Police remain on the scene hours after a Jewish man was shot on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2022, after leaving morning services at the Pinto Synagogue in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo/Louis Keene)

Overhyping antisemitism? Maybe I’m the frog in slowly boiling water

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On Feb. 16, I was  about to speak to an audience of some 200 people about antisemitism, when the news made a fool out of me.

I opened my email app and read that police had caught the gunman who shot two Jewish men as they were leaving their synagogues in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

I was about to go on stage and present a cool, objective argument against the overhyping of antisemitism in American Jewish life. But the breaking news made me want to rip up my remarks.

What I had planned to say was a version of what I’ve written on this site over the past several months: While the increase in violent antisemitic attacks over the past five years is worrisome, American Jews needn’t panic. We are embraced by the larger society; government and law enforcement stands by our side; and physical attacks, while traumatizing, are rare.

All of that I could support with evidence. But what I couldn’t do, given the news, was say any of it with a straight face.

In my speech, I was going to point out that violent attacks are rare — and they are. But when they happen, twice, in the same neighborhood, it sure doesn’t feel that way.

I also underestimated how much real-world damage even one piece of antisemitic propaganda can cause.

I had planned to criticize what I saw as the massive overreaction to fliers put out by an antisemitic group calling itself the “Goyim Defense League,” which the Anti-Defamation League assesses as having no more than a few dozen active members.

To quote myself: “The coverage these bigots receive is far out of proportion to their size, but the fear that coverage engenders is real.”

But it turns out that the shooter was among their readers. He had sent an email to classmates saying “Persian/Iranian Jews of the Class of 2020 made up a fake, b.s. disease,” and included images from a Goyim Defense League flier accusing Jews of creating Covid-19.

I underestimated how much damage even one piece of antisemitic propaganda can do.

I underestimated the gnawing fear that comes from living in a particularly Jewish neighborhood, whether Crown Heights or Pico-Robertson, which presents a far easier target for antisemites.

I also underestimated the way non-Ashkenzi Jews can feel especially vulnerable: targeted by an America that still judges people by skin tone, and too often marginalized in their own faith community.

The L.A. attack, like every attack, act of vandalism or nasty celebrity tweet, forced me to ask myself whether I’m being naive, whether I’m the frog placed in cold water who doesn’t realize the water is being slowly raised to a boil.

“You’re the frog,” a man in the back of the ballroom said back at me.

At a Feb. 21 communal event after the attacks, the chief of police, L.A. County sheriff, a city council representative and the mayor of Los Angeles all came to express solidarity and make concrete proposals for how to make the Jewish community safer.

Of course, that meeting with city leaders happened after my speech. The statistics still support my arguments, and we can take solace in the fact that we are far from alone in the fight.  Though when violent attacks on Jews hit so close to home, it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is CEO of A-Mark Foundation and a senior contributing columnist to the Forward.

Forward

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