Philadelphia’s Jewish community pulled off a remarkable accomplishment last week, filling the square bounded by the Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall and Fifth and Market streets with thousands of people in a massive “stand against hate.”
Jewish day schools bussed in teenagers and other faith communities made a prominent show of support for the March 2 rally, spurred by the toppling of more than 100 headstones days before at the Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery and waves of bomb threats made to local JCCs and others across the country.
That the demonstration was apolitical is also noteworthy, given how quick some of us have been to lash out at the Trump administration for encouraging an environment conducive to such anti-Semitism, for not speaking out against it and, when the president finally did, for not speaking out forcefully enough.
The truth is, the first assertion is laughable — not because the campaign that brought Donald Trump to the White House didn’t energize hateful groups by pandering to the grossest stereotypes of Jews, blacks and immigrants, but rather because bomb threats, cemetery desecrations and other apparent acts of hate have always been rather commonplace.
“Last year, we had to hide in the bathroom,” a Perelman Jewish Day School student told her mother last week after that school was evacuated after receiving a bomb threat, almost a year to the day after it had been targeted alongside a Jewish school in St. Louis.
Back in 2016, there was no rally against hate, as there similarly wasn’t when headstones were found toppled in 2015 at the Adath Jeshurun Cemetery just blocks away from Mount Carmel. And seven years ago, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism concluded that traditional European-style anti-Semitism, coupled with a rising tide of hatred from the Muslim world and a new brand of anti-Israel rhetoric, demanded concerted communal action. None, at least of the dramatic variety, was forthcoming.
“I did not vote for [Donald Trump],” the Perelman student’s mother, who chose to remain anonymous to protect her daughter’s privacy, told me. “I do not support him. But at the same time, I see a willingness to speak out and condemn anti-Semitism from the right or alt-right [and] an unwillingness to confront anti-Semitism when it comes from” the left.
At the rally, speakers from Gov. Tom Wolf to Mayor Jim Kenney and on down decried hate in all of its forms and from whatever corner it manifests. That’s the good news.
The bad news, of course, is that the rally didn’t magically transform the world we live in.
Granted, that wasn’t its goal, but it’s telling that even after the arrest of disgraced St. Louis journalist Juan Thompson for eight of the hundred or so JCC bomb threats, another round of threats were lodged on Tuesday against a handful of Jewish centers. No rally, whatever its size, will defeat anti-Semitism; nor will any statement from the White House, no matter its forcefulness, stop everyone who harbors ill will towards Jews or a malicious desire to knock over some tombstones.
When it comes to the cemetery issue, the question is what we as a community will do now that the rally is over. Because merely showing up, sign in hand, is like enjoying a school’s gala fundraiser without writing a check or volunteering for the PTO. The best we can hope for from last week’s show of solidarity is the attention to the issue afforded by the media coverage; the real work of protecting Jewish cemeteries, of beautifying them and assuring they do not fall into disrepair, is the responsibility of each and every one of us, not the FBI or the police.
As for the JCCs, there’s plenty we can do to improve their security, even as we allow the law enforcement community and the justice system to do their work. Each center can benefit from more guards, better perimeter enforcement and the watchful eyes of more concerned members. Put another way, that means we as a community need to care more about our centers, by funding them and by using them.
At the end of the day, our community and its institutions are only as strong and secure as the commitment we collectively share to ensuring their vitality. That’s something no president, no governor and no mayor can do for us, but rather something that each of us — like the volunteers who in the past few days have been cleaning up Mount Carmel — must do on a daily basis.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.