The Anti-Semitic Blame Game

Is anti-Semitism on the rise since Sept. 11? Answers vary, depending on whom you ask.

"We haven’t seen a resurgence of anti-Semitism since the Sept. 11 attacks," observed Amy Levy, a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest Region, which encompasses most of Southern California. Others, such as Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, have reported increased verbal assaults.

"Usually I get one catcall every three months, but now it’s up to about five a week," May said. Passersby scream epithets or curses as they pass May walking to shul for Shabbat services. Some comments are subtler, more ignorant than intentionally anti-Semitic, but still disturbing, especially in light of recent events.

Peri Levin, an adult education teacher in Santa Monica, recounts how her mother’s Guatemalan caretaker shocked her when she said during a discussion of the Sept. 11 attacks: "I’ll tell you what the problem is. It’s Israel. They have all the oil. That’s why the Arabs are angry." The caretaker, whom Levin characterized as "very intelligent," said she’d heard on various Spanish language broadcasts that the Jews all got out of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon before the Sept. 11 attacks and were probably responsible for the attacks. Levin said she had never heard anyone speak like this before. And it made her very uncomfortable.

Ella Zarky, a colleague of Levin’s, said one of her students was surprised to find out Zarky was Jewish when the instructor was absent on Rosh Hashana. "How can you be Jewish? You’re good; Jews are bad," the student said. Zarky, who grew up in a small Wisconsin town and experienced anti-Semitism as a child, worries about the implications of such comments. "I just think the Jews are going to be blamed, no matter how much good we do."

Outside of Southern California, anti-Semitism has taken a decidedly more violent and disturbing turn. In Tacoma, Wash., on Sept. 22, arsonists apparently attempted to blow up a synagogue by lighting a fire-starting log under a main gas line. The shul, Temple Beth El, had earlier experienced two post-Sept. 11 incidents: a bomb threat and vandalism when "Zionism + U.S. = 5,000 dead" was spray-painted in the synagogue’s parking lot.

At UC Berkeley, during a Simchat Torah celebration on Oct. 9, a 23-year-old celebrant from San Francisco was punched in the eye after confronting three men who were reportedly goose-stepping and executing "Heil Hitler" salutes. While the Berkeley police have not yet classified the incident as a hate crime (since they maintain that the victim put up his hands first), Adam Weisberg, executive director of the Berkeley Hillel, has no question in his mind. "If a hate crime is defined as someone doing violence to someone else because of race, creed or color, that’s what this was," Weisberg told The Jewish Journal.

Over the past year, as violence has increased in Israel, anti-Semitism has also been on the rise on the Berkeley campus, Weisberg said. But in the wake of Sept. 11 attacks, the discomfort of some Jewish students has increased measurably, and some have expressed fears for their safety if they speak out or become more visible. Student Jereme Albin, a senior from Woodland Hills, sent an e-mail to the Wiesenthal Center outlining some disturbing signs and incidents that occurred after Sept. 11. Among them: a poster board put up in Sproul Plaza, the campus’ main gathering spot, on which people scrawled such phrases as "It’s the Jews, stupid," and a campus vigil that turned into what Albin characterized as an "America-Israel-bashing event."

"Speaker after speaker would say that the U.S. oppresses people around the world, and that it is our support for Israel that offends the world. When a student got up on stage and said that America should find who is responsible for this and punish them, he was booed off the stage."

In a conversation with The Journal, Albin said that the vocal anti-American, anti-Zionist, anti-Israel sentiments at UC Berkeley have become unnerving. "You start to feel it’s anti-Semitic, even if it’s not stated. I grew up in Los Angeles, where half the people I knew were Jewish. I’ve never seen anything like this." Weisberg noted: "In the wake of the terrible events of Sept. 11, there’s been a great deal of focus and attention on not scapegoating Arabs or Muslims in this community. There has been little or no public recognition on the part of organizers of the anti-war movement that it’s equally important not to blame the Jews and Israel."

A campus rally of Jewish student groups on Oct. 18 designed to demonstrate solidarity and abhorrence of hate crimes drew about 100 participants to UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Despite the presence of a pro-Palestinian group called Students for Justice in Palestine, the rally concluded without incident, Albin said.