Diane Gensler
Life Member, Hadassah Baltimore

How to Handle an Antisemitic Incident

Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.
Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.

I recently attended a Hadassah Zoom meeting called “Antisemitism: Trends and Action.” There was a good turnout, and the material covered a vast array of places and groups that spread antisemitic rhetoric (as well as a listing of incidents that have occurred over the last several years). If the presentation was meant to scare us and put us on alert, it did an excellent job. It certainly raised awareness. There was a strong message that if you are a Jew in America today, you aren’t safe anywhere.

At the end, the panel was answering questions. One person asked what to do if you are faced with antisemitism. This assumes that, firstly, you can identify antisemitism, as it is not always obvious and often disguised. (Every Jew should be educated on identifying it, as this can be an entire course or presentation unto itself.)  Addressing this question, I was also thinking of the myriad of ways one could be faced with antisemitism and thought it an exceptionally good but broad question. Of course, your first priority should be your safety and those around you. Make sure you are in a safe place or get yourself to a safe place.

I decided to research this question with a more limited scope.

  1. If you are faced in person with verbal antisemitism, what should you do?

Again, I’m sure we’d be told by professionals to make sure we are safe. We want to avoid having an incident escalate into violence. I think how you react also depends on your surroundings. Where are you? How many people are around you? How many of those people are friends or supporters? How unbalanced do you think the person is who is saying these hateful things?

Perhaps the real question is do we speak up? And if we speak up, do we have the tools we need to address this insidious foe correctly and appropriately? Or perhaps the question is can we hold our temper? I always take a moment before I respond to someone. I want to respond thoughtfully, and I want my words to make an impact.

In the Hadassah magazine article “Dinner in Boca with a Side of Anti-Semitism,” Stanley Harris writes, “To many Jews, an argument is a conflict, words are weapons and logic is grand strategy. One wins with vocabulary and logic. But logic doesn’t work with anti-Semites. If they really believe they are doing society a favor by ridding the world of Jews, no amount of reasoning will convince them otherwise.”

Will it make a difference if we speak up?

Harris also writes, “History has proven that one who appears as a bigot or extremist to some is often followed by (or follows) others who share the same amoral convictions while appearing acceptable to society.” The menacing guy in the diner who spewed antisemitic words at Harris and his fellow diners was alone. But we must consider how many people we may be up against at one time. Again, let’s stay safe.

Harris “lost his cool.” He was lucky things did not deteriorate into more violence. The diner incident ended with several staff escorting the loudmouth out of the restaurant. Get help. Alert managers, employees, or workers. At the very least, they don’t want inappropriate behavior disrupting their business.

We are told repeatedly to stand up to antisemitism. Figuratively or literally? How does one stand up to antisemitism when you are face to face with a perpetrator? Will anything you say or do make an impression? Will violence erupt? We are walking a fine line here. Actually, walking may be the answer, as sometimes it is better to simply walk away. Sometimes it is wiser to address something later and not in the heat of the moment if you are able.

If we feel it is safe to speak up, what do we say? Can we say something that will show the other person the error of his or her ways? Is that even possible? Perhaps it would help to ask that person, “What would make you say that?” and take it from there. Maybe it would be a good idea to say, “I find that very offensive.” How do you think the other person would react? Whatever you decide to say, it must be in a calm, thoughtful manner which can be hard to do.

I would caution you to think carefully before speaking and take your situation and surroundings into consideration. In addition, are you familiar with Jewish history? the state of affairs in the Middle East? the propaganda that is used against the Jews? the current antisemitic groups in the U.S.? If not, perhaps you should educate yourself before taking a stance. It is important to understand where antisemitism comes from and how to diffuse it.

In a Forward article titled, “Antisemitism: How to Respond if you’re the Victim or a Witness,” Molly Boigon writes, “Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, said Jews should consider antisemitic instances opportunities to teach others about Judaism. ‘Every situation, even uncomfortable ones, offers Jews an opportunity to share with and inspire those around us…As a visibly Chassidic Jew, I’ve chosen to have conversations with people who have made antisemitic comments to me, pointing out that I am a real human being who did nothing to them, and more importantly highlighting their innate humanity. We are all, truly, children of one G-d, each placed on this earth to accomplish something positive in our individual circumstances.'”

While I agree with Rabbi Seligson, I believe that many situations cannot be handled in this way, even though I wish they could. If the person is willing to engage in conversation, then, by all means, this would be a great way to go.

It is important to report the incident. Hadassah, in conjunction with other organizations, has set up hotlines and other communications where incidents can be reported. This is also important for tracking purposes. In that same article, Molly Boigon writes, “Richman of the ADL said his organization can be helpful when an incident does not rise to the level of a crime. Tracking incidents that are not criminal helps the ADL advise lawmakers and departments of trends, and also informs their advocacy.”

Don’t be silent!

  1. If you see an antisemitic post or someone has responded to you online with antisemitic jargon, what should you do?

Again, make certain that you are safe. Is your account private? Can you be tracked? There is a wealth of information on Internet security and privacy.

How foreboding is the post? Does it sound threatening? Dangerous? If so, this must be reported, and law enforcement must be alerted.

According to a handout from an interactive educational program from ADL, Words to Action: Empowering Students to Address Antisemitism, “If an antisemitic incident is initiated by anonymous aggressor or comes from an unknown source, do not respond to hostile messages and do not delete them. Should illegal behavior occur, that post may be needed as evidence. “The handout also suggests blocking them and/or filing a complaint.

What if you know this person? How well do you know this person? How comfortable are you in speaking directly to this person and explaining the fault with the post or comment? Can you take the conversation offline and speak one-on-one? Should you get a professional or someone equipped to manage this involved? Again, there are many resources and people to contact for help.

In each instance, you will have to weigh your choices carefully and accordingly. It is up to you how to handle the situation, but please consider all the choices and possible consequences. And please keep your head about you!

There are a multitude of resources on this topic since there are many more ways to fight antisemitism and in the different places you might encounter it. Hadassah has done a tremendous job of providing resources and partnerships. In a May 20, 2022 Hadassah website article titled “Eight Ways You Can Fight Antisemitism,” the reader is encouraged to sign up for Hadassah action alerts, meet with legislators, and be an upstander not a bystander. There is plenty you can do to help. Get involved!

And, once again, I remind you to please stay safe.

About the Author
Diane Gensler is a Life Member of Hadassah Baltimore and a lay leader in her synagogue. She is the author of Forgive Us Our Trespasses: A Memoir of a Jewish Teacher in a Catholic School (Apprentice House Press, 2020) and occasionally writes articles for organizations of which she is a member, such as the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. She is a certified English and special education teacher. In addition to teaching in public and private schools, she developed educational software, tutored online and wrote and managed online curriculum. She is a Maryland Writing Project Teacher Consultant and a mentor. A native Baltimorean and mother of three, she leads the Baltimore Jewish Writers Guild and holds volunteer positions in her children’s schools and activities.
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