UJA has long supported Jewish leadership in Europe who are determined to build resilient communities despite the threats against them. Closer to home, we’ve been acutely aware that anti-Israel sentiment has been taking a dangerous turn on college campuses, and have invested in strategies to combat BDS. But, even as all this was happening, many of us were somewhat lulled by a sense that anti-Semitism was not a significant concern in the United States.
After all, in our nation, built on the principle of religious freedom, Jews have found sanctuary for generations. As George Washington famously wrote to the Jews of Rhode Island, “… happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens … while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Perhaps we’ve sat too complacently.
The massacre in Pittsburgh, following on the heels of Charlottesville, was for many of us an inflection point. Suddenly, the threats were no longer across the ocean but across the street. And indeed, quite recently, right here in our own backyard, we’ve experienced a deeply disturbing wave of violent anti-Semitic incidents.
In Crown Heights, over the course of one night in late January, three young men assaulted a 22-year-old yeshiva student and then a 51-year-old Jewish man. In another incident, a rock was thrown through a Chabad synagogue’s window while more than a dozen people, including children, were sitting around their Shabbat table. Citing the NYPD, The New York Times reported that as of February 17, 2019, 55 hate crimes had been reported, an increase of 72 percent from the same time frame the year before, with anti-Semitic crimes making up two-thirds of that. And in 2018, Jews were the targets of more hate crimes in New York than all other groups combined.
More broadly, we can’t ignore the steady drumbeat of hate coming from the emboldened and radicalized right and left: The flagrant talk of “globalists” and other conspiracy theories gaining more traction in the mainstream. The fading knowledge of Holocaust atrocities. The tweets from a sitting member of Congress, accusing the Israel lobby of buying support for the Jewish state, tapping into the oldest of anti-Semitic tropes.
In Europe and America, Israel has become a lightning rod. To be clear, criticism of a particular Israeli governmental policy or politician is not necessarily anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. In fact, many of us who love Israel may vocalize opposition to this or that policy. To conflate all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is wrong, and actually exacerbates the problem by narrowing the tent of Israel’s supporters. More than ever, that tent needs to be wide open.
The line between ardent criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is crossed when the fundamental existence of a Jewish state is called into question, or Israel is consistently vilified and held to a different standard than any other country. I recently had the opportunity to interview Bari Weiss, the Times columnist, who said Israel has become the “Jew among the nations,” a country demonized as its people have always been.
Here at UJA, we’re increasingly focused on what we can do to fight anti-Semitism. After Pittsburgh, we dramatically amplified our efforts to help Jewish organizations secure their spaces, offering professional security assessments so they could immediately start safeguarding buildings and be eligible to apply for federal and state security funding.
We received significant funds from The Paul E. Singer Foundation, followed by a grant from the Jewish Communal Fund, to support this effort, enabling us to fund roughly 180 security assessments for schools, synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions of every stripe across our community. Additionally, we’re offering interest-free bridge loans through the Hebrew Free Loan Society so that agencies can begin to make security improvements while they wait for government reimbursement. Simultaneously, we’re working with these Jewish institutions to ensure that they remain welcoming to all.
For decades, many of our partners, most notably the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and Westchester Jewish Council, both largely funded by UJA, have been working with law enforcement and strengthening community coalitions. By working with other faith-based and ethnic communities on issues of common cause, we’ve been building bridges to understanding. Those bridges ensure that we aren’t alone when it matters — and it matters now.
This Sunday, I’m spending the day in Crown Heights to support a community that is justifiably on edge. I’ll be meeting with both Jewish leaders and non-Jewish groups to discuss the current situation, and how we can best come together to address it.
The fight against anti-Semitism is not one we can win in a day, or a month, or a year. It will take a continuing thoughtful response and communitywide vigilance to address this growing challenge. But as Americans and as Jews, we know what’s at stake. We must all commit to do our part to help our city and country find a way back to the vision expressed by Washington — where everyone can sit in safety, with no reason to be afraid.