More than 800 participants listened to an online forum hosted by the UJA-Federation of New York on Tuesday addressing the rise in antisemitic incidents in the past month. The event followed a mission to Israel that the organization led last week with 25 rabbis from the city who visited bombed-out apartments in Ashkelon and witnessed the work of the Israel Trauma Coalition that is supported by the country’s largest Jewish philanthropic organization.
“It is certainly in recognition that this virus of antisemitism continues to spread, continues to mutate,” said Neal Zuckerman, rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, who moderated the event. “Here we are living in New York City in 2021, receiving an email warning Jews where we shouldn’t go on the Upper West Side.” The email was sent to students of the Solomon Schechter school in that neighborhood in advance of a BDS rally.
By definition, a boycott is the seemingly nonviolent act of not purchasing a product from a specific source but in practice, movements and demonstrations for BDS in New York alone included instances of firecrackers being tossed, caravans that cursed at Jewish passersby, and last week’s beating of Joseph Borgen in the center of Midtown by a crowd of Palestinian demonstrators. “Until last week I did not bat an eye about wearing a kippah. I was walking through Times Square to a rally,” he told the panelists. “Some of the individuals that attacked me are walking free on minimal bail. We must strengthen the hate crime laws.”
Mitchell D. Silber, executive director of the Community Security Initiative, compared last month’s spate of incidents to Israel’s previous military operation in Gaza. “If you go back to 2014, when Israel fought a war in Gaza, it took seven weeks and had over 2,000 Palestinian deaths. You could hardly remember any protest activity. Paris in 2014 sounded like what we saw,” he said. That year, synagogues, yeshivas, and kosher businesses in the French capital were attacked by demonstrators carrying Palestinian flags.
With social media, Silber said that the complex storyline has been flattened into a racial narrative where Israel is the white colonist and Palestinians are an oppressed people of color, making for an easy connection between social justice movements in the United States and the Palestinian cause. “We saw antisemitism hiding behind anti-Zionism,” he said.
Rebecca Federman, threat intelligence analyst at Community Security Initiative, spoke of the common cause being established between white supremacists and the Palestinian cause. “There’s a white supremacist Goyim Defense League that stood outside a Holocaust education center in Florida waving Palestinian flags. “It’s clickbait for shock value, lacking social, religious, and cultural context,” she said.
Erick Ward, the executive director of Western States Center and a Senior Fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center, spoke from a pro-Israel progressive viewpoint. He argued that violence confuses legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. He noted that among people who identify as progressive, there is an undisputable example of antisemitism that hides behind, or perhaps adopts, the Palestinian label. “Someone spray painting ‘Free Palestine’ on a house of worship is an act of antisemitism. It is the clearest example,” he said. “When Israel doesn’t have the legitimacy of other nation-states, that’s implicit antisemitism.”
Answering questions from participants, Federman said that it is important to discuss online antisemitism with children, so that they know what it looks like. In response to whether American Jews should conceal their kippot, Zuckerman told Borgen that he hopes things do not come to that point. Borgen responded that he will continue to wear his kippah, but will not walk alone again to a pro-Israel rally.
Silber noted that when Jews in France began covering their kippahs with American baseball caps, their new headgear became associated with Jews. “So you can run but you cannot hide,” he said.
Ward said that amid the rise in hate incidents, there has been positive pushback, with progressive Jews and American Muslims speaking out against antisemitic tropes. He sees an opportunity here for more cooperation when antisemitism is clearly defined and understood.
But from an Orthodox and Zionist viewpoint, the forum did not delve deeply enough into the terms that legitimized attacks on Jews as apparent proxies of Israel. American Jews do not represent the policies of Israel, but we are connected to that land and state by our historical and spiritual identity. To seek the erasure of Israel is to chip away at an essential element of Jewishness, certainly antisemitic when an expression of Judaism is suppressed and delegitimized by social media and physical crowds.
By Sergey Kadinsky