OP-ED: Anti-Semitic forecast: What can be done?

Dani Fessler
York JCC
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, right, is hugged as he leaves a news conference at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, Sunday, April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif. A man opened fire Saturday inside the synagogue near San Diego as worshippers celebrated the last day of a major Jewish holiday. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

The heated discourse, the environment of extremes and the torrent narratives streaming on social media draw a clear and unmistakable forecast of anti-Semitism in our world.

The high frequency of violent anti-Semitic events is an established fact, not a statistical anomaly. A report by AMCHA, published last month, shows a 70% increase in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses and a report by the Jewish People Policy Institute (based in Israel) shows a steep rise in anti-Semitism in both Europe and the U.S.

The Anti-Defamation League has indicated this trend for several years. A year ago, terror struck in Pittsburgh. Six months ago — San Diego and New Jersey. And now, at this past year’s end, in New York.

This isn’t accidental nor a one-time thing. Between these major events, many dozens of “smaller” events of violence and vandalism directed at the Jewish community occurred. The anti-Semitic genie is out of the lamp and refuses to go back in.

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2017, file photo, Rabbi Joshua Bolton of the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel center surveys damaged headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. The shooting rampage that killed more than 10 people at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, is being decried as the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. Yet the carnage, however unprecedented, is not an aberration: Year after year, decade after decade, anti-Semitism proves to be among the most entrenched and pervasive forms of hatred and bigotry in the United States. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

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Society is gripped with radicalism and extremism. This radicalization of American society, highlighted by the heated discourse led by the political leadership on both sides, has clearly removed the roadblocks placed by past generations on hateful conduct and has resulted in a re-release of supremacy ideology on society. Law, political order, civil conduct — forces that had blocked this vile for so long — have all been weakened.

On these fertile grounds, coupled with open and uncensored social media, grow the fetid fruits of anti-Semitism. Nothing more is required. As history has sadly demonstrated, anti-Semitism was and is always hidden just beneath the thin layer of political correctness: public condemnations on the surface but a hostile environment underneath.

Yet, today’s novel circumstances invite easy access to it. What was once forbidden to say or to do is now viewed as legitimate. Jews are a highly prominent group in American society; Jewish institutions exist in every city and, as such, they are an immediate and vulnerable target.

It is no wonder then, with such a rise of hate, that the feeling of security of the Jewish community throughout the United States has been subverted. Rachel Singer, our York JCC director of arts and culture, said in a conversation with me:

“By the looks of me, you may not realize that I am of the Jewish faith, that my home is filled with the warmth of Hanukkah candles and that the smell of Matzah ball soup is a fan favorite in my home of five. You may not realize this because, unlike my Orthodox sisters, I prefer jeans to dresses and tank tops to long sleeves. I can normally be seen with birds around my neck representing my family rather than the Star of David… not for any particular reason except the birds were a gift from my mom. I may not appear 'Jewish' but — to know me — you would understand that my beliefs and values are indeed Jewish. And, I am not just Jewish in my private life but in my professional life as well.

"I am the face of the Culture & Arts Department. I am an informal Jewish educator. I have my master's degree in Jewish studies. And, I am very proud of my educational and professional accomplishments. I often brag, promote and disclose Jewish happenings on my personal social media pages. However, for the first time in my life, I find myself giving pause as to whether or not I want to share my Jewish side with the strangers of the internet. As I said, I have a family now to protect, three young kids and a husband. 

"I love what I do and find joy in our holidays. But, where is the joy when people — my people — are being targeted? Where do we go from here? Do we remain silent and think this too shall pass, do we express feelings and thoughts like this in order to shed some light, do we organize a march on Washington, or do we do something completely different and, if so, what?”

To me, the answer to these pressing questions starts with each and every one of us — Jew and non-Jew alike — applying heavy pressure on our local, state and federal authorities to start processes that will halt the current increase in these incidents. They may not eradicate them but, at the very least, they may slow them down. Political pressure must be applied on public representatives and in the court of public opinion, demanding unequivocally that the authorities step in and provide immediate and effective protection. After all, is this not the primary function of the state?

Such concentrated and collective measures have been taken in Pennsylvania's capital recently. After the anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, where 11 Jews were killed and another six were injured, a number of community organizations — including the Pennsylvania's Jewish Coalition — went to great lengths to advocate for House Bill 859, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf this past November. This law will provide funds to institutions of both a religious (mosque, synagogues, churches, etc.) and community (YMCAs, JCCs, schools, senior centers, etc.) nature to improve their security.

I want to let you know that the York JCC has applied for and will be using these funds to increase the security of our facilities over the course of this new year. There is no immediate threat to the safety of our members. We are making this move out of an abundance of caution. We wish to restore a sense of security in these frightening times, knowing such defensive measures are only part of the solution.

The other part — in which we will need everyone’s help — is our continued efforts to lay new lines of communication, to build new bridges of understanding, to reinforce the rejuvenating power of community relations with those inside and outside our Jewish institutions. By these and other offensive measures, we can and we surely will establish a robust bulwark to push back on the rising tide of witlessness with wisdom, hate with heart, and fear with unwavering faith in one another once again. This we shall do securely and safely together.

— Dani Fessler is president & CEO of the York Jewish Community Center.