Jewish mayor draws strength from family roots

Posted on: August 31st, 2017 by tgregory

By RON KAMPEAS

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, the mayor has reversed his position and called for Confederate statues to be removed from downtown Charlottesville.

Michael Signer speaking to “Meet the Press,” Aug. 14. PHOTO PROVIDED BY JTA AND TAKEN FROM YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (JTA) — Michael Signer, the Jewish mayor of Charlottesville, has one thing in common with the white supremacists who descended on his southern Virginia city over the weekend: He also opposed the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. 

Of course, Signer’s reasons for preserving the statue would have appalled the supremacists: He agreed with local African-American activists who had argued that preserving the statue was a means of teaching Virginians about the horrors of a “dishonorable” cause, the Confederacy.

Signer was on the losing side of a 3-2 City Council decision, and the statue is now slated for removal. But his thoughtful approach, more typical of an academic than a politician, has also been evident in his counsel during the rash of protests that have plagued this city: “Don’t take the bait,” he has said.

In giving that advice, Signer has noted that for the first time in his life, he has been the target of intense baiting as a Jew.

“I can’t see the world through a black person’s eyes,” he said at an address earlier this summer at an African-American church, where he urged constituents not to give in to the impulse to counter hatred with hatred.

“I can see it through a Jewish person’s eyes; the KKK hates Jews just as much as they hate black people. The stuff with this group online about Jews is unbelievable, bloodcurdling. The stuff I’ve gotten on my phone at my house, you’d think it was done a hundred years ago.”

Signer, 44, a practicing lawyer in Charlottesville, also lectures on politics and leadership at the University of Virginia, his law school alma mater. His wife, Emily Blout, is an Iran scholar at the same university, which is in Charlottesville.

An Arlington native, Signer is the child of journalists, but in his author’s autobiography sounds like many other younger liberal Jews who note with pride their grandparents’ working class and intellectual roots:

“My grandfather was a Jeep mechanic for the Army on the European front in World War II and lifetime member of the proofreaders’ union at the New York Times; he lost part of a finger in an industrial accident as a young man,” he wrote. “My grandmother organized seamstresses on her factory floor in New York City and later worked as a secretary to Hannah Arendt at the New School.”

In a January speech declaring Charlottesville “a capital of the resistance,” Signer described his grandfather as a “Jewish kid raised in the Bronx” who was “part of the forces that liberated the world from Nazism and fascism, that laid the groundwork for NATO and the Marshall Plan, and for a country that lived up to the promises of the Statue of Liberty. …

“If he were alive right now, I don’t think I could look him in the face and say Grandpa, I didn’t fight for the values you fought for.” •