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A new old reality

As the internet fuels extremism, American Jews are increasingly becoming targets of an ancient hatred

A new old reality

Anti-Semitic graffiti mars a memorial stone at Hebrew Cemetery in Fall River, Mass. (Jack Foley/The Herald News of Fall River via AP)

Noah Farkas still remembers the night someone targeted his family.

He was a 10th grader in Plano, Texas, where he and his family were one of the few Jewish families in a mostly Southern Baptist town. At about 3 a.m., he woke up to a thunder of booms and cracks outside his bedroom window. Someone had planted pipe bombs on their front yard. The family’s brick mailbox lay shattered to pieces on the street, their lawn glowed with flames, and on top of their car hung a T-shirt flag painted with swastikas and angry words: “Get Out Jew!” “We know who you are.”

As police officers walked around his family’s property in hazmat suits, making sure the area was clear of chemical agents, Farkas felt himself shaking with fear and confusion: Who would do such a thing—just because they were Jews? His parents told him what his grandparents had told his parents, and what their grandparents had told his grandparents: We Jews are a small people in a big world. There are only about 15 million of us, yet lots of people hate us—and some resort to horrible violence.

Farkas never understood why some people disliked Jews, but his own childhood experiences affirmed his otherness: In elementary school, other boys kicked and punched him while yelling anti-Semitic slurs. Some boys made jokes about Jews and laughed in a way that clearly didn’t invite him to laugh along. One Friday night, while his father was praying a blessing over the wine for Shabbat, they heard the squish of raw eggs splattering their windows.

It was the middle of the week, and Farkas remembers dreading school the next day, but his father was firm: “If you don’t go to school tomorrow, then they win”—“they” meaning the haters, the anti-Semites who aimed to terrify and chase them out of town. Reluctantly, Farkas dragged himself to school, but he remembers sitting in chemistry class feeling unsafe, wondering whether any of his classmates had been involved in the attack the previous night.

Today, Farkas is a 39-year-old rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, and a father of four children ages 4 to 10. He has come a long way from the tiny Jewish congregation of six families in Plano to today leading a Jewish congregation of more than 1,500 families in Los Angeles. And despite Farkas’ negative childhood experiences as an American Jew, the United States has historically been a safe haven for Jews, a place where Jews can flourish under the protection of American law and liberties.

But in the last few years, like many other American Jews, Farkas is increasingly worried about what he sees as a rise in anti-Semitism in the United States. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has been tracking anti-Semitic incidents for the past 40 years, 2018 had the third-highest number of anti-Semitic incidents—1,879—a decrease from 1,986 in 2017, but 48 percent higher than in 2016 and 99 percent higher than in 2015. ADL attributes about 13 percent of total incidents to known extremist groups or individuals—the highest number of extremist ideology-inspired attacks in over a decade.

Anti-Semitism doesn’t just come from far-right nationalists and white supremacists; it’s budding on the left as well, where anti-Israel sentiments have led to hostility and discrimination against Jews, and it’s also present among a significant number of Muslims, an animus that partly traces back to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Alan Berner/The Seattle Times via AP

Holocaust-denying graffiti defaces the façade of Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle. The “s” characters in the graffiti are dollar signs. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times via AP)

Some polling suggests that anti-Semitic sentiments may not have increased so much as people are more emboldened to express them publicly, but that’s just as concerning for Jews who remember how an openly anti-Semitic climate, mixed with the right political, social, and economic conditions, can lead to disaster for Jews. It may already be happening in Europe and the United States, with radicalization of both the political right and the left and tensions over immigration and nationalism.

Last year, France reported a 74 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic acts, Germany a 60 percent increase in violent anti-Semitic attacks, and the United Kingdom a record high in anti-Semitic hate incidents. In Eastern Europe, right-wing nationalist politicians are dredging up old anti-Semitic sentiments by revising Holocaust history, and thousands of nationalists staged anti-Jew street demonstrations in Poland. Since the 2000s, Jews in Europe have been tortured, shot, beaten, firebombed, and verbally abused; their businesses and properties have been boycotted, vandalized, and burned.

European Jews now sometimes wear baseball hats over their kippot, remove their Star of David jewelry, avoid Jewish events, and hide insignias of their Jewish schools, while thousands have immigrated to Israel for safety.

Things have not become that bad in the United States, but American Jews are picking up warning signs. Farkas first began seeing signs of blatant anti-Semitism in America when he watched the rally at Charlottesville in 2017, where hundreds of young white men dressed in polo shirts and khaki pants carried tiki torches and chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and soil,” a German slogan tied to Nazi ideology.

He saw it on the left too, when leaders of the Women’s March associated with anti-Semitic figures such as Louis Farrakhan and excluded Jewish women for upholding “white supremacy,” when LGBT groups expelled participants for carrying rainbow flags with the Star of David, when Muslim congresswomen tweeted out anti-Semitic tropes yet didn’t face any real consequences from the Democratic Party.

There’s always been some pretext to hate Jews, Farkas said: “It’s because we’re too rich or not rich enough, too white or not white enough. It’s either I’m a white supremacist, or I’m being beaten up by a white supremacist. That’s what’s so perplexing about anti-Semitism: We’re the Rorschach test for everyone’s hatred.”

And sometimes, that hatred turns fatal. In 2018, a man who participated in a far-right social media website charged a Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh with several firearms, killing 11 people and injuring at least six. Then exactly six months later, another young man who posted regularly in a controversial online message board attacked the Chabad of Poway synagogue with a gun, killing one woman and wounding three people, including a young girl.

Rick Eaton, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center who has been tracking hate groups for almost 34 years, said he’s “very worried” about the future.

Justin Mack/The Indianapolis Star via AP

A graffitied shed at the Congregation Shaarey Tefilla synagogue in Carmel, Ind. (Justin Mack/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

One reason is the growth of the internet. Three decades ago, Eaton had to subscribe to print publications from various extremist groups in order to read their propaganda, and there were barriers to interaction between ideologues. Now everyone and their radical ideas are easily accessible online. Instead of having a clear leadership figure who might have reined in the more aggressive impulses of his followers, lone individuals from all around the globe now speak and act for themselves, spouting their vilest thoughts and beliefs while hiding behind anonymity. There, they plant seeds of extremism into one another and water and prune each other’s ideologies, and once in a while, someone tires of merely talking and decides he’s the person to act.

“That’s why this rhetoric is so dangerous,” Eaton said. “At some point, somebody decides to take matters into their own hands. … We’ve come to this age of violence where that’s how problems are solved. I don’t see that changing. I only see that getting worse.”

After the Pittsburgh tragedy, Farkas realized it was time to give his two oldest sons that same old talk his parents and grandparents had given him: Anti-Semitism is an old, persistent hate. It makes no sense at all, but it hasn’t gone away, and it may never go away. But he also tried to reassure them that they live in a safe community: He has the police chief’s number on speed dial, and the community spends six figures each year to ensure the best security infrastructure. Their school and synagogue have high walls, 24-hour cameras, and security guards, and all the staff members and faculty receive extensive security training and briefings.

Such fear-driven security measures haven’t always been the norm in American Jewish communities. Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg remembers moving from his hometown in Columbus, Ohio, in 2007 to lead Shaarey Zedek, an Orthodox synagogue of about 350 members in Los Angeles, and being surprised to see a security guard standing outside the synagogue. During high holidays, the community hired an extra security guard. Rosenberg didn’t object, but he remembers wondering, “Is this necessary? Are we really in that much danger?”

His previous synagogue in Columbus had no security guard, and as a child Rosenberg, who’s now 54, never once felt unsafe in his community, even while walking around with his telltale yarmulke and tzitzit. “We always felt that anti-Semitism in the U.S. was very, very isolated,” he said. “Looking back, I wonder: Were we ignorant? Foolish? Naïve?”

Then in recent years, like Farkas, Rosenberg began sensing something brewing in American society: He saw blatant anti-Semitism on the news and on social media, spotted hints of it disguised as anti-Zionism on the left. Members of Shaarey Zedek began feeling uneasy, so in 2015 they formed a security committee for their synagogue.

When the Pittsburgh tragedy struck, Rosenberg was shaken, and so was his congregation. Shaarey Zedek quickly added more security but hoped it was an isolated incident. Then the Poway shooting happened, and Rosenberg saw the writing on the wall: “This is the new reality. We’re resigned to having to address it. We’re no longer burying our head in the sand and saying this is not going to happen again. We hope it won’t, but we’re not taking any chances.”

Today, the synagogue spends more than $40,000 a year on security. Tall iron gates with locked doors surround the building, surveillance cameras operate all day, and the office has a direct emergency line to the local police department. Members attended two presentations on what to do during an active shooter situation.

Jean-Marc Loos/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Graves defaced with swastikas at a Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, France. (Jean-Marc Loos/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Many American Jewish communities are doing the same. Ever since the Pittsburgh attack, the conversation among American Jews has shifted from whether they should invest in security to what kind of security they need, said Jason Friedman, executive director of the Community Security Service (CSS), a nonprofit founded in 2007 that has trained more than 4,000 volunteers on how to protect their Jewish communities.

After Pittsburgh, Friedman’s organization received hundreds of emails and phone calls from American Jews asking for help: “We never had to advertise. The interest went up [after Pittsburgh] and never receded.”

Raziel Cohen, lead instructor of National Defensive Firearms Training (NDFT), said since he opened up security training classes to civilians in 2018, NDFT has been receiving calls from houses of worship all over the country. Most are from Jews, but he’s also received multiple requests from mosques and churches, including people who were once staunchly anti-gun. That’s a clear indicator, Cohen said, “that this is the reality of the situation today. … We have to be proactive, not just reactive. As harsh as it is to say, it can happen again, and it very likely will happen again.”

I interviewed Cohen, a stocky, broad-shouldered, fully bearded, yarmulke-donning rabbi who calls himself “The Tactical Rabbi,” soon after he conducted a five-hour active shooter seminar at a local shooting range. There at the seminar, Cohen shoved and tackled and sprayed fake blood on his students to simulate what might happen during an actual attack. He taught students how to be mentally prepared, how to create an ambush, how to treat injuries, and how to fire within a crowd without hitting bystanders.

Nancy Pastor/Polaris/Newscom

Raziel Cohen (left) gives instruction at a firing range in Los Angeles. (Nancy Pastor/Polaris/Newscom)

“People always ask, how can a rabbi be so involved in guns?” Cohen said. “Well, we Jews have always been involved in self-protection—if not guns, then swords. … There’s always been anti-Semitism. It’s not like it’s any different between the time of Pharaoh till now.” In late May, Cohen flew to New York at the request of a private Jewish school. When other local Jewish communities found out he was coming, more and more people asked him for help, so Cohen booked a one-way ticket: “We’re going to stay as long as we’re needed.” 

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Rosenberg is still processing the future of American Jews. When he heard about the Poway attack, he felt a complex array of emotions: “Part of me wants to be mobilized to do something, part of me just wants to mourn, part of me is bewildered.” Things haven’t gotten to the point where people are fleeing to Israel, but he feels unsettled: “There’s an attitude of: We don’t know. We don’t know where this will go. All we know is it’s alarming.”

The children have been the most resilient, Rosenberg noted. Their parents have told them about Pittsburgh and Poway. They learn about the Holocaust in school, see the bolted gates and security guards, notice their parents’ sadness and fears. Yet the kids seem all right. They run around laughing and tumbling into mischief. They still do arts and crafts and learn Hebrew and munch on matzo during Passover. In one Jewish school, I watched two dozen elementary schoolers practice a song and dance for their upcoming graduation event.

To Farkas, it’s a sign that his father was right to send him to school even when he wanted to stay at home in fear. But it also means refusing to identify his Jewishness with victimhood: “As a kid, my purpose of living as a Jew was to not give up and survive. That’s not what I want to burden my kids with. There are lots of joys in being a Jew.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  • CJ
    Posted: Sat, 06/15/2019 02:23 pm

    As stated in the article, anti-Semitism makes no sense whatsoever. 

  • Laura W
    Posted: Mon, 06/24/2019 02:29 am

    Those are some pretty dramatic increases, especially in Europe. World, think you can find out what might be driving that? Anti-Semitic rhetoric is nothing new--is there a reason it seems to be finding more acceptance lately? Also, are there any good ways to help fund synagogue security? There must be some of them that are struggling to foot the bill.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 06/24/2019 06:21 am

    When I was young anti-Semitism was something that died with Nazi Germany.  With the suppression of Biblical Christianity in this country and the rise the the religion of self every kind of hatred is allowed.  As Christians we should, I think, be very careful that we never sound like we hate those we disagree with.  That being said we must continue to offer redemption even though that makes them all madder than anything else.  So many things happening now can only be understood when we remember what God has said.    

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Tue, 06/25/2019 12:50 am

    One thing that we can especially do on the right is fully denounce anti-Semitism whenever it comes amongst us.  The left's failure to denounce Ilhan Omar is shameful, but Trump's failure to denounce the Charlottesville protestors (and his various Neo-Nazi followers) was also shameful, and a missed opportunity.  The synagogue shooter in California was a member of a conservative Christian church, and already the OPC has responded through a series of condemnatory actions. If we fail to condemn such people, then we embolden them.

     

  • PAUL GOELLER
    Posted: Mon, 06/24/2019 04:05 pm

    Sophia Lee's article highlights how far we have fallen (and continue to fall) from being a truly Christian nation - perhaps we never were - or perhaps our pretense has caught the eye of God and we are rapidly losing His wisdom, compassion, mercy gentleness, kindness - oh that we could learn - but sadly it seems we are headed toward a most difficult future.

    Paul