When will antisemitism be taken seriously by society?
This past Shabbos, while shuls across the country were filled with congregants, in one city the local Jewish Federation posted a notice recommending “all formal Jewish gatherings be suspended until further notice.”
The warning followed an online threat identified by the FBI targeting Jewish institutions in San Antonio. The largest synagogue in that city, Temple Beth-El, quickly canceled its in-person events and pivoted its services to an online platform.
The shutdown took place within a week of the massacre of Independence Day parade spectators in Highland Park, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago. There was no statement from the gunman explicitly mentioning Jews as his target, but he visited the local Chabad shul last Pesach, arousing suspicion from the shliach and the security detail.
“During the last Passover holiday, that person entered the Chabad synagogue. We have an armed security guard sitting in front,” Rabbi Yosef Schanowitz told Arutz Sheva. “I approached him and sternly asked him to leave, as I noticed he was not a member of our community.” The heavily tattooed stranger walked out of the shul without incident.
The image of a father dying as his body protected the now-orphaned toddler, and a klezmer band playing as spectators were running in the opposite direction will not be forgotten.
Even as we live in a fast-paced news cycle where social media algorithms determine the top story, the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and the shooting at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, where one member was killed and the shliach lost a finger, and the shooting in a Satmar-owned kosher grocery store in Newark later that year, are fresh on the minds of all American Jews.
For this reason, the Federation’s warning issued on Shabbos morning resonated across the country. Most Orthodox Jews, however, were not aware of it unless we heard it from a security guard or the police officer guarding a shul. For those four and a half hours between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., Jews who were online asked whether anti-Semitism was being taken seriously by society. Not simply law enforcement, elected officials, and members of the community, but by average Americans from all walks of life.
“This is being Jewish in America in 2022,” was the common refrain on Twitter this past Shabbos.
For most shuls in our readership area, security cameras, locked doors, and security guards (professional and volunteer, armed and unarmed) have become standard. We have not yet reached the phase where the guards stand outside shuls with their fingers on the trigger, dressed in bulletproof vests, and where the only way to enter a shul on a given day is by invitation from the board.
On my walk home from shul last Shabbos, Glenn Ackerman told me about his daughter Estee, the renowned shomer Shabbos table tennis player. “Another player refused to play with her because we are Jewish!” I was expecting a guest and did not have time to hear Ackerman’s account in detail.
“Was this anti-Semite white, Black, or Middle Eastern?” I asked, trying to figure out the motivation behind a hatred that adapts itself to practically any social and political setting.
“She was Taiwanese,” Ackerman replied. I was surprised, considering the solidarity between Jews and Asian-Americans as both groups have experienced an uptick in hate incidents in recent years. Not knowing if this incident was motivated by Ackerman’s observance of Shabbos, or other factors, I felt the same way about the threat to San Antonio’s Jews.
A suspect was reported arrested by the end of that day, but we do not know anything about that person or his motivation. What we know is that it must be taken seriously, and that the actions of leaders impact public perceptions of Jews. One such example was last month’s hearing at the City Council concerning anti-Semitism at CUNY, the largest public urban university in the country.
When the Council’s Committee on Higher Education held its hearing, CUNY Chancellor Felix V. Matos-Rodriguez was not in attendance. The highest CUNY official who spoke was Glenda Grace, the Senior Vice Chancellor For Institutional Affairs, Strategic Advancement, and Special Counsel. When asked by Councilwoman Inna Vernikov (R-Brooklyn) whether CUNY would denounce BDS, she did not give a direct answer.
“I think we’re clear on where we stand on BDS. We’ve made a number of statements on BDS.” She then added, “We cannot have yes or no. I’m assuming that you’re going to draw whatever conclusion you have.” When Vernikov concluded that CUNY is not being explicit enough, Grace elaborated.
“We don’t believe in it. We think it’s wrong, we can’t engage in it. That to me is denouncing.” It should not have taken verbal prodding from Vernikov to force CUNY to explain how it denounces the boycott of the historical Jewish homeland.
Coming on the heels of CUNY Law School students electing a BDS activist as their commencement speaker, who used the stage as her bully pulpit, and resolutions in favor of BDS by the faculty’s labor union, we should be concerned whether academic credits earned in Israeli institutions will continue to be recognized by CUNY, and whether pro-Israel programs on campuses are safe from harassment and violence.
Another example in this matter is State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who is running for Congress in a district stretching from lower Manhattan to Borough Park. “I believe in the right to protest as a fundamental tenet of western democracy, so I do support BDS,” she wrote in an email to Jewish Insider, following repeated calls from reporters on where she stands concerning Israel.
Would the progressive lawmaker speak of homophobia or transphobia as a matter of free speech? Would she extend the same protection to opponents of abortion as she does to opponents of Israel?
There are progressive Jewish voices supportive of Niou who argue that BDS is unrelated to anti-Semitism, as there are Jews who are not Zionist for political or religious reasons. But as recent incidents have shown, the canard about Jews as illegal occupiers in a land across the ocean has transformed itself. Anti-Semites have applied the label of occupier to a new Chabad House in a suburb, Orthodox members of school boards, and new Jewish neighbors, among other things unrelated to Israel.
When Jews must stay home across an entire city on Shabbos because of an unspecified threat, it shows the power of a Facebook comment, and how much work needs to be done so that Jews can be themselves in public without fearing for their lives.
By Sergey Kadinsky