Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
and the Catholics hate the Protestants,
and the Hindus hate the Moslems,
and everybody hates the Jews.
—National Brotherhood Week by Tom Lehrer (1965)
We recently observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day when we reflect on the mass murder of six million European Jews, undoubtedly anti-Semitism’s tragic apotheosis. Sadly, 71 years after the end of World War II, that most ancient hatred is alive and thriving in the world, in the United States, and, yes, also here in New Jersey.
When it comes to monitoring, analyzing, and developing programs responsive to the challenge of anti-Semitism, the go-to organization is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), so I reached out to ADL’s New Jersey director, Joshua Cohen.
The first item Cohen pointed out, perhaps counterintuitively given the expansive attention harassment of Muslims has received in the media, is that historically, most hate crimes based on religious bias have been directed against Jews. The FBI report for 2015 showed that 52.1 percent of religiously biased crimes were against Jews, while 21.9 percent were against Muslims. We will have to wait until next fall when the FBI releases the data for 2016, but it will be interesting to see whether there was any significant shift in these percentages considering the vitriolic nature of the presidential campaign and its aftermath.
The ADL conducts its own annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents, and it found that in 2015 there was a 3 percent increase nationwide compared to the 2014 number. In New Jersey, which ranked third in the total number of incidents after California and New York, there was a 28 percent increase, the counties with the highest number being Ocean, Middlesex, and Monmouth. Anti-Semitic incidents at colleges and universities in New Jersey doubled in 2015.
For residents of the Garden State, these should be sobering statistics. ADL’s audit for 2016 will be released soon, and Cohen, understandably, was reluctant to give me numbers. But he did say that, “the trend is around the same as the past year or two, and we will definitely be examining the Trump effect.” The presidential campaign was contentious, he observed, “and it certainly translated into ripeness for haters to emerge using anti-Semitic and racist images to threaten and intimidate.”
Cohen acknowledged that “hate speech has returned with a vengeance.” Why? He suggested, and I agree, that what we are experiencing is a loss of shame about harboring anti-Semitic attitudes. The iconic former ADL director, Abe Foxman, asserted last December in an interview with the Forward, “the election didn’t create anti-Semitism and bigotry. It just enabled what was always there. What we’re seeing now is that the sewer covers are coming off, and it’s coming out of the sewers.”
As we move further and further away from the horrific events of the Holocaust, there has been a loss of shame over revealing personal prejudices especially among the young generation, motivated, I suspect, partly by malice and partly by ignorance. There was the widely-reported incident at Princeton High School in which students were photographed playing “Jews versus Nazis,” a takeoff on the drinking game called beer pong. Cohen shared another recent incident with me, in which a New Jersey teen dressed up as Hitler and proudly sent the picture to Jewish and non-Jewish friends. This occurred in a school, he said, that has a strong Holocaust education program.
There is another dimension to anti-Semitism, which has stimulated vigorous debate inside and outside the Jewish community, namely animus toward Israel. The debate has revolved around the question of when opposition to Israel crosses the line from mere criticism of policy to rejection of Israel’s right to exist as the democratic sovereign nation state of the Jewish people. This issue has been particularly acute on college campuses where groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine routinely engage in activities that many regard as delegitimizing or demonizing Israel. The University of California’s Board of Regents grappled with the question and issued a report last March declaring that “anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.” Left unclear is the distinction between anti-Semitism through anti-Zionism and just plain anti-Zionism.
New Jersey resident Dr. Leonard Cole, co-chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Task Force on Anti-Semitism, observed that “there is no preset formula that enables us to differentiate between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. The context must be considered. For example, in 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 20 resolutions critical of Israel and only three resolutions critical of the all the other nations of the world combined. This disparate attention to the Jewish state is itself an expression of anti-Semitism.”
Of course, the $64,000 question is what to do? Certainly, we want to make sure that our criminal justice system and law enforcement authorities are properly equipped to effectively address the challenge of anti-Semitism. New Jersey is among 45 states with hate crimes legislation. Cohen expressed satisfaction with the responsiveness of New Jersey government officials. One area of concern, he mentioned, was that the FBI report revealed no anti-Jewish hate crimes in New Jersey’s big cities, including Newark, Elizabeth, and Patterson. “Is that because there really were no hate crimes in those places?” he asked rhetorically, “or perhaps they aren’t being processed properly?”
The ADL runs terrific educational programs, such as Words to Action Community, an interactive program for middle- and high-school youth and adult family members, Words to Action Campus, designed for college and precollegiate students, and its flagship, A World of Difference Institute. What I think we need most is a “return of shame,” to create an overall culture that views anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry as unacceptable and deserving of immediate and unequivocal repudiation.
Last December, a group of state legislators and faith group representatives came together in Trenton to take the “Stand Up for the Other Pledge,” sponsored by the New Jersey Interfaith Coalition. The pledge reads: “While interacting with members of my own faith, ethnic, or gender community, or with others, if I hear hateful comments from anyone about members of any other community, I pledge to stand up for the other and challenge bigotry in any form.” The Trenton gathering followed on the heels of the second annual “Stand Up for the Other” rally convened at the Rutgers University New Brunswick campus on Nov. 1, 2016 by a variety of faith groups and student-run organizations.
These big events are welcome, of course. But to effect real cultural change means that the sentiments contained in the pledge must permeate deeply in families, schools, college campuses, religious institutions, government bodies, and throughout society. This means we are all responsible for carrying the message of tolerance within our Jewish community and beyond.