'Antisemitism is an existential threat': U.S. Rep. Susan Wild

By Carl Zebrowski

Editor of Hakol

The Summit to Combat Antisemitism on March 12 started with a joke.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild told the audience at the region’s first-ever antisemitism summit that while she was getting ready for the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley and Anti-Defamation League event, she texted the organizer, Aaron Gorodzinsky. She “thanked” him for scheduling the event early on the first morning of daylight saving time, after everyone was just robbed of an hour’s sleep.

The reply was quick and droll, as those who know the Jewish Federation’s director of campaign and security planning might have expected: “Antisemitism never sleeps.” The crowd cracked up. The comment was welcome comic relief to those who may have arrived a little uptight, given the subject matter about to be discussed. It was also true.

As the crowd at Muhlenberg College soon heard from a host of panelists that included Wild, State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, law enforcement officials, and experts on hate crimes and security, antisemitism in fact does not sleep. Panelists spent the day explaining the specific threats it poses and what governments, organizations and individuals are doing and can start doing to combat them.

From 2020 to 2021, reports of antisemitic incidents increased 34% across the nation to an average of seven per day, according to the ADL. Pennsylvania, for its part, led the nation with 473 reports of antisemitic and other hate propaganda.

“I’ve heard the profound concern in my constituents’ voices,” said Wild, who represents Pennsylvania’s 7th District in Congress. “Antisemitism is an existential threat to everything that matters to us, including democracy itself.”

Locally, this past December, some attendees at Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt wore T-shirts with messages of hate. In October 2018, a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people in the deadliest attack ever on the U.S. Jewish community. This February, a 28-year-old man was charged with hate crimes after police said he fired at two Jewish men walking home from synagogues in Los Angeles.

Acts of hate are fueled by today’s polarized politics and the ease of spreading ideas on social media, Jonathan Greenblatt, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a video prerecorded for the event. “Antisemitism isn’t just a Jewish problem,” he said. “It’s a problem that affects all of us. It’s the canary in a coal mine.”

Schlossberg, who represents the state’s 132nd House District, voiced a particular interest in this area. “We as Jews must make sure that every targeted group is protected,” he said, pointing out that state government is working on legislation to broaden protections.

The state legislature is also working to adopt the widely recognized International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. Making that definition official would give Pennsylvania law enforcement a more solid foundation for investigating incidents and making arrests.

Crimes of hate, contrary to what many people think, are not the result of centralized planning. They aren’t typically coordinated by organized extremist groups. “It’s useful to think of extremism as loosely organized networks, bound mostly by ideology,” said Ben Popp of the ADL Center on Extremism.

The organized groups supply a sort of basis for their convictions and promote that through social media, said Dave Wilson, director of the duty desk of the Secure Community Network. Individual sympathizers and small clusters of them cobble together their own makeshift credos from what they find. “Every one is a very unique brand of extremism,” he said, “cherry-picking ideas to match their political beliefs.”

Social media also provides this sympathetic audience with methods and procedures for sowing chaos. The information spreads quickly and widely. “Every single day there’s a new tactic, a new trend,” said Wilson.

There are some recent trends panelists found particularly troubling. “I’m really concerned about the harassment of kids in middle school, high school and college,” said Andrew Goretsky, regional director for the ADL. “It’s really important that were taking steps to combat that.”

Congresswoman Wild said she’s worried about insiders working to undermine organizations. “One of my deepest concerns is infiltration into our police forces, military services and positions of authority,” she said. “All our work can be undercut but people who have infiltrated those organizations.’

Others panelists were concerned about online gaming and the connections naïve youths may make while playing. John Piser, regional director for SCN, believes that the upward trend for incidents of antisemitism and acts of hate will continue.

But there’s reason for optimism too. “What keeps me up is the level of hatred that’s out there and the growth of it,” Piser said. “What gives me hope is the response to that.”

The systems in place and the responses to incidents often succeed, Wilson said, despite that “almost every week we’re finding a direct credible threat.” Ben Popp continued along that line. “We don’t hear about when information gets sent and nothing happens,” he said. “We only hear about the bad things. But rest assured that actions get thwarted.”

Success is a result of surveillance, reporting, tracking, cooperation, investigation and decisive action. All of those began to be pursued in earnest after the Tree of Life attack, Wilson said. SCN and ADL both grew, monitoring mechanisms were upgraded, and communication and cooperation among the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the host of state and local emergency and law enforcement authorities improved.

In the end, there’s no substitute for the training, planning, funding and other elements required to combat antisemitism effectively. Persistence is also crucial. As Aaron Gorodzinsky put it, “Everything we’ve accomplished in the Lehigh Valley took years and hundreds of hours.”