The recent murders of Jews in Jersey City, done by fanatical anti-Semites who hate us just for existing, at first glance appears to be the same age-old story. Jews are hated, persecuted, and eventually either murdered or exiled by people who find our different ways of living, worshipping and (sometimes) even dressing to be repugnant to their sensibilities.
After the Jersey City attack, I was fortunate to be part of a working meeting with the Jersey City community, Jewish federation leaders, and officials from our city, state and federal government to try to explain the new anti-Semitism and figure out ways to combat it. This meeting, facilitated by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, included Democrats and Republicans, such as Ambassador Elan Carr, the U.S. special envoy on anti-Semitism; Gurbir Grewal, New Jersey’s attorney general, Congressman Josh Gottheimer, Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City, and law enforcement heads of Homeland Security, the N.J. state police, and the Hudson County prosecutor.
All were there to listen, to protect the Jewish community from additional violence, and to try to figure out ways to prevent it
In the past, whether in Spain in the Middle Ages; Eastern Europe in the 1700s to the 1900s; the Arab countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; or Germany in the 1930s and 1940, the Jews were painted as the Other and used as a scapegoat for any and all societal woes. These were coordinated campaigns of hate, organized and sanctioned by governments in these countries to simplify some very complicated issues, and also to deflect criticism of these same governments for their failings by placing blame on an unrelated third party. In those days, Jews were an easy target, because they mostly were separate from the day-to-day workings of any country where they were living, and they were seen as a nameless, faceless minority while in the diaspora. Though this official anti-Semitism was insidious, as it cut to the heart of people’s feelings of safety and belonging, it also was also fairly easy to identify and isolate to a single country or region.
Today, anti-Semitism is a fluid global scourge, often masked in other philosophies or movements. This makes it much more difficult to identify and even harder to fight. After World War II, anti-Semitism was somewhat muted, a result of the world’s guilt over the deaths of the 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. For the next 30 or 40 years it was not a major issue on the world stage, as Israel was seen as a refuge for Jews and a country that needed to be supported. Over the last several decades, however, as the Palestinian narrative has taken shape and been adopted as a proxy by many to hide their anti-Semitism, it has morphed to resurface in a new way. The players can be small groups of people who have met online and become empowered, or they can be individual people, lone wolves who now consider themselves part of a larger movement through their social media interactions and as a result are willing to act. Anti-Semitism is no longer contained in a single country or area, and it is growing, as many people hide behind their computer screens, where they do and say things that they would never consider doing or saying to someone in person.
Fortunately, anti-Semitism is now being fought aggressively by the very same type of people who in the past would have caused much of the harm to the Jews. That is, government officials, at all levels of government and from both parties.
At the meeting in Jersey City on Monday, there was a shared belief in the room that anti-Semitism is a scourge on our country that cannot be allowed. A lot of the blame was placed on the way people are taught to hate. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said that people are not born hating, and that it is a lot easier to love then to hate. As a Sikh, he understands discrimination more than most people; he and his family have been subject to taunting and ridicule because of their religion. Ambassador Elan Carr asserted that hate is being taught to young people and often is found online where young people now congregate. To combat this, he believes that education needs to address not only bullying but also all types of discrimination. He believes that any time there is a hate crime, mandated tolerance education must be a part of the sentence.
The members of the audience, who were predominantly chasidic Jews, as well as federation leaders and some secular citizens from Jersey City, wanted the officials to know that the various communities live well together and are good neighbors, and that the anti-Semitic act was done by outsiders who were not part of this diverse community. Local officials backed up that sentiment.
The takeaway for me was that though anti-Semitism is strong and growing, it still is a very fringe movement, that is opposed by most people of all backgrounds and beliefs. We need to be diligent about identifying and fighting anti-Semitism wherever we see it. And we must not be drawn into our silos, where we can only call it out when it comes from someone espousing a political philosophy anathema to our own. Most importantly, unlike the old anti-Semitism, which was state-sponsored and encouraged, today our government officials understand how dangerous anti-Semitism is — and that it is dangerous not just to the Jewish people but to society as a whole. Anti-Semitism is the canary in the coal mine of anarchy and disrespect for other human beings and the rule of law. That means that stamping out anti-Semitism not only is good for the Jews, but it is good for the whole country.
All of the officials at the meeting were both sincere and dedicated in their concern for the well-being of the Jewish people and for their role in keeping us safe. In these times of cynicism and partisan behavior, it was refreshing, if even for only a few short hours, to see that our public officials value us and are willing to fight for us. One of Jersey City’s finest died for us, and he didn’t question his commitment or wonder if the victims were Democrats or Republicans. So though the fight against anti-Semitism is not easy and will take tremendous time, effort, and resources, I am more optimistic now, after meeting with these committed men and women, than I was before.
To succeed, however, we must all be on the lookout for all kinds of bigotry; we must call it out when we see it, even if it’s online and doing something makes us uncomfortable; and we must report it to our government officials, who are there to address it, and to protect us as well as all other groups.
They will do their jobs, but we must do ours as well.
Daniel M. Shlufman of Tenafly is a lawyer in New York and New Jersey and the chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.