s out there,” he said. “The vast majority of people in this city are wonderful ... and we shouldn’t allow a few pathetic individuals to take away from how we see our neighbors.”