The rising tide of anti-Semitism threatens more than Jewish lives 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs addressing the Solidarity Rally in Brooklyn, New York, Jan. 5, 2020. (Theo Hansen/Union for Reform Judaism)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs addressing the Solidarity Rally in Brooklyn, New York, Jan. 5, 2020. (Theo Hansen/Union for Reform Judaism)

It is irrefutable: We are undergoing an explosion of hate in the United States, which includes a dramatic increase in violent anti-Semitic attacks. And our Jewish community must cease being distracted by the debate about whether the uptick in anti-Semitism is from the right or the left or the center or anywhere in between.

Wherever it is from, wherever we find it, we must stand united and strong against it. Above all, we must never lose sight that an attack on any of us is an attack on all of us. When it is unsafe for traditional Jews to walk around Brooklyn or go to the grocery store in Jersey City, or celebrate Hanukkah at home in Monsey, that is a crisis for everyone in every part of our Jewish community.

Here are three of the least helpful and most dangerous responses, which undercut the very actions and strategies necessary to delegitimize hate speech and to de-escalate and eliminate hate crimes. Here, too, are more constructive approaches we must take.

1. Hate speech coming from the top

To politicians and communal leaders who engage themselves in hate speech: You can’t foment hatred and discrimination in many forms while later claiming to be combating anti-Semitism. Hate speech by our leaders emboldens those who engage in hate crimes. To signal that it is OK to denigrate or demonize those who are “other” – be they immigrants, Muslims, gays, women, People of Color or Jews – is to signal to haters that they have the stamp of authority to act against their targets.

Let’s be clear: The use by political leaders of anti-Semitic tropes, including that of American Jews having dual loyalty to the US and Israel, endangers us all – and to truly keep American Jewry safe, elected officials must not use Jews or anti-Semitism as political fodder.

2. Blaming all African Americans

To those who blame the Black community in general or anti-Semitic attacks perpetrated by Black individuals, we say: This is reprehensible. This ignores the Black leaders and communities across America who have stood with us, over and over again, to denounce such anti-Semitic attacks (as we have stood with them to denounce hate crimes against Blacks, which still far outnumber even those against Jews in America). To cast the sins of the few on an entire people is blatant racism, not its antidote.

3. Prejudice against those in our own community

I was immensely proud to march in NYC on Sunday with a remarkably wide cross-section of the Jewish community and its allies. Diversity is a source of great strength. In this spirit, we must be cognizant, as well, of the growing number of Jews of Color in our community who face not only anti-Semitism but also the challenges and dangers that all People of Color disproportionately face.

We must recognize, too, that those challenges can be exacerbated by our own prejudices in our own Jewish institutions. We hear reports of far too many instances in which increased security leads to Jews of Color being regarded as impostors or potential criminals. This discrimination against our fellow Jews must end.

* * *

During these times when our Jewish community feels vulnerable, there is a natural inclination to want to hunker down in our buildings, separating ourselves from the wider community. But if we learned anything from Pittsburgh and Poway, it’s that to be safe, we need strong bonds – not just among Jews everywhere, but with other marginalized groups who are likely to find themselves victims of hate crimes, as well as with civil society, political leaders, law enforcement, and, especially, with other faith communities.

Anti-Semitism has been around for millennia, but the kind of interfaith solidarity we have helped create throughout the past three generations is new. Previously, when Jews were victims of murderous anti-Semitic attacks, it was rare for anyone to stand with us or around us. Today, we show up for each other as a normal part of our civic lives and religious responsibility, setting an inspiring example of what sacred allyship is all about. By working together so closely to confront these explosions of hate crimes and hate rhetoric, we model our vision for America.

Crucially, unlike earlier periods in Jewish history, today’s anti-Semitism is different in America in that it is not explicitly government-sanctioned. Today, though some responses have been sluggish and inadequate, anti-Semitic incidents in New York and New Jersey have been denounced by elected officials at all levels. Our leaders have promised to devote resources toward combatting anti-Semitic attitudes and protecting Jewish institutions and have stood in solidarity with the Jewish community. We will hold these leaders accountable – but let us be clear about the importance of supportive voices from across the political spectrum.

At a time when our nation feels so divided, it was a breath of fresh air to see on Sunday such diversity in the multitude of those walking arm-in-arm to confront anti-Semitism. Such a bipartisan, multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious coalition of decency, which was at the core of every social advance in 20th century America, is desperately needed today to confront the urgent challenges we face at home and abroad.

And just perhaps, the trust and common purpose evoked by our efforts to confront anti-Semitism — and hate crimes more generally — will help redirect America to make real the goals of justice and equality in which a diverse Jewish community will continue to flourish for centuries to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America
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