Confronting Anti-Semitism in America

by David Harris
No one is born hating, but, tragically, some are taught to hate, whether in the name of racial purity, religious doctrine, political dogma, ethnic stereotyping, sheer jealousy—you name it.

To state the obvious, Jews have never been immune from these age-old cancers. Nor is it the case today.

In the last few weeks alone, there have been bomb threats by the dozens against Jewish community centers across the country. Other Jewish institutions – organizations, synagogues, schools – have been on the receiving end of menacing calls and messages. Cemetery desecrations of Jewish headstones in St. Louis and Philadelphia have occurred. Nazi graffiti and slurs have been encountered in Buffalo. Swastikas have been burned into the hallway carpeting in front of Jewish students’ rooms in a school dormitory. The list goes on.

Yes, they coexist with another reality, namely, that most American Jews live comfortable and secure lives in a land where pretty much every door is now wide open to them, and where 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 this wave of bigotry and viciousness.

Who exactly is behind this remains to be seen. 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 also at work?

While we anxiously await further news about the perpetrators that will lead, hopefully, to their quick arrest and conviction, more American Jews today are rattled by these developments than at any time in recent memory.

Suddenly, decisions for some take on new meaning. Are parents being responsible in sending their children to the local Jewish community center for nursery school or toddler programs? Are there other places Jews should avoid?

After all, if even the deep sleep of those buried in a Jewish cemetery can be disturbed by people determined to trample on their memory, what’s safe space these days?

This current problem is not entirely new. There were, for example, violent assaults on Jewish community centers in 1999 in California and 2014 in Kansas, and against a Jewish federation in Washington State in 2006. But somehow, tragic as they were, these attacks were seen as more isolated incidents, unlike the current situation, which is national in nature.

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 actions.

At every level, from local to state to national, our authorities – who, it should be stressed, need to have total political backing – must dedicate greater resources to confronting and ending the physical dangers, and, in the process, coordinating intelligence and actions. 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” might have taken on a certain clichéd meaning for some Americans, but its importance remains undiminished. Even with a full-court press, law enforcement can’t be everywhere at all times, either on the streets or, for that matter, in cyberspace. Their efforts can be helped significantly by those on the lookout for violent attitudes and behavior, whether against Jews or other racial, faith, or ethnic communities.

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

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

After all, anti-Semitism, like any form of racism, violates every norm of America’s self-definition. It rips at the fabric of our democratic and pluralistic society. 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 anti-Semitic threats and incidents of recent weeks, there has been violence against other vulnerable communities as well, including the fatal attack – which has all the appearances of a hate-inspired crime – 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 anti-Semitism came in 1993 in Billings, Montana, after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery and a near-miss attempt to kill a five-year-old Jewish boy in his house, where a Hanukkah menorah was displayed in the window.

Led by the police chief and a newspaper editor, thousands of local residents took a replica of the Hanukkah 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. We will not remain silent or lay low.” The strategy worked. While anti-Semitism may not have been totally eliminated, the majority spoke up powerfully, isolating the haters.

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 (Hebrew Bible) while standing on one foot, he said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

As our political and law enforcement officials pursue their vital jobs, and consider what additional tools they need, we should recall that every major religion has a variation on this theme, which we refer to as the Golden Rule. When asking how each one of us can respond to these unsettling times, perhaps this would be a good place to begin.

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!

David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

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