Andrew Goretsky and Hope Comisky
Just over one year ago, on Jan. 15, 2022, an extremist held four innocent people at gunpoint at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. That morning, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker discovered a man walking outside in the cold and, in an act of compassion, opened his synagogue to offer refuge, only to be held at gunpoint and taken hostage with three other worshippers.
The extremist that held Cytron-Walker hostage believed the conspiracy theories about Jewish power and control of government. He believed that if he threatened the rabbi and the congregants, a prominent New York rabbi would arrange for the government of the United States to release a convicted terrorist from prison. This was never possible, but this individual genuinely believed that it could happen because he had accepted dangerous conspiracy theories regarding Jewish power.
This hostage situation, and the 2018 Tree of Life attack, highlight the dangers that these conspiracy theories present to our communities. The Tree of Life attacker believed that Jewish people were conspiring to replace white Americans with Black and brown Americans and immigrants, in what is known as the Great Replacement Conspiracy Theory. We must fight back against these conspiracies and not let them become more prevalent in society.
The Anti-Defamation League saw a record number of antisemitic incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault in 2021. Recently, ADL released its report on antisemitic attitudes in America that provides a comprehensive snapshot of current antisemitic attitudes in the U.S. and the findings are disturbing.
For example, this survey found that 20% of Americans believe in six or more antisemitic conspiracy theories, like the conspiracy theories that motivated the attackers in Pittsburgh and Colleyville. The survey also found that 75% of Americans accept as true at least one antisemitic conspiracy theory or trope about Jewish people.
This report makes clear what we have known: Antisemitism is not only on the rise but is becoming far too mainstream.
Though Cytron-Walker would later credit ADL and law enforcement for the tactical training that saved his life and the lives of his fellow captives, training may not be enough to stop future attacks. In a country like the United States, where religious freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy, defense training for the clergy cannot be our best option in the fight against violent extremism.
We need to combat the rhetoric of hate and bigotry that pushes people to extremes and leads to grave consequences not only for Jews but for Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and people of all faiths and backgrounds.
Despite the rise in antisemitic beliefs and rhetoric, we have hope because there are so many people of all backgrounds who want to come together and push back the tide of hatred. There are more allies than enemies in this battle.
But evil triumphs when good people do nothing. So, we must continue to work together if we are to win this struggle and create a better and safer community for all. Everyone can join and contribute to this effort.
First, report incidents and encourage your friends to report incidents of antisemitism. Even though the number of antisemitic incidents is at an all-time high, we know that these types of incidents, like many biased incidents, are grossly underreported. Accurate data regarding incidents of antisemitism is vital to ADL’s ability to influence and advocate for leaders to address this issue. You can report an incident by going to our website at adl.org/report-incident.
Second, work with your school district and workplace human resources to ensure that antisemitism education and Jewish culture are included in their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging work. Depending on the source, the number of Jewish people in America is 8 million and in the world is 15 million. This is an infinitesimally small percentage of the American and world population.
Most people will not have direct engagement with a Jewish person. We must work with organizations to educate with accurate information to counter the conspiracy theories that exist. Your school district and workplace diversity education is a great place to start.
Andrew Goretsky is the regional director for ADL Philadelphia. Hope Comisky is the board chair for ADL Philadelphia.