Addressing Anti-Semitism and Combatting Apathy

This has been a most sobering month.

In early February in Denmark, one person was killed at an event celebrating free speech and three police officers were wounded. Danish police believe that the target may have been Lars Vilks, an artist who has received death threats for drawing images of the prophet Muhammad. Just hours later, a Jewish man, Dan Uzan, was shot in the head and two police officers were wounded in a shooting in front of Copenhagen’s Krystalgade synagogue. Uzan was part of a security patrol guarding the synagogue while a bat mitzvah took place inside. Danish police later shot and killed a man by the Noerrebro train station whom they assume was the perpetrator in both attacks. Two other persons were arrested in connection to the attacks and remain in custody.

The Copenhagen attacks are an alarming echo of those that took place in January in Paris that killed 17 people. Twelve were killed when two gunman opened fire at the satiric French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and four others were shot in a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris by a lone gunman who also killed a policewoman in an earlier incident. All three of the perpetrators were influenced by radical Islamist ideology.

And as I write this I am reading about an incident in Madison, Wisconsin, in which dozens of homes were attacked overnight with swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs. The attacks coincided with the release in neighboring Milwaukee of a report about the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Wisconsin. The Madison crimes were not necessarily targeting Jewish homes, but a hate crime nonetheless. But also, not in Europe and (according to initial news reports) not appearing to be related to radical Islamist ideology.

Without a doubt we are experiencing an unnerving increase in openly anti-Semitic acts. Some have said that the world is desensitized to anti-Semitism, perhaps because it is cloaked by anti-Israel sentiments, or perhaps because of the unconscious institutionalization of anti-Semitism in which some don’t think twice when people express or act upon their hatred toward Jews.

As a Jewish community we unite with Jewish communities worldwide to combat anti-Semitism. Our national and international partners are helping Jewish communities, especially in Europe, deal with physical improvements to their institutions and organize political coalitions to leverage proactive government action. For Jews who feel their lives are better elsewhere, we assist with those transitions. For Jews who desire to remain in their countries, we are there as well.  

Anti-Semitism is a difficult challenge we face. But it is not new. Prejudice against or hatred of Jews has plagued the world for more than 2,000 years. The natural strategy is to address the anti-Semite. Hate crime laws with stiff penalties are a necessary deterrent. An equally necessary strategy is to address the hate.  

We partner with the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding in its Youth and Prejudice Workshop. During four days throughout the year over 1,200 middle- and high-school students participate in a powerful program that explores prejudice and hatred primarily through the lens of the Holocaust. And our Federation’s Holocaust Resource Center has expanded from library-like activities to a creative series of programs implemented at local public and private schools in an engaging format.  

Each year these programs expose thousands of students in the Lehigh Valley to history lessons from the Holocaust and other examples of genocide and hatred. More importantly, values clarification activities enable the students to explore how to avoid being a bystander. The students learn that fear and apathy consume the bystanders to no good.  They learn the meaning of Elie Wiesel’s words: “Neutrality and apathy helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” and that “the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.”

While we must battle the anti-Semite, equally we must educate others  –  likely the majority  –  against apathy and indifference. Whether anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. Whether racism or sexism. Allowing hatred against one provides license for hatred against many.


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