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Monday, March 8, 2021

Spate of Anti-Semitic Incidents Shows that ‘Action is Your Cue’

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Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

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Stephen Smith
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

On Dec. 17, anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas and the words, “it’s time to pay,” were found spray-painted on three westside schools. On Dec. 18, a man accused of ransacking a Sephardic synagogue in Beverly Hills was apprehended in Hawaii, in what police are investigating as a hate crime.

The latest spate of anti-Semitic activity in our community — barely a week after six people were slain in a targeted antisemitic attack in New Jersey — has contributed to a growing climate of fear.

Fear is human and understandable, but that doesn’t make it tolerable. Fear makes us feel helpless, and too often, we cope by bunkering down and ignoring the scary reality that Jews in America are less safe today than they have been in decades.

As someone who has devoted my adult life to studying how hate leads to mass violence, I implore you: Do not shrug these incidents off and go about your day. Do not become numb to hate or degrade your worldview to accept antisemitism as a fact of life.

Take action. Reject hate. And help spur understanding.

History does not repeat itself, because circumstances are never identical, but remember that anti-Semitic enmity is as old as Jews themselves. I recently read a book published in 1936 entitled, “How to Combat Anti-Semitism in America.” It easily could have been written today.

One of its authors, Jessie Sampter, writes, “Can antisemitism be successfully combatted in America or anywhere else? The fight, under this name or another, is centuries old but has never been finished.” She goes on: “Anti-Semitism is a form of war and has the same causes,” describing those acts of war as ranging from a “prohibition to visit a summer hotel” to the “butchery of a family.”

Never mind history repeating itself, it just never stopped.

In the same volume, non-Jewish writer John Milton Caldwell urges the Jewish community to “be Jews with all your might!” in the face of hatred, and in particular urges young people “to not underrate their own powers” and be “thoroughly Jewish in a gentile world.” Faced with Nazism in Europe at the time and a rising tide of antisemitism in America, he states, “Action is your cue!”

What does action look like today?

Earlier this year, at Monte Vista High School in Danville, CA, teenage sisters Sabrina and Sydney Brandeis took a stand against hate in response to a series of incidents at their school, which included identity attacks through graffiti and verbal abuse. They launched Diversity Undivided, a community event that features exchange students, LGBTQIA+ students and others to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. They initiated the program as part of USC Shoah Foundation’s Stronger Than Hate video challenge, which they won, earning funds for their education and for their school.

Another important — and least explored — form of action is equipping ourselves to counter the online world that feeds the hatred we see on our streets. Fearmongering has become de rigueur today, and social media amplifies the most toxic voices. The result is often a distortion of facts that can be incredibly detrimental to our capacity to combat hate. One need not look far to find evidence of bias in reporting of antisemitic acts, and it is vital that we educate ourselves and our children in how to read and interpret news and information objectively.

Sometimes it can feel like it’s never enough. When it seems that we read about another instance of antisemitism in this country almost every day, it’s easy to become exhausted and complacent.

But as challenging as our present moment is, it is nothing compared to what we know could happen if antisemitic hate goes unchecked. Our promise to “never forget” is also a promise to “never relent.” It is a hopeful sign that, in Beverly Hills, the city council and law enforcement took decisive action: They made the arrest of the Nessah Synagogue perpetrator a priority—which meant deploying resources to send multiple detectives out to Hawaii.

We must continue to do everything within our power to combat rising antisemitism around the world, to support greater education for ourselves and our children, and to lift each other up as we refuse to back down in the fight against hatred in all its forms. All these decades later, action is still our cue!

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