Thousands of New Yorkers of all backgrounds convened at the "No Hate, No Fear" solidarity march against antisemitism in January 2020. (Photo/JTA-Erik McGregor-LightRocket via Getty Images)
Thousands of New Yorkers of all backgrounds convened at the "No Hate, No Fear" solidarity march against antisemitism in January 2020. (Photo/JTA-Erik McGregor-LightRocket via Getty Images)

How do you know if it’s antisemitism? At JCRC, we’ve taken a deep dive

Some years ago, I was on the board of a women’s organization that, among other things, was focused on helping women to speak their truths — except, as it turned out, for Jewish women.

When the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up (even though that has nothing at all to do with the organization’s mission), Jewish women were told that we had no right to decide what was or wasn’t antisemitic. Our truths and our voices were dismissed as fallacies; we were the oppressor and couldn’t be trusted to speak.

I was shocked and saddened by this, and I realized how important it is to elevate Jewish voices, both within the Jewish community — because we don’t all speak with one voice — and in the wider world.

When I was asked to chair the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council’s Antisemitism Working Group, I knew how important it was for us to create a statement in which the Bay Area Jewish community could define antisemitism for ourselves and create a process for combating it.

This was how we could center our own experiences and not allow others to speak for us.

It was certainly the right time to do this work. Our community feels more and more vulnerable as incidents of antisemitism fill our news media, ranging from flyers distributed in our neighborhoods to swastikas scrawled on our doors to hate-filled chants by protesters in Charlottesville to murders in Pittsburgh, Poway and Colleyville.

As synagogues and other Jewish institutions increased security at their buildings, I felt that it was also important that we not just defend ourselves against antisemitism but also actively work to change minds, teach our allies and work to end it. To do this, I believed, we needed our own definition of antisemitism that reflected the unique perspective of the Bay Area Jewish community.

As the task force began our work, we realized that there was another, harder-to-identify form of antisemitism that we needed to talk about — the antisemitism that gets enmeshed with the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On school campuses, in organizations and even in government bodies, Jews are being told we have to choose between different parts of our identity — to reject our connection to Israel in order to be allowed to participate in other forums that are important to us.

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We needed to be clear that this was not acceptable, that this was antisemitism, while also acknowledging that criticism of Israel isn’t, in itself, always antisemitic.

The task force spent an entire year engaged in learning with the community we serve. For me, one of the most surprising takeaways from this period was that we don’t actually need to agree on a definition antisemitism (and, given our diverse identities and experiences, we didn’t).

Instead, it’s more important to help people to understand subtle forms of antisemitism, including innocuous-seeming terms used by hate groups to cover their tracks in public discourse, and to identify when criticism of Israel spills over into hate.

Another key takeaway for identifying and responding to antisemitism was the critical importance of context and intent. A child scratching out a swastika must be handled differently than an adult goose-stepping with a Nazi armband.

In the end, we recognized that the root of much of the antisemitism we see today is a profound lack of understanding about Jewish identity. Many people try to fit Jews into a monolithic identity box, which is harmful to our vibrant and diverse community.

I invite you to go to the JCRC website to see the full consensus statement. This is a living document that will be the basis for JCRC’s education and trainings in our community and beyond, which is critically important. If I learned nothing else, it was that the Jewish community absolutely must be in the driver’s seat when talking about antisemitism and Jewish identity.

None of this will be easy.

I walked away from this process with a greater appreciation for the complexity of antisemitism and a renewed determination to speak out against it, as well as a continued appreciation of our community’s ability to think deeply, discuss civilly and really listen to each other.

Yes, we may need to add bullet-proof windows to our buildings and stronger locks on our doors, but it is equally as important that we rally together, along with our allies, to point out antisemitism when it happens and to do everything in our power to stop it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Karen Schiller
Karen Schiller

Karen Schiller is chair of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council Antisemitism Working Group.