Speak up and speak out: Antisemitism is on the rise in our community and we must respond

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Thirty-five years ago, when I began to work with Jewish youth in Columbia, many of the children were familiar with two local cases of antisemitism. They could describe a restaurant owner and a country club that did not welcome Jewish people. Some of the students shared that they were not bothered by these establishments as they considered them to be crazy. The children’s assessment was partially correct.

Antisemitism is a type of a conspiracy theory. Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, describes the core of such a belief as being irrational, delusional, and absurd. I agree with the children that antisemites have an unbalanced view of the world, which is crazy, yet we all should be bothered as antisemites cause real harm.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported in 2021 that antisemitism in the United States reached an all-time high with an average of seven incident a day. Horrifically, many of these were directed at Jewish students. According to the ADL, school grounds now surpass other communal spaces, such as parks and streets, for having the highest number of reported antisemitic incidents. In the past year the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found that one in every four American Jews (24%) has been a victim of antisemitism. Our city is not immune, as antisemitic flyers were distributed to homes throughout Forest Acres last week.

The positive news is that the AJC report found that the majorities of both American Jews and the U.S. general public agree that antisemitism is a problem in our country. Yet, people often do not know how to respond to this hatred proactively or reactively. The following are actions that can be taken to counter antisemitism.

Recognize that antisemitism is not a partisan issue, it occurs on both the left and right of the political divide.

Educate yourself about Jewish culture and antisemitism, including modern-day antisemitism (which manifests itself in the demonization of Israel). One educational opportunity is a visit to the Anne Frank Center at the University of South Carolina.

Engage Jewish friends in conversations about their experiences and thinking regarding antisemitism.

When an antisemitic incident makes headlines, reach out to Jewish people in your circles letting them know that you are ready to act in solidarity.

Speak out against antisemitic jokes, slurs or hatred against Israel. Silence can send the message that such remarks are acceptable.

Work with children’s schools to include teachings about Judaism so that children have a positive image of Jewish people prior to hearing antisemitic messages.

Encourage work places to include Judaism and antisemitism in diversity trainings. The University of South Carolina Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion along with the Academic Engagement Network recently cohosted a workshop on antisemitism and Jewish perspectives.

In addition, South Carolinians can work towards the passage of a hate crimes bill. South Carolina is one of two states that doesn’t have a statewide law against hate crimes, which would provide more tools to prosecute cases such as the distribution of the antisemitic flyers. A watchful eye must also be kept on any legislation that might curtail the teaching of certain history including the Holocaust, slavery, Civil Rights and others.

Now, thirty-five years later, the restaurateur is no longer alive and the country club has diversified its membership, but antisemitism is still present.

At a memorial for the Jewish people killed in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, Rabbi Hesh Epstein of Chabad of South Carolina described antisemitism as a hatred that begins with Jews but never ends with Jews. Hatreds are often bundled. The latest horrific mass killings of African Americans had shooters whose manifestos included abhorrence of Jewish people.

The only way to fight these intolerances is uniting as a community, recognizing that hatred of any group of people affects us all and acting to counter all hate filled beliefs and actions, as they are in the words of the children, crazy.

Rabbi Dr. Meir Muller is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. He co-founded the Cutler Jewish Day School and for 30 years served as head of school. He is lead author of South Carolina’s early learning standards. His work counters racism and antisemitism.