U.S. Jews Seek Ways to Fight New Age of anti-Semitism

Synagogue security is a must, and Jewish leaders are speaking out for other minorities against white supremacists

Rodef Shalom Synagogue, Pittsburgh, October 23, 2019
Jared Kohler

BOSTON — On a night in May, firebombs were hurled at two synagogues in leafy, normally quiet Boston suburbs — one shul was hit the second time that week. The flames were quickly doused; the damage was minimal. But the attacks, coming after the deadly synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, were another reminder of the dramatic escalation of anti-Semitic incidents nationwide and a new level of danger felt by American Jews.

“Somebody out there wants to hurt us,” Chanie Krinsky wrote on Facebook. Krinsky and her husband, Rabbi Mendy Krinsky, co-direct the Needham Chabad center, one of the two Chabad synagogues — which double as homes — that were attacked. “Just because we exist,” Krinsky wrote. “And that is frightening. Hate can’t be reasoned with. Hate just needs to be eradicated.”

In Boston and across America and around the world, the number of anti-Semitic incidents is sharply rising — the two synagogue shootings in October 2018 and April 2019 the most jarring of all. These events have sparked a new level of fear among American Jews for their physical safety, as well as a sense that anti-Semites are now emboldened, whether it’s the torch-carrying neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” in 2017 or the vandals who, toward the end of the Sukkot holiday this month, destroyed a sukkah at Michigan State University.

Supporters of the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist political group, give Nazi salutes while taking part in a swastika burning at an undisclosed location in Georgia, U.S. on April 21, 2018.
GO NAKAMURA/ REUTERS

But amid the rising fears, people in the community note that Jews have more of a voice and influence than groups that feel even more threatened in 2019 America. And in the Boston area, like other parts of the country, the response among some Jews, especially progressives, has been to redouble efforts to support other vulnerable minorities.

“One cannot disassociate the rise in anti-Semitic attacks from the corollary rise in white supremacism. There is a violent form of white Christian nationalism that has manifested against people who don’t fit that mold — if immigrant, black, or Jewish people,” says Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Formerly a rabbi in Boston, he has played a key role in building interfaith ties in Massachusetts.

“First and foremost, [a response] means showing up. Showing up for Orthodox families in Brooklyn, showing up for migrant families,” Pesner told Haaretz, referring to the recent spate of violent attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and the government crackdown on asylum seekers including the separation of parents from their children. “We need to raise the volume of outrage and be in solidarity with our Muslim family and with people of color …. Part of the way we are all safer is through solidarity.”

Nahma Nadich, acting executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, says she sees a new level of anxiety among Jews about the national and local situation. Massachusetts is experiencing near-record numbers of anti-Semitic incidents — which most recently included news that some students at a suburban middle school created a Snapchat group called “Kill the Jews.”

She sees the deep relationships built with other communities in the area as essential in the fight against anti-Semitism. “When something terrible happens, including after the Pittsburgh attack, some of the first calls we receive are from Christian and Muslim groups … it makes such a difference not to feel alone,” Nadich says.

She adds: “Certainly in the dramatic moments people show up, but there are also lots of smaller moments where people are showing up as well.” Nadich also notes conversations where, when non-Jews reach out trying to learn more, she and her colleagues find themselves having to explain basic anti-Semitic tropes revolving around power and money.

Meanwhile, social justice mobilizing has included activists hosting asylum seekers in their homes and Jewish community members traveling to the San Diego area to get a better picture of what’s happening to asylum seekers on the border at ICE detention centers.

“People are desperately trying to figure out what in God’s name to do,” Nadich says.

According to Robert Trestan, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in New England, 2018 was the second highest year for anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts on record; 2017 was worse. “And the numbers for 2019 in Massachusetts have already surpassed 2018 in the first six months of the year,” he says.

“Anti-Semitism is at the top of their list of concerns” of the Jews he speaks to in the region, Trestan says. This Sunday, one year since a white supremacist killed 11 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the New England ADL is hosting an event for the Boston community on fighting anti-Semitism. The program includes workshops on how to articulate the phenomenon today and how it’s seen in different places, from college campuses to the media. There are also plans to distribute a tool kit for combating anti-Semitism.

Stars with the names of victims placed around the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after the shooting that killed 11 worshippers and wounded seven others last year, October 24, 2019.
Keith Srakocic/AP

The event, he says, “is designed for people in our community to have a better understanding of anti-Semitism: How do you talk about it? How do you convey what’s happening to those who might not know?”

A wider problem?

In a country where most Jews grew up thinking that after the Holocaust anti-Semitism’s darkest days were over, the increase in attacks and incidents that are then amplified by online trolling and memes has been disorienting.

As Raphael Bob-Waksberg, a Jewish American comedian and actor, put it in an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air”: “It felt like a thing of the past. It felt like, oh, the Holocaust happened, and that was terrible, but now we live in sophisticated times. You know, now it’s okay to be a Jew, and, you know, there are people who still have this, like, anti-Jewish rhetoric, but they’re, you know, really on the fringes. And it’s really been a wake-up call in the last few years to feel like, oh, not only are they not in the fringes, but there are some of them running the country.”

Sarah Hirschorn, a visiting assistant professor in Israel studies at Northwestern University, is concerned that some Jews aren’t focusing enough on the specific threat against Jews.

“There’s a certain part of the liberal Jewish community that doesn’t want this being about Jews, that instead it’s about white nationalism and guns. But it’s also about people killing Jews,” she says.

Anti-gun protest in Pittsburgh this week. 'Some liberal Jews don't want this being about Jews, but about white nationalism and guns. But it’s also about people killing Jews'
Jared Kohler

“It’s an extremely challenging thought that makes us abandon our myth of American exceptionalism. And I know we don’t want to do that. But how many Pittsburghs or Poways do we think it will take to look in that direction? So why are we not paying attention to that? Why do we want to deflect?

“Because, it gets to the terror of anti-Semitism – that you cannot avoid it, it will come to you wherever you are. We like to think of it as a one-time deal, but every week we’re reading about new graffiti or attempted arson, or people being beat up. It seems to be accumulating …. We haven’t wanted to take this on as our American Jewish consciousness because it’s extremely painful. But dying is painful too.”

Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust history at Emory University, whose most recent book is “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” says she’s drawing larger audiences than ever for her talks. When once 200 people might come, now she’s seeing overflow crowds of 600 plus.

“For the first time Jews are concerned about their physical safety,” she says. “On the minds of many Jews is how do we identify it? How do we understand anti-Semitism – if something is just obnoxious? And is the threat more on the right or more on the left?”

As she puts it, “I don’t think it’s a puncturing of the dream or that we are not welcome in America. The police are still here to protect us in a nanosecond. This is not 1930s Germany,” she says, but adds that “it’s a new reality.”

Synagogue security

Central to the new reality that Lipstadt refers to is increased security at synagogues and Jewish schools and institutions. The armed police officers seen outside European synagogues has been increasingly commonplace for American Jews since the massacre in Pittsburgh a year ago.

And it’s not just police officers guarding synagogues, it’s members of congregations seen patrolling with walkie-talkies and earpieces, like at the synagogue Lipstadt belongs to in Atlanta. It’s also active-shooter drills at synagogues and Jewish-community centers. “Life has changed,” she says.

Bari Weiss, the New York Times columnist who just published the book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” told Haaretz about how she was walking in Central Park over Rosh Hashanah and saw a group of worshippers from a synagogue on their way to do the holiday’s outdoor Tashlich ritual. They were escorted by three police officers and a police dog.

Bari Weiss
Sam Bloom

“It’s a very different state of affairs,” she says, regarding increased security, something she also sees in the Jewish venues she speaks at across the country.

The question of how to handle security and make people feel safe while also remaining welcoming, open places of worship is the question confronting Jewish professional and lay leaders. Another key question is how to pay for it.

Trestan of the ADL says that over the past year, his office in Boston has conducted several well-attended training sessions for Jewish institutions and those of other faiths. “We are living in a world where everyone is much more conscious about security,” he says. “For security to work, everyone needs to be part of a security plan — to have ears and eyes open and have a high level of security consciousness.”

The burden on synagogues to provide and pay for security comes at a time many congregations are struggling to retain membership and stay afloat financially.

In Massachusetts, the Jewish Community Relations Council has been working with the state government to expand a grant program to help cover security costs for religious and nonprofit facilities. The group says its lobbying helped create state funding, but it still considers the current $150,000 annual grant a token amount.

Referring to the grant, Nadich of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston says “it’s not as significant as it needs to be, but it’s a start.”

According to Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: “It’s really tragic that we now have to try not to become bunkers. So we look for ways to invest in security that fit with a culture of welcome.”

Lipstadt adds that in 2015, when she started writing her book on anti-Semitism, people asked her, “‘A book on anti-Semitism? Is that really necessary?’ Now people are asking: Where’s the update?”