'How Is This Happening Here?' Jews in Uber-liberal California Face anti-Semitism Wave

A series of attacks shocks residents of the Bay Area town of Alameda, as acts of anti-Semitism increase 30 percent across California, according to the Anti-Defamation League

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Hundreds of protesters demonstrating against a smaller number of pro-Confederate supporters in Knoxville, Tennessee, August 26, 2017.
Hundreds of protesters demonstrating against a smaller number of pro-Confederate supporters in Knoxville, Tennessee, August 26, 2017.Credit: SPENCER PLATT/AFP

With its streets full of electric cars and rainbow flags that snap in the bay breeze, white supremacists should be out of place in Alameda, California. But since the election of President Donald Trump, this liberal island city has been rocked by a series of anti-Semitic incidents, including an attack on the Temple Island synagogue earlier this month that shattered two windows.

The Anti-Defamation League says the attacks are indicative of California "leading the nation" when it comes to anti-Semitic incidents.

Incidents started within days of Trump’s victory last November, when Edison Elementary School was marred by graffiti featuring a gun and mention of Hitler. Earlier this year, a swastika was drawn on a dumpster, while last week fliers were found on a sidewalk depicting a swastika on an image of a woman wearing a hijab – a graphic that managed to offend and frighten multiple groups in the Bay Area city.

After the first school graffiti, the district encouraged community members to greet students at each of the city’s elementary schools with signs displaying hearts and the words “Everyone Belongs Here.”

But there were more incidents to come. At one of the city’s elementary schools, a Jewish fourth-grader told the class of her family trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, saying the Nazis and KKK were bad people. One of the students responded by telling her that Hitler “should have put you in the oven,” recounts the girl’s mother, Alicia Cernitz.

At the city’s largest high school, freshman Natasha Waldorf received a series of virulently anti-Semitic texts from classmates, including “kike” references and other insults. She was texted a picture of the Mr. Clean marketing image sporting Nazi uniform, titled “Mr. Ethnic Cleansing.” She heard two other students joking about the Holocaust and when she confronted them was told, “Hitler should have finished the job.”

Sarah Weintraub, a senior at the same school, faced similar problems. When assigned a book that included material on Jewish culture, one of her classmates posted a series of negative comments on social media, as well as threats and anti-Semitic comments against Weintraub.

The student was forced to remove the offensive posts, but never apologized and remains in three of Weintraub’s classes.

A vigil in Alameda after two windows were broken at the island city's Temple Israel synagogue.Credit: Sharon Hoffman Alva

“I was shocked that it took place in Alameda. I always saw Alameda as a place of high tolerance,” says Treya Weintraub, Sarah’s mother.

Meanwhile, with help from her Oakland congregation rabbi, Cernitz contacted her daughter’s school administration at Edison Elementary and started an inclusion committee. “You bring something to eat and you talk to someone you don’t know who is different from you,” she says. “You are going to be less likely to have these biases.”

“I am so lucky,” Cernitz says of her school community and principal. “But there is no uniformity in how the schools deal with it. Kids at three different schools have three different experiences. One, restorative justice; one could sweep it under the rug; and one could be something else.”

Jessica Lindsey and Mel Waldorf, the parents of the high school freshman who received the texts, do not feel lucky. They have confronted the district, asking that more be done.

Now at school as a sophomore, their daughter now sits back in class with one of the boys who sent her hateful texts. They have complained to the school district, demanding the superintendent’s resignation, feeling that not enough was done to punish the harassers and condemn the anti-Semitic texts.

Schools Superintendent Sean McPhetridge acknowledges the rise in anti-Semitic incidents. “It seems to me that since January, I’ve heard these reports in ways we have not before,” he says. “There is a cognitive dissonance. How is this happening here? We have to acknowledge the problem.”

The district’s response has been to add to its antibias education and push forward with its Everyone Belongs Here campaign.

But adopting a restorative justice approach rather than a punitive approach, and allowing each site to define its own response, has not been enough for some families.

“I am a redemptive person,” says McPhetridge. “Our district needs to be a redemptive, restorative place. We bring in those students and make amends.”

McPhetridge explains that in restorative justice practices, schools are “making them reflect on what they’ve done and understand how it has impacted individuals. Make amends and heal the world. Some families want students expelled.”

Ben Washofsky is principal at Island High School. “Part of my job is to support my staff in talking to students about these topics,” he says. “How do I make my school more inclusive for everyone? I don’t focus on anti-Semitism specifically,” he adds, although acknowledges that his experience with anti-Semitism has informed his approach.

‘Three-piece suit white supremacists’

Alameda is not alone. According to Seth Brysk, the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific regional director, California has seen a rise of over 30 percent in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the first quarter of 2017, from the same period in 2016. (These numbers exclude the bomb threats to Jewish organizations that have since been attributed to an Israeli-American teenager.)

“California has, from our analysis, consistently led the nation in the number of anti-Semitic incidents,” Brysk says, adding that the state has long led the country in white supremacist groups.

Supporters for and against a Fort Sanders Confederate memorial monument facing off in Knoxville, Tennessee, August 26, 2017.Credit: SPENCER PLATT/AFP

“What we’re seeing more broadly is the rise of what we’ve called the ‘three-piece suit white supremacists,’” he says. “They cloak themselves in an air of respectability, saying they are protecting white culture, white civil rights or Euro-American identity.”

The ADL does not break down data by region, so Brysk couldn’t say whether the Bay Area has seen a greater increase in incidents than other parts of the state. “Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but the Bay Area is like the rest of the United States,” he says.

“White supremacists are feeling emboldened,” he continues. “The rhetoric of the [presidential] campaign and the use of social media let groups set aside their lack of unity and come together around extreme ideology. As we saw in Charlottesville, these are very much fringe elements.” However, he warns that acts of violence or terrorism only need one person.

Rabbi Barnett Brickner was the rabbi at Alameda’s Temple Israel between 2012 and June 2017. “I don’t want to believe there is a concentrated effort to malign Jews or Judaism,” he says. He concedes there is a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Alameda, “but enough of a rise to worry?” He struggles between refusal to be a victim and not wanting to bury his head in the sand. He admits, though, that the community “may have failed to respond” strongly enough following the initial anti-Semitic incident last November.

Like Brysk, Brickner sees Trump as part of the problem. “There is a rise in the expression of anti-Semitism,” he says, “but it has always been there. Donald Trump gives permission for a more focused anti-Semitism.”

For now, Alameda is responding in its own characteristic way. When the synagogue’s windows were shattered on August 17, hundreds showed up for a vigil and Temple Israel’s interim rabbi, Rabbi Steven Chester, reached out to local Imams and will be meeting with them to address the concerns of religious minorities.

The police are investigating the synagogue attack as a hate crime. Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri says he has reviewed footage from the synagogue’s cameras and the adjacent area. “We saw a man in a hoodie, covered face. He made an overt attempt to conceal his identity,” he says. “There is a church not a hundred feet away. He walked right by that area and walked up to the temple.”

The Temple Island synagogue in Alameda. "There is a rise in the expression of anti-Semitism," says the synagogue's former rabbi.Credit: Sharon Hoffman Alva

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