With extremism on rise, Jews at forum voice fears about anti-Semitism, ISIS

In the aftermath of last year’s terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, many Americans feel besieged by a surge in radical Islamic extremism. More than 400 people gathered this past week at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael to share their concerns and hear from a panel of experts.

“It’s a helplessness,” one attendee, who said her mother had escaped the Holocaust, told the crowd, which gathered under the guard of a half-dozen sheriff’s deputies. “More and more when we speak about Germany and France, it feels like the 1930s all over again.”

“Jewish Life in an Era of Extremism,” a four-hour Lehrhaus Judaica symposium on Jan. 24, was intended to contextualize contemporary anti-Semitism. In addition to presentations on local anti-Israel activities and hostility toward Jews in France and Germany, speakers addressed right-wing Jewish extremism in Israel and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan speaking at Lehrhaus symposium on extremism photo/arno rosenfeld

“We’re not seeing institutional anti-Semitism,” said Lehrhaus Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan. “Really what we’re talking about is extremism.”

German-born journalist Gunda Trepp, a longtime Bay Area resident, described how Jewish leadership in her native country at first enthusiastically embraced the influx of Syrian refugees before beginning to express concerns over anti-Semitism among some of the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants. That generated charges of racism from the left wing. Meanwhile, she said, the right wing has taken to wrapping itself in the Israeli flag and claiming Germany must bar Muslims in order to protect the country’s Jews.

“The Jews are really a little bit in between and don’t really know what to do,” Trepp said.

That statement conveyed an overarching theme of the evening — Jews feeling caught between the extreme left and extreme right.

Abby Porth, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, described how that manifests among progressive Jews in the Bay Area who are torn between supporting Palestinian aspirations and standing by Israel. The conflict is playing out along generational lines, she said, with younger Jews increasingly sympathizing with the Palestinians, whom they view as the underdog in the ongoing struggle.

Porth said she tries to combat this by emphasizing the close alignment of American and Jewish values, stressing that progressive politics and support for Israel are not in conflict.

“I suggest to young people who are concerned their progressive values and their love of the Jewish people may be in conflict, to champion Israel’s status as a democracy,” she told the assembled crowd, which had a noticeable absence of youthful faces. 

Nearly everyone in this largely older audience — the last generation with direct experience of the Holocaust — raised hands to agree with the statement that “the world today is more dangerous for Jews.”

During an intermission, one of the symposium sponsors, Joseph Pell, paused to reflect on what he sees as the still precarious position of Jews in the world.

“I ask people, can the Holocaust happen again?” said Pell, now in his 90s, who fought the Nazis as a teenager in Europe. “Yes!” he declared. “But most people say no.”

Joby Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist, delivered the keynote address on the rise of the Islamic State. Warrick noted that while a confluence of factors enabled the group to emerge, the ideology behind it has existed for at least 15 years.

The Internet has been especially useful for ISIS, which recruits fighters on social media and broadcasts beheadings and other violent spectacles to sow fear and earn followers.

“ISIS has a video production center in Raqqa [Syria] with more resources than I’m sure the Washington Post has,” said Warrick, author of the recently published book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS.”

Wolf-Prusan also identified technology as a driver of extremism around the world, even as systemic forms of anti-Semitism decrease.

“The Nazis could have a state apparatus for genocide, the church can have anti-Semitic liturgy in every single church around the world but … in our world something said here can be on a cellphone there instantaneously,” Wolf-Prusan said.

The speed at which extremist ideas can travel is especially dangerous when the groups identify ideas that can resonate even with moderate members of their audiences. Warrick said that while the heinous crimes committed by ISIS have eroded Muslim sympathy for the group in the Middle East, its message initially held wide appeal.

“The caliphate idea resonates for Muslims in a way that the restoration of Jerusalem does for Jews,” Warrick said.

He added that while ISIS poses no military threat to Israel at this time, the group’s terrorist exploits are having the somewhat ironic effect of giving the Netanyahu government ammunition to support its reluctance to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

“If anything, there’s less pressure to settle with the Palestinians and more to just keep the country safe,” Warrick said.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.