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‘Monster’ in the cemetery
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‘Monster’ in the cemetery

NJ representative chairs hearing on anti-Semitism

Witnesses testified on anti-Semitism at a March 22 House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing. Photos courtesy House Foreign Affairs Committee
Witnesses testified on anti-Semitism at a March 22 House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing. Photos courtesy House Foreign Affairs Committee

Anti-Semitism has reached disturbing heights in the United States and Europe, according to four experts from the Jewish community who testified before a congressional subcommittee on March 22. The hearing took place one day before the arrest in Israel of Michael Kaydar, a 19-year-old suspect allegedly responsible for a wave of bomb threats targeting Jewish institutions across the United States. 

During the hearing, Stacy Burdett, vice president for government relations, advocacy, and community engagement at the Anti-Defamation League, suggested that government agencies need to make public all instances of hate crimes. 

“When a monster goes to a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis to turn over hundreds of heavy tombstones, that is a powerful attack” on the community, Burdett said. “It is saying, ‘Your presence is offensive to people. Be afraid.’ We want to make sure that governments around the world are reporting these incidents.” 

In the United States, 3,441 American police departments do not report any hate crimes, she said. And, she added during a question-and-answer period, “We haven’t heard a commitment by the Justice Department” on training law enforcement to properly handle hate crimes. Such an emphasis by the department is a high priority on the ADL’s “wish list.”

NJ Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist. 4) chaired the hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on global human rights. His district represents 44 municipalities  in Mercer, Monmouth, and Ocean counties.

As he kicked off the discussion, Smith said “the traditional anti-Semitism is now even more dangerous because of violent extremists on both the left and right and in Islam,” and suggested that anti-Semitism may also be found in parts of some governments in Western democracies, and in universities.

Smith was followed by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), a Jewish congressman from the Chicago area who said he considers the issue “very personal.” He noted that members of his family in Europe who were denied entry into the United States during World War II “were completely wiped out by the Holocaust.”

The hearing’s first witness was Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, the national homeland security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He testified that extremist groups in the United States are “borrowing, adapting, and enhancing the tactics and strategies of targeting Jewish institutions adopted in Europe.”

He noted that since the start of 2017, more than 166 bomb threats were phoned in or emailed to 117 Jewish community centers, schools, Anti-Defamation League offices, and other Jewish establishments in the United States.

Goldenberg said that while some members of Jewish communities are avoiding Jewish institutions “out of fear and insecurity…the American-Jewish community very much remains open for business.”  

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the personal representative on combating anti-Semitism in the office of the Chairperson of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said European governments have only been partially successful in taking action against anti-Semitism. 

Baker said that following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the French government “stepped forward and literally mobilized the military” to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Afterward, anti-Semitic attacks in France declined.

But in other parts of Europe — which Baker did not identify — he said that religious practices are under attack. Circumcision and ritual slaughter, two rituals that Jews and Muslims share, have been heavily criticized by children’s and animal rights advocates and, “maybe by genuine legitimate motives,” he said. Those critics, he added, force Jews and Muslims to defend “something they have been doing for centuries. It may not be initially an anti-Semitic campaign, but it sure often is in its result.” 

Baker described an “unease” with the European political climate where far-right political parties and xenophobic movements are winning elections.  He said in many cases such groups are “virulently anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Roma, and anti-Semitic. Jews do not feel comfortable, even if it appears that the first target is someone else.” Also, he said that Europe faces “special challenges” from the influx of Muslims, some of whom “come with views that are anti-Israel and anti-Jewish and anti-Western.”

Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said much contemporary anti-Semitic expression is “fueled by a stream of propaganda that radical Islamists put out online,” as well as financial and political contributions from some Muslim states. “Increasing numbers of terrorists have translated these words into actions and have assaulted and murdered Jews in Europe and targeted Jewish institutions in the U.S.,” he said. 

Burdett said the Internet spreads anti-Semitic threats and other hate speech online “but they move offline to the real world, where they are very dangerous.” Speaking of anonymity on the Internet, Burdett said, “Think about what it took to bring down the Ku Klux Klan. They had to take off their hoods and show their faces and stand behind that hatred.”

Holocaust denial is another component of contemporary anti-Semitism, “a threat to democratic values all over,” Weitzman called it. In Poland, for example, the right-wing government has outlawed any criticism of its people having been complicit with Nazi war crimes; anyone who says Poles were responsible for the murders of Jews can be found guilty of a crime and sentenced to up to three years in prison.

One area of concern, according to Weitzman, is the European countries that do not want to bear the security costs of protecting their Jewish communities and would prefer to pass on those costs to the members of the respective communities. “We need to re-emphasize the point that security needs to be provided to all citizens without their having to pay extra for the right to live and exist.”

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