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Anti-Semitism, hate speech have gone mainstream
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Anti-Semitism, hate speech have gone mainstream

JoAnn Abraham
JoAnn Abraham

Charlottesville was not an outlier. The Tiki torch-holding men who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in August 2017 put the world on notice: Advocates of hate are back, proud, and loud.

Throughout this past summer, flyers were posted in New Jersey shore towns, as well as in Detroit and San Francisco, some featuring a classically anti-Semitic caricature of a hook-nosed Jew and headlined, “Go Back To Israel, Jews.”

Another set included a cartoon of Hitler and a list of spurious “facts” about Jews and blacks. The groups claiming responsibility for the fliers are well known by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit group that monitors hate organizations in the U.S.

Digital ads paid for by a SPLC-labeled hate group were posted in two of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system stations throughout September. Sleek as a snake, they contained an image of a globe, the slogan “History Matters,” and the name of the racist group. BART’s lawyers said the ads did not qualify as hate speech, and as a result, could not be refused. 

And almost incredibly, Europe’s largest social media network hosted an online “Miss Hitler” beauty pageant. Alerted about the outrage by an Israeli TV network, the social platform suspended the pageant and issued a statement condemning hate offensive speech, but not before hundreds had voted and posted their support for neo-Nazi values.

Most hate groups have had only local, personal impact. When I was the editor of one of the small Jewish community newspapers later absorbed into NJJN, I received “Happy Birthday, Hitler” cards every April 20. Each had a hand-written inscription like, “We’ll be coming for you soon, JoAnn.” They were signed by the head of the local KKK and included his return address. He lived about six miles from my house. Unnerving, yes. But private.

Yet neither widespread anti-Semitism nor hate are new to the U.S. Every ethnic, religious, and racial group has been targeted in our national history, starting with the indigenous people.

Throughout the 1930s, 40s, and into the 50s, hate was mainstream in this country, led in part by Father Charles Edward Coughlin, whose radio program reached an estimated 30 million people at its height. Father Coughlin was a staunch fan of Hitler.

Meanwhile, the pro-Nazi German Bund was active in New York and Chicago, and the KKK — which had expanded its targets to include Catholics and Jews, in addition to blacks — was active throughout the South and Midwest. And from 1942-1945, our government interned Japanese Americans.

Near the end of World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that reporters photograph the victims of the Nazi concentration camps, the pictures revealing where hate can lead. Slowly, books by survivors began to circulate. When “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” was published in Dutch in 1947, and later made into a movie in 1959, opinion had shifted.

By then, it was no longer seemly in polite society to tell “Jew-jokes” or to use humor that targeted other minorities. But the hates never dissipated. Now it seems what simmered in private is again streaming in public. 

Whether innocuous-seeming as the BART ad, or blatant as the flyers, hate gone mainstream is dangerous and — as was demonstrated in Charlottesville — can lead to violence.

So how is a civil society supposed to respond when common decency is as rare as common sense? History teaches that hate unchallenged grows. Two local organizations are taking up the challenge.

The Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ is raising funds for programs specifically working toward tolerance and acceptance. Among them are interfaith missions to Israel, which have brought scores of area faith leaders to Jerusalem and its surrounding area. They’ve returned to share their experiences with their congregations — not as advocates for Israel, but as leaders with a better appreciation for the realities of life in a very different environment. Many have led their own trips, expanding the circle of neighbors learning about neighbors.

The other organization, Chhange: The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College — under federation’s umbrella — organizes a program that works with local law enforcement to give police officers tools to more effectively respond to bullying and hate-driven activities.

New Jersey was one of the first states to mandate Holocaust education, and Chhange also works with area schools, offering a menu of options starting with a docent-led guide to its life-affirming exhibit on three major genocides that stresses how individuals make a difference. It also crafts multi-year programs customized to enhance a school’s curriculum.

Of course, more can and should be done. Concerned citizens of all stripes can join forces — online and in person — to spread a dual message, both against hate, and powerfully, emphatically, for tolerance and acceptance.

Elected officials — on school boards, as well as on the county, state, and national levels — can work together to end actions that target any “other.”

Faith leaders can lead celebrations of freedom from fear as well as freedom of religion.

Educators at every level — as well as the boards that oversee them — must vanquish the hate and bullying in classrooms and campuses.

Philanthropists can fund initiatives focusing on civility and the common good through grants to grassroots and national human rights organizations, and endowed chairs at universities.

Civic and non-profit organizations can work together to strengthen the frayed fabric of our society. Because if we know anything, it’s that simply meaning well does no good.

Personal liberty is often described as “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.” The poseurs swinging their arms, slinging hate, are hitting our collective noses.

Only the fury of the collective, the unified voices of all who see hate speech as an abomination will send the offenders back into the shadows with the understanding that their message is not tolerated. Not in this country. Not again.

JoAnn Abraham has held executive marketing and communications positions in Jewish federations. She is on the board of Chhange: The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education, and is a member of Temple Beth Ahm, Aberdeen.

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