Not that long ago, many of us here in America thought antisemitism was largely a European problem.
I'll never forget participating in two solidarity missions to France. The first was in 2014, shortly after I started at UJA, when an antisemitic riot erupted outside a synagogue in Sarcelles, a French suburb known as “Little Jerusalem.” The second was in 2016, after the murderous kosher supermarket siege and a wave of terror attacks across France and elsewhere in Europe. In both instances, we went to France to show our support for the beleaguered Jews of Europe. And we provided grants focused on building resilience in European Jewish communities, improving security at Jewish institutions, and empowering local Jewish leadership.
I distinctly recall thinking then, from our relatively comfortable perch here in America, that we were largely insulated from the scourge of antisemitism. That the “topsoil” was different here. That we were living in the most tolerant and accepting society Jews had ever known.
I still deeply believe in the promise of Jewish life in America. But make no mistake, Jewish hatred is alive and well today in America.
We saw it in the venomous cry of white supremacists who in 2017 carried torches in Charlottesville and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
We saw it in the blind hatred that drove a gunman to murder 11 Jews on October 27, 2018, almost exactly four years ago, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
We saw it in Poway. Jersey City. Monsey. Colleyville.
We see it now, almost every day, on the streets of Brooklyn. Attacks on visibly Jewish people in our own backyard have become so commonplace that they barely garner mention.
And we see it regularly on social media platforms: these last weeks from Kanye West and former President Trump, with familiar tropes about Jewish power and dual loyalty being broadcast to millions of people.
Perhaps most disturbing, antisemitism is gaining traction on college campuses with Hillels and Jewish fraternities vandalized as stand-ins for Israel. To be clear, there should be space for criticism of Israel’s policies and its government. But it is abhorrent that some student groups at Berkeley Law School say that Zionist voices are not welcome. It is abhorrent that Wellesley College’s student newspaper publishes an editorial supporting the Mapping Project, which tracks Jewish institutions in Massachusetts that are pro-Israel.
Clearly, antisemitism and anti-Zionism in America today have become one of our community’s most pressing challenges, demanding a vigorous — and nuanced — response.
Right now, UJA’s strategy is focused on education, building bridges, and influencing the influencers. To those ends, we’re investing in bolstering powerful social media voices who are willing to counter hate and speak up in support of Israel and Jewish issues. We’re bringing influential leaders from academia and various progressive communities to see and experience Israel for themselves. We’re working with JCRC-NY on a program to train public school teachers in how to teach about contemporary antisemitism and Israel. And we’re working directly with music industry professionals, teaching them about antisemitism and the dangers of incendiary language.
On the defensive side, UJA has invested millions of dollars annually in our Community Security Initiative (CSI), a joint initiative with JCRC-NY, charged with protecting 2,000 local Jewish institutions, working with law enforcement, offering active shooter trainings, and helping Jewish synagogues and nonprofits access government security funding.
New this year, we created a fund at JCRC-NY to provide security enhancement packages to 100 small synagogues in Brooklyn (shtiebels) that don’t qualify for government funding. We’ve increased CSI staffing to include an additional online intelligence analyst who monitors the dark web for threats. We’ve expanded CSI’s footprint to Rockland County. And we’re pressing elected officials to do a lot more to keep our community safe.
To equip Jewish students for what they might confront on campus, we’re supporting thoughtful programs that teach the complexity of Israel’s history and expose people to a range of views — including oppositional ones — so they are prepared when encountering these viewpoints online and on campus.
The goal of all of this is not to eradicate antisemitism. Jewish hatred is a virus that's existed over thousands of years, and it's naive to believe it can be fully eliminated. Rather, the goal is to move us back to an America that refuses to allow hate speech to go unchecked. An America where the “other” is not vilified. Where a Jew being assaulted on the streets of Brooklyn is not met with silence, but with shock and condemnation. Where supporting Israel on campus does not result in ostracism from social justice clubs — and where Jewish students are comfortable being openly Jewish.
It will take ALL of us, working together — left and right alike, across difference — to achieve this goal.
For the future of Jewish life in America, let us commit to taking up this challenge together.