On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
News of anti-Semitic attacks in New York and New Jersey dominated the headlines over the holidays and reports of anti-Semitic graffiti at synagogues and schools in the D.C. region have increased in recent months.
Data shows that hate crimes are on the rise in our region. In its Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA) report for 2018, the most recent available, the FBI reported:
- 49 hate crimes in Maryland, a 2% increase from 2017.
- 143 hate crimes in Virginia, a 26% decrease from 2017.
- 213 hate crimes in the District, a 10% increase from 2017.
The report documents 7,120 total hate crimes nationwide in 2018, compared to 7,175 in 2017. This was the first slight decrease after three consecutive years of increases. Religion-based hate crimes decreased by eight percent from 2017, but nearly 60% of hate crime attacks targeted Jews and Jewish institutions in 2018.
Local Jewish leaders join Kojo to talk about how the rise of anti-Semitism is affecting their community.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. News of anti-Semitic attacks in New York and New Jersey dominated the headlines over the holidays, and reports of anti-Semitic graffiti at synagogues and schools in this region have increased in recent months. In fact, FBI data showed that hate crimes are on the rise in our region. And although religion-based hate crimes decreased by 8 percent nationwide in 2018 -- the most recent year we have statistics available for -- nearly 60 percent of hate crime attacks targeted Jews and Jewish institutions in 2018.
KOJO NNAMDISo, how is the local Jewish community responding? Joining me in studio is Gil Preuss, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Gil Preuss, thank you for joining us.
GIL PREUSSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIShira Stutman is the senior rabbi at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Shira Stutman, thank you for joining us.
SHIRA STUTMANIt's great to be here.
NNAMDIGil and Shira, I'd like to get both of your takes on this. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were more than 1,800 incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States in 2018 including more than 1,000 instances of harassment. But, just six years ago, the Anti-Defamation League reported the lowest incidents of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States since it started keeping records in 1979. What do you think is fueling this rise in anti-Semitic incidents? I'll start with you, Shira.
STUTMANLook, I think there are a number of things that are fueling the rise of anti-Semitic incidents. Of course, we had the election of 2016, in which some of our own elected leaders used anti-Semitic tropes as a way to get elected. And what history has proven over and over and over again is that whenever there is some semblance of upheaval in our cultures or societies -- so, the upheaval right now could be in the political arena. It could be in the environmental arena. But whenever there is upheaval, people from all over, from all walks of life, unfortunately, start to blame the Jews. And so we are in somewhat of a time of a little bit of upheaval right now, and so it would just make sense that this would be happening.
PREUSSSo, as you noted, the rise has been over the past five or six years. And I think it's a reflection of many things that Shira also noted of the divisions in our American society today. And, in fact, the increases are global, as groups try to define themselves in contrast to other groups. Frequently, they look for some escape goat, someone to blame for the problems. And what we're seeing is a rise of anti-Semitism both from the left in American society and from the right in American society, both looking for someone to blame for the challenges that we're facing within the current context.
NNAMDIShira, in early December, there was an anti-Semitic incident at Sixth & I Synagogue that got a great deal of attention, both locally and nationwide. Remind us what happened.
STUTMANYeah. So, it was the day after Thanksgiving. We all came back to work on the Monday after Thanksgiving, but on that Friday a few days before, someone who actually lives in the neighborhood painted anti-Semitic graffiti on the stairs and carved a swastika into the door of Sixth & I. It was deeply upsetting, as you could imagine, to our neighbors and to our congregants, and also to sort of the Sixth & I community, which, as you know, you're going to be at Sixth & I in just a few weeks yourself, Kojo.
STUTMANYou know, Sixth & I community includes lots of people who aren't Jewish. And a lot of people who really saw this as a desecration, it's not just an anti-Semitic attack against the Jewish community, but sort of a desecration of a place they called home.
NNAMDIWhat kind of effect did this incident have on your congregation?
STUTMANWell, I think that people, you know, our congregants, many of our congregants who come for our Jewish events are young professionals in their 20s and 30s. And they really grew up in an America that they didn't experience a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism growing up, and the Holocaust was sort of receding in their memories, in a certain sort of way. And so when this happened to a place that they really called home -- a lot of them didn't even grow up in D.C., so this is like a home to them -- it just really felt like a gut-punch to them.
NNAMDIThis was not the first anti-Semitic incident in this region in recent months, but why do you think it struck such a responsive chord with people even outside of this D.C. region?
STUTMANYeah, it is true, it struck a chord, not only in a sad or depressing way. It was also quite beautiful that we got emails and letters and flowers sent to us from people throughout D.C., but also throughout the country and the world. Look, that is the beauty of Sixth & I, of course. It is a place which brings together, I think, the sort of best of what America can be, sort of the freedom that Jews really do get to experience here in this country, which is unique, almost, in Jewish history, but also bringing together sort of the arts and cultures and just lots of people for an exchange of ideas. And this feels like the opposite of what Sixth & I stands for.
NNAMDIGil Preuss, what are some of the other anti-Semitic incidents that you have been made aware of in this region over the past year or so?
PREUSSSo, just a couple of months earlier, some teenagers drew anti-Semitic graffiti on the back of Washington Hebrew Congregation. There were swastikas that were painted on the outside of the Pozez JCC in Northern Virginia. There were several incidents of graffiti at elementary and middle schools throughout the region. And so those are several of the different instances that we know. And it does seem to be increasing, even within our region, and not just nationally.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Meredith Weisel from the Anti-Defamation League. Meredith Weisel, thank you for joining us.
MEREDITH WEISELThank you for having me.
NNAMDICan you tell us about any more incidents that we may have overlooked that have been reported recently, in this region, having to do with anti-Semitism?
WEISELSo, we know that there are incidents that are happening on a daily basis, and a lot of them have also been in schools. And I know that Gil knows this, as well. And what we hear reported a lot of times is swastikas painted on the buildings, carved into desks, scratched into bathroom stalls. So, it's not just our synagogues. It's not just our JCCs. We're also seeing it throughout the school system, and some of this is coming on a regular basis.
WEISELAnd, on top of the graffiti, we're also having instances of racial slurs or bias towards other individuals, not just the Jewish community. Just negative comments that are coming, insensitive remarks. And it's on a daily basis.
NNAMDIGil Preuss, you have said that even though anti-Semitic incidents and harassment of Jewish people -- especially toward the Orthodox community in Brooklyn -- have spiked dramatically, the recent knife attack at a rabbi's home in Monsey, New York elicited a different emotional response from people. Tell us about that.
PREUSSSo, we've all been following the various attacks that have been occurring around the country, or locally, we've been seeing them. The attack that occurred in Monsey, New York where a rabbi was celebrating Hanukah at his home, and where a man with a machete came in and attacked the people in the house, had a very different emotional response, because it's one level to paint graffiti on a wall. It's impersonal. It's another thing to come into someone's home and to personally attack them with a knife.
PREUSSAfter the various attacks we've seen nationally, and even locally, the questions started to arise in people's minds: is there any place that we are actually safe? Can we actually celebrate our faith in any context without fear of being attacked? Synagogues are attacked. JCCs are attacked. Kosher supermarkets in Jersey City are attacked. And now it's someone's individual house, while they're celebrating their faith and being attacked. That touched people in a completely different way, it seemed, and added another level of uncertainty within the community.
NNAMDIThere was a huge demonstration in New York yesterday, but do you think the response from national and local leaders in the aftermath of the Monsey and Jersey City attacks has been appropriate?
PREUSSI think it's starting. So, I was there in New York yesterday, enjoying the 25,000 people. And the sense that I got, both from the people who were there, as well as the other religious and political leaders, is that the message is starting to sink in. That we need to respond very clearly, as a community, to anti-Semitic acts wherever they may occur, whichever segment of the Jewish community they attack. We need to increase security for all different segments of the community so people feel physically secure.
PREUSSBut also, just being careful about what language we use, how we articulate and how we respond to any attack, and not letting people get by because maybe they did something else that was positive or supportive. So, it does feel that, particularly after the past couple of weeks, there is a different nature to the response among political and religious leaders across all religious streams.
NNAMDIShira Stutman, an October survey of American Jews conducted by the American Jewish Committee, 25 percent of respondents said, quoting here, "avoid certain places, events or situations out of fear for their safety or comfort as a Jew." Do you see that sentiment reflected in your congregation?
STUTMANI'm really glad you brought that up, Kojo. I have to say that reading about that study made me more sad than almost even hearing of any anti-Semitic attack that did occur. Because I do think that one of the best responses to anti-Semitism -- especially as it now stands in America -- is celebrating Jewish life and living Jewish life and continuing to grow as part of the Jewish community. And so if people aren't showing up, that's the worst possible result.
STUTMANThat has not been our experience at Sixth & I. Perhaps it's because our people are younger. Perhaps it's because they're more transient, and so Sixth & I really does feel like a home to them and a place they really need to go to. And so that has not been my personal experience, and I hope it doesn't become so.
NNAMDIGil Preuss, what are your thoughts on that survey result? Have you seen a rise in concern about safety from the local Jewish community?
PREUSSSo, I've definitely seen a rise in concern over safety. It's something that, as the Jewish Federation, we're focusing on of how to increase physical security at the local Jewish institutions. I also know, speaking with families, I mean, there is some concern for example around Jewish preschools, making sure that the security there how do you ensure that wherever either you may go or your family members may go, that there is ongoing safety and security. So, it's out there. I don't see it as shaping people's behaviors, but it has increased in terms of an area of focus.
NNAMDIMeredith Weisel, your response to the same question?
WEISELI would agree with what both Shira and Gil have said so far. I think that the other focus needs to be, and what people are asking for, is education. We need to start talking about our education and our outreach. And it was wonderful what went on in New York, as far as the march and the amount of people there. And there was also, last night in Montgomery County, there was a community vigil that was held. And there were people from all walks of life. It wasn't just the Jewish community.
WEISELAnd I think that's the presence that we need to shift our focus on and looking towards. And what can we be doing? What are the concrete steps that we need to be taking now? So, I do think that, you know, what Gil and Shira have talked about is extremely important, and then what are the next steps. And I think that's where we need to look at our focus and what we should be discussing within the entire community.
NNAMDIHere's Alan in Takoma Park. Alan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALANYes, thank you. I was at that rally and, you know, was actually stunned to see a Washington Post headline feed this morning that had this whole article about this New York demonstration, but nothing about the hundreds of people that were on Carol Avenue. It blocked up the whole street, people from all colors and classes and backgrounds. It was huge. Jamie Raskin spoke. Will Jawando was very powerful, from the county council, spoke.
ALANI have two quick questions. I wanted to say that at my congregation (unintelligible), which is a (word?), which means we don't own the building. We use the -- we've done some security measures along with -- I think there's a council in D.C. of security in Jewish organizations. So, we've worked with (unintelligible) Israel, also on 16th Street, and what's called the Nation's Synagogue. I can't think of the actual name of it, across the street from (unintelligible). And with a Somali Muslim community that teaches, and we've met with the Imam and he's spoken to our group. So, we all coordinate with the Ethical Society and with these other groups. And we have numbers, so I'm a...
NNAMDIWhat does your security look like?
ALANWell, we've locked the doors. So, if someone comes in, the service starts at 9:30, someone will open the door. And I'm one of the greeters, so what we do is we have different shifts. And we just -- people have to knock on it, so someone can't come in armed, you know, with rifles and get access to that door. We let everyone in who wants to come in, because we are an inclusive community. We don't ask about their religion or their color. And often, the Muslim community usually has classes in the afternoon, so they come after our service. But sometimes they come in.
ALANAnyone's welcome to come in, but we just have the door locked. And we also have badges with the phone numbers of the -- there's a police liaison for religious communities. And we have some of the numbers of other synagogues on the block and the Muslim community group downstairs.
ALANSo, we've done that, but the other thing that I wanted to just ask a quick question. The embrace of the Hasidic or the Orthodox Jewish community to Trump I think is so disturbing because he has -- since he went down that golden staircase and talked about hatred. And I just want to ask a pointed question. What could we in the Jewish community do to blunt that?
NNAMDIGil Preuss? (laugh)
PREUSSSo, I think we need to separate a couple of issues, here, which is separating the issue of anti-Semitism from politics. And which we have not always done successfully, and that's actually been part of the challenge that we face as a Jewish community.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, let me interrupt with an email from Betsy, who says: please ask your guests to discuss anti-Semitism on the left and on college campuses. This appears to me to be related to the pro-Palestinian, which some seem to conflate with anti-Israel sentiment. It's difficult to talk about anti-Semitism without mentioning anti-Israel sentiment, even though there's a big difference between the two. But that difference may not be readily evident to people who do not study this issue. How do you navigate that?"
PREUSSSo, there are several different issues here that I just want to touch on. First of all is in terms of the politics of the left and the right, we have to be able to separate our battling of anti-Semitism and the use of anti-Semitic tropes in both directions, regardless of the political agenda. One of the challenges that we have faced in the past is that we tend to just condemn anti-Semitism when it occurs or expressed by people who hold the opposite political views of ourselves.
PREUSSAs I've heard other people say, if that's all we do, then we're not fighting anti-Semitism. We're just fighting the American political dynamics. And so, first thing is we have to make sure that we are very clear in fighting anti-Semitism, regardless of its source and regardless of whether we agree with the person's other politics.
NNAMDIGo ahead. We're running out of time, so I guess I need to get in this other question, because, Shira, many of your congregants at Sixth & I are millennials, and they have a very different world view and frame of reference for history and world events than the generations before them. How are they grappling with the rise of anti-Semitism? What have you heard from them?
STUTMANI'm really glad you asked that question, because the truth is -- and I'm glad that Meredith brought up the concept of education, because the truth is anti-Semitism is very difficult to understand. It works very differently than other forms of oppression, like racism or homophobia or xenophobia. And so one of the ways that our congregants have reacted is actually by trying to learn how anti-Semitism works. We have classes that sell out the second we put them on sale, so that they can learn, and so that they can actually articulate how anti-Semitism works.
STUTMANThis is especially important when it comes to talking about issues of Israel-Palestine, because while it is, of course, possible to have a strong critique of Israel without being an anti-Semite, there are some ways that this conversation has been nuanced in ways that are anti-Semitic in nature. But I think education and also speaking up when something happens are the two main ways that they've grappled with this.
NNAMDIAlmost out of time bur, Gil, what kind of support have you received from local officials? Are you satisfied with the response here?
PREUSSSo, we have received very strong support from the local officials. Immediately after the most recent attacks, Mayor Bowser met with several leaders of the Jewish community, then had members of the Metropolitan Police Department do a tour and visit across all of the local synagogues, do an assessment and provide some guidance and support. There is ongoing engagement with the political and the police leadership in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County and the District. And so that has been very positive.
NNAMDIGil Preuss is the chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Shira Stutman is the senior rabbi at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. And Meredith Weisel is with the Anti-Defamation League. Thank you all for joining us. This segment about anti-Semitism was produced by Monna Kashfi, and our conversation about gun violence in D.C. was produced by Lauren Markoe.
NNAMDIJoin us tomorrow when we talk about the high cost of childcare in Washington and the toll it takes on families and careers. Plus, delaying retirement and why many in this region are working well into their senior years. It's all part of the reporting from WAMU's new Affordability Desk, and they'll join us to officially launch this yearlong project. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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