One startling question more than any other starkly addressed the anxiety underlying the discussion at Temple Ner Tamid on Jan. 22: A woman asked guest speaker Jeh Johnson, “Is Trump like Hitler?”
“Are you asking if we’re on the road to becoming like Nazi Germany?” responded Johnson, the secretary of homeland security from 2013 to 2017 under the Obama administration.
Given the program topic, “The Rise of Anti-Semitism in the United States,” being explored by Johnson and moderator Jim Axelrod, senior national correspondent at CBS News, that query was appropriate. A number of times in the course of the 90-minute program, Johnson referred to “the lid being peeled off the hatred in this country.”
But Johnson’s answer to the question about Nazism was a definitive “No.” In keeping with the positive tone he kept all evening, he said, “We have a democracy and our democracy works — as long as people participate in it and vote.”
About 400 people — members of the congregation and others from the broader community — packed into the sanctuary, according to Axelrod, an award-winning journalist who is a longtime member of the Bloomfield temple and a resident of neighboring Montclair. The event was cohosted by the Reform congregation, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and the Anti-Defamation League.
Asked why they had come, many echoed what Axelrod spelled out in his opening remarks: “The Charlottesville rally disgusted me,” he said, referring to the August 2017 rally in Virginia, where white supremacists chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and a 32-year-old woman was murdered. “The attack at Tree of Life” — the Pittsburgh synagogue in which 11 people were killed — “87 days ago moved my own personal needle from disgust at vile knuckleheads to alarm and something approaching fear. What happened in Pittsburgh,” he went on, “was different, so close to home.”
Axelrod pointed out that 80 percent of hate crimes in the United States are against Jews, though they make up only 2 percent of the population.
The prevalence of anti-Semitism, Johnson said, “emanates from communities where Jews are seen as somehow foreign. These are people who are threatened by ‘the other.’ In my experience as a black man, at 61, so much hatred comes from ignorance.”
He emphasized that while Jews are often targeted, hatred has also been unleashed against many groups seen as “others.”
Axelrod asked Johnson when the growing hatred had appeared on his “radar screen.” Johnson, a lawyer and also a Montclair resident, said when he was general counsel for the Department of Defense (from 2009 through 2012) prior to his Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appointment, “counter-terrorism was uppermost in my mind.” While “taking the fight to them overseas,” combatting groups like Al Qaida and ISIS, domestically his priority was CVE — Countering Violent Extremism —efforts. That meant building bridges with the many diverse communities of immigrants from places like Somalia and Pakistan, and also countering anti-Semitism. In the course of his work, he also held numerous joint meetings with rabbis, imams, and priests.
“What emboldened the haters? Why the surge — this uptick?” Axelrod asked him.
“The political rhetoric,” Johnson said. “Like when a congressman from Iowa asks what’s the big deal with white supremacy,” referring to comments by Republican Rep. Steve King, “and our president is a self-declared ‘nationalist.’ As they say, anyone who doesn’t know history is doomed to repeat it.”
Asked what he regards as more dangerous, anti-Semitism from the left or the far right, or from someone like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan or white supremacist David Duke, Johnson said, “We should be concerned about all hatred that is expressed through violence. People have become emboldened to express their hatred by picking up a loaded weapon.”
That increase in violence is being fueled by “the decline in civility from political leaders.” To counteract it, Johnson stated, “We have to rededicate ourselves to promoting civility and respect and tolerance in other areas and institutions — in education, religion, legal, military, law enforcement, and business. And those who can’t respect others must be dealt with swiftly. We can’t depend on our leaders to do this.”
He also called for more action to promote gun safety, and urged people to act on the “See something, say something” instruction. “Be vigilant,” he said.
Among the evening’s organizers was a former colleague of Johnson, George Selim, who served as director of the Office of Community Involvement under Johnson at DHS. He resigned during the first year of the Trump administration and is now a senior vice president of the Anti-Defamation League. He came from Washington for the event. Asked how the current administration’s approach compares with the previous one’s, he said, “Night and day!”
The security threats we face are real, Selim stressed. “To some degree we have to accept that when we leave our homes,” but it is not cause enough to avoid public places. In fact, he added, “That is a reason to come together.”
The spiritual parallel to that was provided by the recently appointed leader of Ner Tamid, Rabbi Marc Katz. “We need to meet hatred with love,” he told the gathering.
As part of the congregation’s determination to do that, he said, the temple will hold a forum on Tuesday, Feb. 5, bringing together a coalition of people committed to helping undocumented immigrants in New Jersey obtain driver’s licenses.