Thursday, April 25th | 20 Nisan 5779

March 1, 2017 7:33 am

Confronting Antisemitism in America

avatar by David Harris

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An interfaith rally at the Chicago Loop Synagogue after it was vandalized with swastikas in an antisemitic incident Feb. 4, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

An interfaith rally at the Chicago Loop Synagogue after it was vandalized with swastikas in an antisemitic incident Feb. 4, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

No one is born hating other people. Yet, tragically, some are taught to hate — whether in the name of racial purity, religious doctrine, political dogma, ethnic stereotyping, sheer jealousy, etc.

To state the obvious, Jews have often been the victims of such hatred.

In the past few weeks alone, there have been dozens of bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country. Other Jewish institutions — organizations, synagogues, schools — have been on the receiving end of menacing phone calls and messages. Cemetery desecrations have occurred in places such as in St. Louis and Philadelphia. Nazi graffiti and slurs have been seen in Buffalo and across the country. The list goes on and on.

Yet these attacks also coexist with another reality — namely, that most American Jews live comfortable and secure lives in a land where almost all doors are wide open to them. For instance, a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, showed that Jews are the most positively viewed religious group in the United States. But that’s of little solace to those who have experienced, directly or indirectly, the impact of the latest wave of antisemitic bigotry.

It’s still unclear who is responsible for these attacks. Are they lone individuals? Are they many or few? Are they connected to one another by shared ideology and allegiance, or are they more amorphous and atomized? Is a copycat phenomenon at work?

Regardless, more American Jews have been rattled by these latest developments than at any time in recent memory.

Suddenly, decisions have to be made. Should parents be sending their children to the local Jewish community center or nursery school? Are there other places Jews should avoid?

The current problem is not entirely new. There were, for example, violent assaults on Jewish community centers in 1999 in California and 2014 in Kansas; a Jewish federation in Washington state was attacked in 2006. But, tragic as they were, those attacks were seen as isolated incidents — unlike the current situation, which is national in nature.

So what can be done about today’s reality?

First, of course, there is law enforcement.

No one else has the capacity to investigate, identify and pursue those who may be involved in such malicious acts.

At every level — from federal to state — the authorities must dedicate greater resources to confronting and stop these threats. This is beginning to happen, we are told, and it is gratifying to know that the FBI and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, among other key actors, are on the case.

Second, the expression “If you see something, say something” must be put into practice. Despite their best efforts, law enforcement can’t be everywhere at all times. They must be supplemented by the watchfulness of civilians.

And finally, the pillars of our broader civil society — religious leaders, civil rights advocates, the media, school officials, individuals — all have an essential role to play.

Antisemitism is not an exclusively Jewish matter. Rather, it should be viewed as a much broader concern.

After all, antisemitism, like any form of racism, violates every norm of America’s self-definition. It rips at the fabric of our democratic and pluralistic society. And it challenges the mutual respect and coexistence that form the heart of the American experiment. If any group is targeted, all groups are at risk.

Indeed, amid the wave of antisemitic threats and incidents of recent weeks, there has been violence against other vulnerable communities as well, including the fatal attack on an Indian engineer in Kansas.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

One especially heartwarming and instructive response to antisemitism came in 1993 in Billings, Montana, after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery there — and after a five-year-old Jewish boy was nearly killed (the perpetrators of that attack knew it was a Jewish home because there was a menorah in the window.

Led by the police chief and a newspaper editor, thousands of local residents took a replica of the menorah printed in the Billings Gazette, and placed it in their windows. In effect, they were saying to the bigots: “We are all Jews. You’re going to have to come after every one of us.” The strategy worked.

In recent days, the image of Vice President Mike Pence and members of the St. Louis community, including Muslims and Jews, working together to restore the vandalized Jewish cemetery was another illustration of the power of partnership and shared destiny.

When Rabbi Hillel was asked 2,000 years ago to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

We must follow this advice.

And that, in turn, can lead us in the direction of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s unforgettable words, spoken in 1966: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Here’s to many tiny ripples of hope.

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