By Naomi Adler
On Sunday, Sept. 29, Jews across the world gathered to celebrate a new year, and begin our High Holiday reflections on the year past. This High Holiday season, I know many of us were thinking a good deal about our safety.
In the United States, Jews make up less than 2% of the population, yet attract more than 58% of all religion-based hate crimes. The past year has been particularly wrenching for Jews near and far, with our communities targeted for terrible violence around the world, including the synagogue massacres in Pittsburgh and Poway, California. It has been a year of tragedy, grief and terror; of a surge in white nationalism; and of a sharp rise in anti-Semitism.
For today’s American Jews in Philadelphia — who have relatively enjoyed the privilege of feeling safe — this heightened vulnerability is jarring. As president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, I have been witness to that pain and fear. But while for many Jews this terror feels new, the ideas and rhetoric behind these acts of anti-Semitism are very old. Anti-Semitism is a form of bias whose vile stereotypes and ugly narratives have permeated our national discourse for centuries, and these ugly tropes are being recycled and reapplied to current events.
When we hear ourselves accused of having “dual loyalty,” or that the democratic Jewish state of Israel has “hypnotized” the world, we collectively recoil. These concepts have been used time and again to garner support for the death and destruction of the Jewish people, from the Middle Ages to Nazi Germany to today. While we can, and should, expect those who repeat these tropes to better educate themselves, we also must recognize that this is happening everywhere: on social media, on television screens and in our human interactions.
In my line of work, I’m often asked by both Jews and non-Jews what they can do to combat this hate as individuals. My answer is this: Speak up. Not with insults or the verbal abuse that turns our public discourse into chaos and name-calling. To truly stand up against anti-Semitism, we must stop the partisan infighting and do better to educate ourselves and each other.
For example, when someone says “Jews control the media,” they may not be fully aware that they are repeating an ancient anti-Semitic notion of the Jew as a wicked puppeteer, the devil behind the curtain. When someone proclaims that Zionism is racism and that Israel is a colonialist power, they are simply repeating tropes originated by Stalin and Lenin; old Soviet lies used to further oppress their Jewish citizens. We cannot allow these comments to linger and these ideas to fester. The wars and persecution of the last century taught us as much.
At the Jewish Federation, we’re working every day to fight hate on many fronts. Through increased education on the Holocaust and — together with our partners within the Jewish community as well as our area’s interfaith communities — working with government officials on more robust hate crimes legislation, we are striving to keep our communities strong. And we are spending more time and resources toward keeping our institutions safe, for example by conducting security training as well as building assessments and regularly connecting with our friends in local law enforcement.
This High Holiday season, it is my prayer that every Jew should be secure from worry or harm as they live or worship as they choose — a prayer made all the more poignant by the fact that shortly after we conclude our Holidays, we will observe the yahrzeit (one-year anniversary) of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life tragedy. Never has there been a more important time to reflect on all that we’ve been through and set our intentions on what we can do better.
The battle against anti- Semitism will never be truly over — history has taught us that much — but I remain an optimist that this year, together we will join forces to fight it. That the next time you hear someone use an anti-Semitic epithet, you’ll recognize your responsibility to speak up. If enough of us resolve today to work together and look out for one another, we will drown out the voices of hate and replace them with forces of change.
For all who celebrate, I wish you a shanah tovah u’metukah. May the year 5780 be a good year of peace and safety for us all.
Naomi Adler is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.