Sometimes it’s just that simple.
A prominent Jewish educator, an FBI agent who handles civil rights cases for the Newark field office, and the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League agreed that teaching children not to hate, is one of the most effective ways of fighting bigotry against Jews and other minorities. It doesn’t hurt to respond quickly to bomb threats and bias crimes, either.
Susan Werk, education director at Congregation Agudath Israel of Caldwell; Agent Anthony Zampogna, the supervisory special agent for the civil rights squad at the FBI Newark field office; and Joshua Cohen, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League NJ, addressed the topic, “The Growing Threat of Anti-Semitism and Intolerance,” at a meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Essex County Section at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston on April 4.
Werk said that because of the proximity of Purim, Passover, and Yom HaShoah, and their respective villains — Pharaoh, Haman, and Hitler — Jewish parents must wrestle anew each year with explaining the challenging subject of anti-Semitism with their children and the fact that, to some people, “you are not loved.” She urged adults to be prepared for sensitive questions from their children.
“Why do we tell the stories of people not liking us and then we eat?” she asked.
Many people assume young children are socially “colorblind” when it comes to other races and religions, Werk said. “Not true. They notice everything.”
Then, Werk cautioned the attendees, “our children should not be spreading hate. Our children should not be saying they hate the Islamic race or they hate black people or they hate gays and lesbians. We are responsible for that.”
On everyone’s mind was 19-year-old Michael Kaydar, a Jewish man and dual citizen of the United States and Israel. He was arrested March 23 in the Israeli city of Ashkelon in connection with a series of bomb threats made against Jewish community centers and Jewish schools in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
Zampogna said such bomb threats were “a significant matter” which can be investigated as federal offenses, “if we can prove there is a motivation of hate.”
He said prosecutors need to determine if Kaydar had the ability to detonate the bombs he warned against. “Did he have an intent? As an investigator, I need to prove that intent.”
Cohen said “while the fundamental condition for Jews in the United States is great,” he is troubled by a rash of anti-Semitic offenses in recent months, pointing to the recent 165 bomb threats — Kaydar is believed to be behind most, but not all of the calls — against Jewish institutions, the anti-Israel and white supremacist activities on college campuses, a vandalized public menorah in South Orange, and a swastika drawn in its middle school bathroom.
“It is pretty unnerving,” he said. “We still need to be vigilant about our safety. We cannot be bystanders.”
Then, he added, “We are not going to be successful fighting anti-Semitism unless we are fighting other ‘isms’ — racism, sexism homophobia, etc.”
“The struggle against hate is not easy. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of resources, and it takes a lot of people,” warned Cohen. “It has to be synagogues, it has to be elected leaders, it has to be members of the community who stand up and say ‘No. We reject hate and bigotry in all forms.’”
Ever since the recent flare-up of anti-Semitism, Werk said she’s had to “beef up my game,” especially in preparing students in middle school for what they might encounter in high school and college. She said that instead of talking about having tolerance for our differences, we ought to be celebrating and embracing them.
“We, the Jewish people, have to have zero tolerance to all hate talk. We as parents and grandparents have to have zero tolerance to any talk about anti-Semitism, about racism, about homophobia, about Islamophobia,” Werk said. “We must always be out there saying, ‘Any hate talk is bad.’ Because people who hate usually hate more than one group.”
She noted that there are roots for this point of view in Jewish tradition.
“The Torah tells us not to hate the Egyptians. How can we not hate the Egyptians? They enslaved us. The Torah tells us we have zero tolerance of hate talk.”
Because the FBI has seen a national increase in hate crimes during the past year, Zampogna said in New Jersey the bureau has reached out to community groups “to hopefully get ahead of the curve in finding out what may be developing before it becomes a serious matter and a violent matter.”
Zampogna said he was not sure of the reason for the upswing, “but maybe it’s the political climate.”
But, Werk said, we shouldn’t give off the impression that the situation is beyond repair. Waving a series of newspaper articles, Werk said they showed “great stories of collaboration” among ethnic groups such as when Muslims came to help restore a vandalized Jewish cemetery and when a Jewish scoutmaster created a multicultural Boy Scout troop. She said they are stories young people need to learn.
“As our children are exposed to the scary stuff going on, we should also remember the positive stuff, and looking at the positive stuff to show our children how we should be behaving,” she said. “Their most significant role model is you.”