Jewish community must make clear: Hateful extremism will not be tolerated

The late rabbi Meir Kahane, pictured here on a poster. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The late rabbi Meir Kahane, pictured here on a poster.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Earlier this month at the Chicago Jewish Festival, someone told me I should be “shot and eliminated.” My crime? Staffing the J Street table. Throughout the day, the students staffing the table and I were compared to Nazis and accused of “finishing what Hitler started.”
As someone who grew up in the heart of the Chicago Jewish community, I was shocked and sickened by the threats and harassment by members of my own community, some of whom I knew personally.
I went to Solomon Schechter Day School and Chicagoland Jewish High School. I spent my summers as a camper and counselor at OSRU I and spent every Shabbat at Northwestern Hillel. It was this community that raised me to care deeply about Israel and Judaism, and to see both as integral to the pursuit of justice, equality and tikkun olam. It was certainly appalling to me that random community members attending the festival were comfortable approaching my table and hurling invective.
But it wasn’t just the few individuals attacking us who scared me.
A few feet away from our table was the Zionist American Action Committee of Chicago table. They had a “Kahane was right!” sign as well as a sign stating that if you are “disgusted with J Street” you could come there to “fight back.” ZAACC is directly associated with Kahanism, an extremist ideology that advocates violence against Arabs and intense hostility toward Jews who support a peace agreement or who show concern for Palestinian rights.
A more prominent Kahane-inspired organization, the Jewish Defense League, also had a table at the festival. The JDL explicitly endorses violence and is recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist group. Israel has banned organizations associated with Kahane since 1994 because they have claimed responsibility for numerous acts of violence and terrorism. These groups routinely incite against pro-Israel advocates like myself.
I reported to a festival staff member the threats made against myself and the students, including to one student who, during a conversation about his plans to make aliya after college, was told that “Hitler had good qualities too.” The staffer told me that these threats were “just a political problem.” At first, I was shocked that they didn’t take these physical threats seriously.
But in a sense, he had a point.
There is a political dimension to this problem: the community does not do enough to distance itself from extremists or condemn hate speech.
If we normalize and excuse organizations that promote violence and hatred, is it really that surprising that community members felt comfortable advocating violence against J Street supporters? Having been active in J Street for five years now, I’m used to hostility and I welcome difficult political conversations. Sadly, I’m also used to being called Hitler and compared to the Nazis. But I cannot tolerate that, and neither should my community.
I know that extremists do not represent the majority of the Jewish community. In fact, the students I work with spend ample time on campus trying to explain that the loudest and most extreme voices do not represent most American Jews’ Israel politics. But responsibility for fomenting hate speech goes beyond extremists. Our organizations are often quick to conflate criticism of Israeli policy with attacks on Israel or the Jewish people. That makes it easier for extreme voices within our community to justify violent rhetoric against people like me. Do the organizers of the Jewish life festival really think it is acceptable for people to comfortably call for my death at their events? If not, they must speak out against the extremism that their silence and inaction has fed.
This is not a just a matter of hate speech. Standing on the sidelines in the face of violent threats is a recipe for disaster. We cannot wait for someone to get hurt before taking action.
Every day I speak with students who are struggling to stay in the Jewish community because of the community’s politics when it comes to Israel. I don’t blame them.
Their frustrations with the silence of Jewish communal leaders were only reinforced by these incidents at the festival. If our leaders cannot speak up to protect members of our community from hate speech and threats, how can we ask our students to stay involved? Extremists do not represent the Jewish community. For the sake of our values and our future, it’s time for us all to make that clear.
The author is the Midwest campus organizer for J Street U.