Confront rising anti-Semitism by speaking against it

One warm summer evening, Erich Olson took his dog out for a walk. A few blocks from his home, he was approached by two men who asked him if he supported Israel. When he replied that he does support Israel, the men assaulted him, using a stun gun, according to Olson. In between the blows, the assailants made their motives clear by voicing anti-Semitic sentiments. Olson is an observant Jew whose yarmulke made him a target.

The attack did not occur long ago in Europe or the Middle East. It happened last year, here in Northern California. The attack was not an isolated incident but part of a very disturbing development.

Jews are being increasingly blamed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, the attack on the World Trade Center, etc. The increasing acceptance of these anti-Semitic attitudes by more of the mainstream is a new development and has created some extremely troubling consequences for the Bay Area.

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League released its 2002 audit of anti-Semitic incidents. The national study documents an 8 percent increase in the number of reported threats and attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions around the country. Almost all of the increase can be attributed to the Bay Area.

Some 118 incidents were reported to the Northern California ADL in 2002, compared with 13 reported incidents in 2001. This represents the largest increase and the greatest number of incidents ever reported in the Bay Area in the past 20 years.

One flier posted on Bay Area Jewish institutions urged readers to "Ban all Jewish or Zionist Culture Worldwide." Anti-war protesters carried signs that read "Smash the Jewish State. Smash the Jewish Race." A Bay Area minister preached about the "frighteningly powerful Jewish lobby" and blamed Judaism for the plight of the Palestinians. At San Francisco State University, pro-Palestinian organizers circulated grotesque posters claiming that Jews kill Palestinian babies for Jewish religious rituals. Swastikas were painted on temples; others received bomb threats or were targeted with arson.

In analyzing the incidents, it is quite clear that anti-Semites are using Israel's response to terrorism and the U.S war in Iraq as excuses to launch their assaults on Jews. Certainly, people have a legitimate right to criticize the policies of any government, but when the same people claim Israel has no right to exist, or scapegoat and blame Jews in general for complex world problems, we need to ask ourselves if this is motivated by blatant hatred.

Many people are surprised to learn that the Bay Area, known for its respect for differences, would become fertile ground for anti-Semitism. What they fail to realize is that hatred of any kind tends to originate from the extremes. In the past, many of those incidents were the work of the extreme right. Lately, we are seeing it coming from both extremes. That is particularly true on the college campuses, which also experienced an increase in reported acts of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is perpetrated by a small minority that feels insecure about the state of the world and seeks someone to blame. The perpetrators are emboldened to commit these attacks because they are under the false impression that they have widespread support in the community. Too many people are not speaking out against anti-Semitism out of fear that doing so might cause them to be labeled supporters of Israel.

Over the next several months, the Anti-Defamation League will launch a multipronged effort to prevent and respond to such acts of hate. This response will include security training for Jewish institutions, "hate speech vs. free speech" information for college students, anti-bias education for teachers and students, and countering anti-Semitism for Jewish families.

As the Iraq war continues and the domestic economy falters, we can expect more scapegoating. It is incumbent upon all of us to make it clear that we oppose this blame game because we have seen how it can lead to threats and assaults against people.

Confronting anti-Semitism is rarely straightforward. However, it remains the primary mission of the ADL and has been for 90 years. The ADL is here to support individuals, and in turn it needs people's support.

Individuals can play an important role in countering anti-Semitism, by speaking up or encouraging others to speak up when witnessing bigotry. This needn't be a direct verbal confrontation. Sometimes a person can be more effective by communicating with others after some time has passed, or calling on others to address the problem.

Stay focused on the people who are receiving the bigoted statements, not those delivering them. And remember to applaud those who do speak up.

In these times, speaking up can feel almost like an act of bravery.

Jonathan Bernstein
Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is the executive director of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces’ San Francisco Bay Area region.