Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Reemergence of Anti-Semitism in America: My Remarks at the City of Carmel’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony (April 22, 2015)

Several people asked, so I’m posting the remarks that I just gave (on behalf of the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations) at the City of Carmel’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony. Thanks, once again, to Mayor Brainard for hosting this ceremony each year, to Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow for officiating, and to the other participants. I want to especially commend an old friend, Steven Frankovitz, who spoke about his father’s experiences in Auschwitz as one of the identical twins upon whom horrific experiments were conducted by Dr. Joseph Mengele.

The Reemergence of Anti-Semitism in America in 2015

Delivered at the City of Carmel’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony

April 22, 2015

In April 2014, a man walked up to a Jewish community center in Kansas City and opened fire killing 3 people. As he was led away, he was heard to say “Heil Hitler”.

In May 2014, 8th grade students at a Chicago school created a “Clash of Clans” group called “Jews Incinerator” and described themselves as “a friendly group of racists with one goal: put all Jews into an army camp until disposed of”.

In June 2014, swastikas were etched into San Francisco street signs. In Brooklyn, a Jewish boy was attacked when he left his home; his attacker yelling anti-Semitic slogans.

In July 2014, a banner was flown at New York area beaches proclaiming “peace plus swastika equals love”. Elsewhere in New York, gravestones were vandalized with swastikas and an inscription that said “you don’t belong here”. A playground in a Jewish neighborhood was defaced with swastikas and the phrase “kill Jews”. Other incidents of vandalism occurred in Massachusetts, Missouri, Tennessee, and Chicago.

August 2014 saw numerous incidents all across the country, including one in Los Angeles where a Jewish shopkeeper received leaflets bearing swastikas and threats.

In September 2014, in Baltimore, a man drove by a Jewish school on Rosh Hashanah and shot three people while shouting “Jews, Jews, Jews”. That same month, a rabbi was evicted from a Greek restaurant when the owner learned he was Jewish after asking if the rabbi wanted a full size salad or a Jewish sized salad, by which the owner said he meant “cheap and small”.

Leading up to the November 2014 election, candidates in New Hampshire and Kentucky ran on the slogan “with Jews we lose”. Thankfully, they lost.

And throughout the last year, swastikas have been painted or etched onto Jewish fraternities in Oregon, Nashville, Atlanta, and elsewhere. Just a few weeks ago, a synagogue on the east coast had swastikas spray painted on its walls.

In March and April of this year, we’ve seen situations at both UCLA and Stanford in which students seeking election or appointment to student leadership positions were challenged on their ability to serve in those positions because of their involvement in the Jewish community. In the case at Stanford, it was representatives of a minority student coalition that pressed the Jewish student on her ability to be impartial given her membership and involvement in her own minority community.

Need I go on? Or are these examples – and please recognize that I’ve barely scratched the surface – are these examples sufficient to demonstrate that anti-Semitism is alive and well in America?

In fact, according to the most recently published statistics from the FBI, the majority of religious-motivated hate crimes in America target Jews. To be sure, there are hate crimes directed at Muslims, atheists, and others, but Jews remain the primary target of religious-motivated hate.

Sometimes the anti-Semitism is overt, like a physical attack or the painting of a swastika. Sometimes it’s much more subtle. Not too long ago, a cousin posted on Facebook that he was stunned when a business associate used the phrase “Jew him down” and didn’t understand the problem with that phrase. Other times you’ll hear off-hand comments about Jews controlling the media or the government or the money supply. You know, if Jews really had the influence and control that people attribute to us, there would probably be a lot less anti-Semitism in the world as we’d have stamped it out on our own long ago.

A year or two ago, I found myself involved in an extended online discussion about the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Despite the overwhelming evidence that this book was a Czarist forgery (based on an earlier French work), people continue to point to it as depicting Jewish plans for world domination. Go look the book up on Amazon; read the reviews. You may feel a need to shower afterwards. And wait until you see the titles of some of the books that Amazon’s algorithms will suggest if you do look up that book (titles such as Conspiracy of the Six-Pointed Star or The Synagogue of Satan). When you hear people referring to The Protocols or the Rothschilds (often included with the Masons and Illuminati), you know that the speaker has fallen down the anti-Semitism conspiracy rabbit hole.

It’s important to recognize that we’re not immune here in Indiana. Just a few years ago swastikas were painted in the library and elsewhere at Indiana University. That’s the overt form of anti-Semitism. And I was involved with a situation at a middle school in a neighboring community that involved an 8th grade creative writing assignment to try to sell something unpopular. One of the examples was this:

For Sale: Auschwitz. Looking for a place that would make the perfect summer camp? Think about this concentration camp. Poland would like to take the bad reputation of Auschwitz and turn it around! Think of the possibilities! The barracks could be renovated to house thousands of people. We have ovens big enough to bake bread for thousands. The razor wire will prevent students from making a break for it. There is plenty of room for exercise, where role call used to be taken. Railroads can go right through camp, meaning supplies will be at your fingertips at all times.

But I’d also suggest that when state legislators offer legislation to require all public school students to recite a Christian prayer, that is a form of subtle anti-Semitism (and perhaps Islamophobia, too). When public events that would never be held on Christmas or Easter or even Good Friday are scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Passover, I’d suggest that a subtle form of anti-Semitism is at work: In this case the form that says we simply don’t care to respect those who are different. When teachers schedule tests or give important lectures on those days, knowing that Jewish students will be absent, those teachers are telling their Jewish students that they aren’t as important as the other kids in the class. And, frankly, I’m not sure how to react to public school choir programs that are overtly religious with many songs requiring Jewish students to sing about the divinity of Jesus or include lyrics such as:

They've never heard the story of the Son of God.

And that made Alfie [the Christmas tree] pause.

Did that mean that they'd never know of peace on earth or the brotherhood of man?

Or know how to love, or know how to give?

If they can't, no one can.

You see, life is a very special kind of thing, not just for a chosen few.

That example comes from Carmel High School in December 2014. Nor do I know how to respond as the parent of a child who comes home complaining that the school showed a film that depicted Judaism in such a way that his friends came up to him after class to say “I’m glad I’m not Jewish.”

We thought anti-Semitism was dead and buried – or at least buried such that it wasn’t seen by many anymore. But with the rise of the Internet, we’ve seen a resurgence in anti-Semitism that has mirrored, or even pre-dated, the seeming resurgence in overt racism in all of its many forms. And the expression of anti-Semitism has, at least in some circles, gained a degree of respectability. There are whole online magazines and “news” sites devoted to the cause of anti-Semitism, blaming Jews for virtually every problem known to or experienced by mankind. 9/11? The Jews did it. The Boston Marathon bombing? Jews. Ebola? Jews. Financial meltdown? Jews. You name it, you can find an argument for why we should blame the Jews. And, unfortunately, some of the purveyors of that sort of filth are beginning to be mainstreamed or at least relied upon or cited by those in the mainstream.

And in the midst of all of this, Holocaust denial has become a cottage industry as has the new notion of blaming Jews for the slave trade.

And one of the sickest things that we’ve seen recently, and it’s growing and growing, is the notion that Jews are responsible for anti-Semitism. Usually, though not always, this perverted suggestion invokes Israel, as if Jews around the world are responsible for Israel’s actions. Do we blame individual Catholics for abusive priests? Do we blame individual Christians for those who bomb abortion clinics? Do we blame Cubans for the actions of Fidel and Raul Castro or Russians for the actions of Vladimir Putin? Do we blame any group of Americans for the actions of another country? Do we blame all Americans each time America does something that we disapprove of? Of course not. But Jews are blamed for anything that Israel is accused of doing just as Muslims are blamed for the acts of radical Islamists who claim to act in the name of Islam and African Americans are blamed for … well, all sorts of things. The only one to blame for anti-Semitism is the anti-Semite.

I don’t want this to be a discussion about Israel. Let me just say this: Criticism of Israel is fair. I’m a strong supporter of Israel – and I’m a frequent critic of Israeli policies. So too, at any given time, is about half of the Israeli population. That’s what you get in a vibrant democracy. But when criticism involves the delegitimization of Israel or of the right of Jews to a homeland, when Israel is held to a standard to which no other country is held, and when Israel is demonized, often with false comparisons to the Nazis (so-called “Holocaust inversion”), then most Jews will view those criticisms as a form of anti-Semitism. I’m not here to ask you to support Israel; but I am asking you to consider whether criticism of Israel is fair or if it is simply anti-Semitism disguised under a different moniker.

So what are we, here in Carmel, Indiana, to do about any of this? I doubt many of you who take time from your busy schedules to attend this Holocaust observance are anti-Semites or racists. But all of us need to be constantly vigilant for these sorts of behaviors and attitudes. Just as I hope that most of you would call out a colleague or acquaintance for using a racial slur to describe someone, I hope that you would also be critical of someone using a slur or stereotype to describe Jews.

The Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations has begun a series of informal educational sessions within the Commission to learn about the specific challenges facing minority communities here in Carmel. But in our homes and schools and businesses, we can do something similar just by talking to our family and friends and co-workers. If you’re a parent, think about the examples and lessons that you’re setting for your children and ask your children what they’ve learned about other kids who might be different from your own family. If you’re a student, think about the lessons from your teachers or the things that you hear from classmates. At work, listen to the things that your co-workers are saying. And in each of these cases, ask yourself if the ideas or thoughts being expressed are inclusive and welcoming or denigrating or perpetuating negative stereotypes. And if it’s the latter, don’t just sit by silently; though it may be difficult, stand up and say something.

When you meet someone who is different, whether Jewish or Muslim, African-American or Latino, gay or transgender, or from any other minority community, take the time to get to know that person as an individual. And then take the time to learn about the issues and concerns that person faces as a member of a minority community. If we can learn to understand each other, to have some degree of empathy, perhaps we can find ways to reduce the subtle forms of bigotry that we may unknowingly express through either stereotypes or ignorance.

We often hear the phrase “never again”. Last year I spoke about ongoing genocides around the world and whether that devalued the phrase “never again”. But we must also consider the phrase “never again” within our own communities and the way we deal with those with whom we live, work, and play. We must diligently work to be sure that there is a respect for diversity and tolerance for those who are different from us.

We’re seeing far too many examples of racism and bigotry in our country, whether it’s anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or similar hatred or mistrust directed at someone due to their skin color, accent, or any of a host of other traits. I don’t mean to suggest that anti-Semitism is worse than any of these other expressions of hate. But anti-Semitism has been with us, been documented, literally for millennia. And we’ve seen time after time how expressions of anti-Semitism, when left unchecked, develop into things far uglier than words or graffiti. This ancient form of hate may be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Let’s commit ourselves, our families, our community to stamp out anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry. Let’s tell people and organizations when their words or actions are unacceptable. Let’s make sure that everyone is and feels welcome – and safe – within our communities. We may not be able to completely eliminate anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred, but perhaps we can drive them back underground so that the expressions of those sorts of views lose any degree of respectability or credibility. Let’s be sure that when our kids go off to college they aren’t swayed by voices of hate. Let’s be sure that the CNN news vans are never parked in front of a school or synagogue or church in Carmel while a reporter talks about the most recent example of a hate crime.

We can’t do much to influence the world, the country, or even the broader state around us. But we can strive to influence our community so that diversity and tolerance triumph and “never again” has real meaning. Anti-Semitism is re-emerging as a respectable form of bigotry. But we don’t have to be complicit. We can be sure that those sorts of views are never acceptable here in Carmel.

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