I was working at The Jerusalem Post news desk when reports started coming in of the shootout at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey. As we were trying to piece the facts together, I was thinking to myself – can this really be another act of antisemitism? Can it really be that Jews are not safe to go about their daily routine, without fear of being shot dead? What has gone wrong with the world?
In fact, it now appears, it could have been much worse. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop believed the couple who committed this horrific act were actually targeting Jewish students. “My opinion is that as more info comes out, it’ll become increasingly clear that the target was the 50 children at the Yeshiva attached to that store,” Fulop tweeted after the attack. “We will never know 100% but the doorway to the yeshiva was [three] feet away and it seems he went in that direction [first].”
This past year saw other deadly antisemitic attacks in the US, still living in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. The accused gunman in the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego on April 27 – in which one woman was killed and three others were injured – 19-year-old John Earnest told a 911 operator during the moments after the attack that he did it to save white people from Jews. “I was defending the nation against Jewish people.”
He continued, “I’m defending our nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people.” Earnest also wrote: “Every Jew young and old has contributed to these. For these crimes they deserve nothing but hell. I will send them there.”
Antisemitic incidents in Brooklyn saw a dramatic increase in 2019, according to data from the New York City Police Department. In September alone there were 163 reported incidents, up from 108 over the same period in 2018 – an increase of 50%. Antisemitic incidents make up a majority of reported hate crimes in New York City.
Attacks on Jewish institutions and individual Jews have grown in the US in 2019. On December 15, I heard of two antisemitic incidents on the news: A synagogue in Beverly Hills, California, had been vandalized and the Torah scrolls desecrated on Shabbat. Police launched an investigation after a man was caught on camera breaking into and ransacking the Nessah Synagogue, the largest Persian-Jewish congregation in the US. In a second incident, three Jewish students were assaulted by 11 men at Indiana University.
In the US, as in Europe, it’s on college campuses that antisemitism is a real problem. More than 100 anti-Israel, antisemitic incidents were reported at Columbia University and its sister school, Barnard College, since the 2016-2017 academic year, according to a report by Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF). The organization published a 33-page report that describes “systemic antisemitism and an ingrained delegitimization of Israel” at Columbia and Barnard.
In September 2019, the AMCHA Initiative, which monitored more than 400 US colleges for antisemitic activity, reported anti-Israel related antisemitism had reached 70%. “On US campuses across the country, harassment motivated by classical antisemitism actually decreased and significantly so. At the same time, however, the number of Israel-related acts of harassment increased significantly,” the report concluded. It continued to suggest academic BDS was an increasing problem on campuses – aimed at delegitimizing Israel.
When speaking to a friend of mine, Adam Singer, who lives in New York, he said, “many Jews are aware of the threat of antisemitism on a daily basis. That is different than feeling it. There is a crucial difference between fearing the threat and being prepared to confront it. The Jewish community is focused on the latter.” He continued, “You can’t distinguish between antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric, it’s pure antisemitism. Even the anti-Israel antics. How do we know? Inquire whether the anti-Israel supporters are pushing the same complaints against other countries. Almost always, you will find Jew haters complaining about supposed issues in Israel but not voicing complaints where those issues actually exist.”
Rachel Kaufman, who lives in Los Angeles, expressed similar concerns. “Although we don’t really encounter antisemitism in the communities, apart from the odd incident, there are certainly signs of increased concern and security. The most significant change I’ve seen in the past few years is security guards in front of synagogues and tightened security at the Jewish schools.”
Shaun Landa from Nashville said, “There has certainly been an increase in antisemitic incidents and cemetery desecrations – this could be more of a result of Trump’s ‘America First’ policy rather than ingrained antisemitism.”
Reflecting on this past year, the situation in Europe is also extremely worrying.
The UK elections showed how antisemitism has pervaded the UK – especially in the younger generation, the majority of whom voted for Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was perceived as an “existential threat” to the Jewish community in the UK by both Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and UK Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis.
Mirvis tweeted following the election: “At the polls yesterday, we conferred upon our Members of Parliament the heavy responsibility of answering the profound social and economic challenges that our country faces. The election may be over, but concerns about the resurgence of antisemitism very much remain.”
According to a report by the Community Security Trust (CST), there has been a rise in antisemitic incidents this past year – 892 incidents were reported between January and June 2019. This is a growth of 10% from the same period in 2018.
The CST has shown that antisemitism on college campuses is also on the rise. There was recently a case at the University of Bristol where David Miller claimed that the CST promotes Islamophobia or anti-Muslim prejudice and Jewish students in Miller’s class said they felt intimidated and uncomfortable. CST director of communications, Mark Gardner, responded saying the CST was “deeply shocked by Bristol’s failure to seriously engage with the content of both our complaint and that of the Jewish students. The university has been an utter disgrace.”
A YouGov poll commissioned by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA) found 67% of Labour Party voters “held at least one antisemitic view.”
The Jewish Labour Movement, meanwhile, deemed the Labour Party a “refuge for antisemites,” saying “the party has systematically ignored or downplayed the scale of the challenge it faces.” It concluded, “Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, he has made the party a welcoming refuge for antisemites. He has done that in a number of ways, including by publicly supporting antisemites and antisemitic tropes.”
When I spoke to Rabbi Daniel Roselaar, a leading rabbi and community leader in the UK, he confirmed British Jews are genuinely concerned about the growth of antisemitism. “Whilst Jewish life is thriving, on the other hand there is a genuine awareness and concern of antisemitism in the UK – parents ask themselves if they want to bring up their children in a society which is becoming hostile towards Israel and Jews.” He continued, “ We are seeing increasing security measures at shuls, schools and all Jewish organizations and there is genuine fear that we may be targeted.”
Roselaar added, “The reason for this antisemitism is not I believe related to Israel – but rather, the old fashioned ignorance of who we are and all we have contributed to British society.”
I also interviewed David Mencer, political consultant and former director of Labour Friends of Israel about the state of British antisemitism. David said, “Like in France, in the UK Jewish life is now celebrated ‘underground,’ behind closed doors, in private. Jews are no longer comfortable with living Jewish life in public – for instance, instead of wearing kippot in public, men wear caps.”
He continued, “The far left has made antisemitism the norm. The Jews represent the capitalist system, which they are fighting against. It is now acceptable to express anti-Israel views, without qualifying or explaining them. Israel is automatically the aggressor, the guilty party. Thanks to Corbyn and the far-left, Israel has become demonized in the media and you no longer get an accurate depiction of both sides of the conflict. “
Mencer concluded, “Thanks to Corbyn and the far-left, there has been a paradigm shift in how British Jews see themselves and are seen. They no longer feel part of British society and feel different –there is a real sense of being under threat.”
The situation through Europe isn’t much better than in the UK and Jews don’t feel comfortable.
A report on antisemitism released in November by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) explained “the inadequate recording of hate crime incidents, including those of an antisemitic nature, coupled with victims’ hesitance to report incidents to the authorities” is contributing to the “gross under-reporting of the extent, nature and characteristics of the antisemitic incidents” happening in the EU. The findings of the EU-wide Eurobarometer survey released earlier this year showed that 50% of the respondents consider antisemitism to be a problem in their country.
Antisemitism is on the rise in France – in fact a rally was organized in response to a report that antisemitic statements and acts committed in 2018 in France showed a 74% rise compared as compared to 2017.
At the end of November, more than 100 tombstones were defaced with antisemitic text and imagery at a Jewish cemetery in eastern France – just as French lawmakers planned to vote on a resolution to fight antisemitism. In February, thousands of people – both Jews and non-Jews – demonstrated at the Paris’s Place de la Republique and in other cities across France, shouting “No to antisemitism.”
Another shocking incident occurred in France at the beginning of November. An attack against Jewish school children was thwarted in the French city of Nice. A man attempted to break into the Or Torah school while shouting insults against Jews. The guard confronted him, sounded the alarm, and the police arrived and later arrested the man – who had fled the scene.
On Yom Kippur, 27-year-old Stephan Balliet tried to enter a synagogue in Halle, Germany and massacre its congregants – gunning down people on the street after he failed to access the 51 people praying inside. He killed two people who were outside the synagogue: Jana Lange, 50, and Kevin S., 20.
Benjamin Weinthal, reporter for The Jerusalem Post, found antisemitic attitudes in the eastern German state of Thuringia dramatically increased over the last year from nine percent to 16%. According to a study by Thüringen-Monitor, 16% of Thuringians agree that people of the Jewish faith have something peculiar about them, “and do not really make them acceptable to us.”
When talking to friends of mine from Europe they said antisemitism was a problem – if only on a latent level. Philip Zippel, from Italy, said, ”Jewish life in Italy is functioning – in Milan and Rome – with Jewish schools and restaurants full. However there is an undercurrent of antisemitism, particularly in areas close to where the blood libels were.” He added, “the antisemitism isn’t deeply religious, but more based on ignorance.”
David Cahn, from Switzerland, said, “The antisemitism in Switzerland is the same as it has been for 150 years. Whether you are an Arab or a Jew – if you are different, they will treat you as different. In general, we wear our kippot in public and we don’t feel we are in physical danger.”
While there has certainly been a growth in antisemitism both in Europe and the US – there are also reasons to feel positive.
In the US, there are grassroots initiatives to counter antisemitism on campuses. Some 300 US college students from 90 campuses convened in Pittsburgh at the end of November to learn to counter hate.
“We’re sitting four miles from the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, where 1,000 acts of kindness unfolded as an antidote to the shooting, and hate was drowned out by resilience and light,” said Meryl Ainsman, chairwoman of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, who hosted the conference.
Cheryl Aronson, the vice president of the IACT Campus Initiative (Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed – an initiative of CJP, Combined Jewish Philanthropies), opened the conference saying, “We are going to use the word ‘Zionism’; we will not give up Jewish experiences and celebrations in the public space, and we will not be defined by people who hate us.”
According to IACT’s Michael Eglash, who acted as the conference MC, the goal of the day was to “stand up to antisemitism and learn how to combat it – including antisemitism masqueraded as anti-Israel stances.”
In the UK, Boris Johnson beat Jeremy Corbyn in the December elections in a landslide victory. Allegations against Corbyn of racism, extremism and antisemitism plagued him throughout the six-week campaign and put off many voters. Gideon Falter, chief executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, said in statement: “Not for the first time, our nation has stood firm against antisemitism. The British public has watched the once proudly anti-racist Labour Party become infested with Jew-hatred and it has resoundingly decided to stand with its Jewish community and give the antisemites a crushing rebuke. The faith that British Jews showed in our country has been vindicated.”
The Jewish community is being supported in their fight against antisemitism. At an event celebrating the “special and precious” connection of Buckingham Palace with the Jewish community, Prince Charles said: “It is a great delight to welcome you this evening to Buckingham Palace, as the festival of Hanukkah approaches, and to celebrate with you the contribution of our Jewish community to the health, wealth and happiness of the United Kingdom.” He continued, “In every walk of life, in every field of endeavor, our nation could have had no more generous citizens, and no more faithful friends.”
The University of Bristol in the UK adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Jewish groups praised the decision: “The adoption of this definition is an important first step in helping the university tackle anti-Jewish racism,” the Union of Jewish Students and Bristol’s Jewish Society said in a joint statement. “We look forward to working with the university in other ways to tackle antisemitism on campus.”
The French Parliament declared that anti-Zionism is antisemitism in December. The motion, proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party, passed 154-72 in the French parliament’s lower house.
In Germany, Angela Merkel, made her first visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial in December, where she expressed “deep shame” and vowed to fight rising racism and antisemitism in Germany and Europe, bringing a 60 million euro donation to help conserve the site where the Nazis ran their largest death camp.
We are now in the season of Hanukkah, which is the festival of light – of optimism, hope and faith in the future. While, yes, the Jewish people in the US and Europe, this year, have had to deal with rising antisemitism, let us remember the message of Hanukkah – that even though we were the small against the mighty, the Jews still survived and even flourished. May the light of Hanukkah prevail!