Walnut Creek City Council Member Kevin Wilk speaking to high school students. (Photo/Courtesy Wilk)
Walnut Creek City Council Member Kevin Wilk speaking to high school students. (Photo/Courtesy Wilk)

How local elected officials like me can fight rising antisemitism

On Nov. 19, messages promoting “White Power” sullied my welcoming and beautiful East Bay city. This came only a month after house-to-house dissemination of vile antisemitic leaflets. City leaders began to ask: Are these hate crimes? Free speech? What can we, and the police, do about this?

These are questions that we’re all asking, and the answers to such questions aren’t as straightforward as one might think.

When I was elected to the Walnut Creek City Council in 2016, I was the first Jewish council member in the century since the city was incorporated in 1914.

Like many Jews who run for office, I didn’t hide my Judaism — but I didn’t make obvious mention of it, either. I am a third-generation American, and wear that as proudly as I feel my Jewish roots and celebrate Judaism, and our holidays, throughout the year.

Now more than ever, especially as a Jewish elected official, I feel the need to use my voice to change the status quo in local government, where officials who privately condemn hate too often fail to do so publicly.

In local government, condemning hate is not always the case, as running a city operationally, as a nonpartisan official, can take on different meanings for different people.

I am thankful that I rarely witnessed antisemitism in my youth and grew up thinking that perhaps we had evolved as a society, becoming more accepting.

But a demonstrable increase in hate over the last decade has proven this wrong.

Racists, hate groups and extremists have become more empowered both by the anonymity of social media and by loud, popular figures giving oxygen to messages of hate. It was only a matter of time before antisemitism, always the lowest common denominator, reared its ugly head.

This isn’t just a perception; the statistics bear this out:

One in four Jewish Americans said they experienced antisemitism, according  to a study released in October 2021 by the American Jewish Committee.

Nationwide, 2,717 antisemitic incidents were reported in 2021, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the highest total for one year since the ADL began tracking in 1979.

Nearly 60% of religious-biased hate crimes in 2020 targeted Jewish Americans, who make up “no more than 2% of the U.S. population,” according to FBI data.

In response to an AJC survey question asking if antisemitism in the United States is a problem, 90% replied with either “a very serious problem” or “somewhat of a problem.”

In the same survey, 82% of Jews indicated that antisemitism in the U.S. has increased in the last five years.

In Walnut Creek and elsewhere, local elected officials are well aware of what is going on, and more of them are speaking out against antisemitism and hate.

But it’s not enough.

We cannot let fear of retribution stand in the way of doing what’s right. Hate will grow in a vacuum just as it did 90 years ago; we need to speak out whenever it arises.

But how best to speak out?

Antisemitic incidents are often first reported to the police. The police must then determine if the act was illegal and, if so, can a “hate-crime enhancement” be added to it?

Shouting antisemitic tropes on a corner is heinous, but not a crime. Painting a swastika on a garage is graffiti (a crime) and dropping antisemitic leaflets may be classified as littering (a crime), depending on where it occurs, and both could have a hate-crime enhancement.

But still the perpetrators must be found. They are doing their offensive acts under the cover of darkness, or else covered up head to toe (with a mask) to avoid recognition. All of this is terribly frustrating, but the police do keep records and share information with other cities’ police departments. This is why it’s so important to report any antisemitic activity, including leaflets and graffiti, and thereby increasing the odds that the perpetrators will be caught.

In October, I spoke at our city council meeting about the antisemitic leaflets that were disseminated locally.  When I posted the recent articles on the Walnut Creek banners on my social media pages, anonymous haters left ugly and detestable lies in the comments.

Then, after I spoke out to the news about this being a hate crime, I received an email reading: “Are you ready to face trial for the crime of genocide against White people?” These attacks won’t deter me. We have a responsibility as elected officials, and local police agencies, to follow up on and speak out against all messages of hate.

Every person needs to stand with targeted groups and let it be known that hate is not welcome here. We must stand together against hate in all its forms.

Silence = complicity.

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

Kevin Wilk
Kevin Wilk

Kevin Wilk is a member of the Walnut Creek City Council.