It’s 2014 + I Still Experience Anti-Semitism. How Can We Change That?

Eric Holder Attends Memorial Service For Victims Of Kansas Shootings
Photo: A memorial outside one of the two Jewish centers in Kansas (Getty).
Right before Passover, three people were shot and killed at two Jewish centers in Kansas. Frazier Glenn Cross, a white supremacist and former Klu Klux Klan leader, has been arrested and charged for the murders.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, released a statement about the attacks. It read in part: “Just last week, ADL sent out a security bulletin to Jewish community institutions across the country warning of the increased potential for violent attacks against community centers in the coming weeks, which coincide both with the Passover holiday and Hitler’s birthday on April 20, a day around which in the United States has historically been marked by extremist acts of violence and terrorism, including the violence at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas and the Oklahoma City Bombing.”

Growing up, I heard numerous stories of anti-Semitism, including the pogroms my family faced before immigrating to America, as well as the death of relatives during the Holocaust. Pogroms were concentrated attacks on Jewish people in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s. They were often organized and had high fatalities. The most infamous pogram, Kristallnacht, took place in Germany in 1938 and left 91 Jews dead, and found 30,000 others arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps. Kristallnacht is German for Crystal Night, and is often referred to as The Night Of Broken Glass, as the street were covered in broken glass from all the businesses, homes, and places of worship that had been destroyed.

Synagogue Ruins
Photo: A building destroyed during Kristallnacht. (Getty)
In America my family was better off, but prejudice wasn’t nonexistent. My grandmother has told me more than once about a children’s book she used to read, where the young main character was forced by her parents to live with Jewish people as a form of punishment. That book went into all sorts of cruel and nasty stereotypes.

Times have changed, but many stereotypes still remain. In the community where I’m currently living, I’ve been called offensive names. I’ve had people throw coins on the ground and say, “You’re a Jew, you have to pick them up.” More times than I can count, when people first learn I’m Jewish, they think it’d be great to break the ice with an incredibly offensive Holocaust joke. In my personal experience, the people who have told me those jokes don’t hate Jewish people, but they have no understanding of what they’re saying and why it’s so offensive.

I’ve heard people more or less say, “Anti-Semitism used to be really bad, but it stopped after the Holocaust.” That’s just not true. We see different degrees of anti-Semitism, from people saying offensive things to hate crimes, but they all stem from the same place. It’s the same place all forms of bigotry stem from: a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge, and a lack of love.

For more insight on the issue, I spoke with Michael Lieberman, Director, Civil Rights Policy Planning Center at the Anti-Defamation League. Talking about the issues of offensive jokes and terms (which the people speaking may or may not realize are offensive), he said, “Each person has to be able to create their own environment. Let’s say you’re at the checkout line at a grocery store and the clerk makes an error and you say, ‘I’m supposed to get back $3, not $1.’ That person gets defensive and says, ‘I wasn’t really trying to Jew you down.’ You could immediately leap over that counter and pummel the person, but that is not the right response. It’s totally appropriate to say, ‘The use of that word is offensive to me.’ Sometimes it’s language that’s seeped into their daily life and they don’t think of it as being offensive. The way to educate people is to be able to stand up and say, ‘Whatever you believe, don’t use that kind of language with me.’”

Photo: A glass sign at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Massachusetts (Getty)
We moved on to the discussion of hate crimes. “Hate crimes are acts of vandalism or acts of violence where the victim is intentionally selected on the basis of their personal characteristics,” explained Michael.

And which groups are most often targeted in hate crimes? “According to the FBI, the most numerous hate crimes are race-based hate crimes, and African-Americans are targeted the most,” Michael said. “The second most frequent are religion-based hate crimes. Year in and year out, 60 to 70 percent of the religion-based crimes are directed toward Jews and Jewish institutions. The third most frequent hate crimes are directed against people on the basis of sexual orientation.”

It was because of this the ADL worked passionately with other orgs and groups to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Some politicians are only willing to support hate crime laws if those laws don’t include protections for LGBTQ people. The ADL finds that unacceptable and made sure the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act included protections for hate crime victims who were targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But these are not the only groups facing considerable hate crimes. “In 2000, nationally, there were 28 anti-Muslim hate crimes reported to the FBI,” Michael said. “In 2001, there were 481. A 1,700 percent increase. That required a police response, a societal response. The same goes with the immigration debate. There have been increases in anti-Hispanic hate crimes, and there’s no question part of that increase is because of the debate on immigration reform. Some people were targeting Hispanics because of the demonizing language in the immigration debates.”

In any discussion like this, the question of “How can we be more tolerant and have fewer hates crimes?” comes up.

“It’s a big question,” he replied. “It’s something the Anti-Defamation League spends a lot of time on. We work both on trying to craft legal and legislative responses, but the real focus goes to prevent hate crimes in the first place. By teaching people to respect differences and honor differences and inclusiveness in society, then people will not grow up to be bigots and haters. You have to be taught to hate: it’s not something that you’re born with. It’s not something intrinsic to a person’s spirit. Somewhere down the line people that are prejudiced are either taught that prejudice or see it modeled. We need to draw the line on hate and stand up for those who are being discriminated against. We need to be an ally for them and not a bystander watching discrimination or bullying or hate crimes occur.”

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