By Carl Zebrowski
Antisemitism is more than 3,000 years old, Stephanie Hausner told attendees of the Dollar-a-Day event for the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley Women’s Philanthropy division.
The COO of the Conference of Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations traced the legacy of hate back to the start of the Book of Exodus. “Then comes a new king,” she told the audience, referring to the rise of a pharaoh who worried about the growing population of Jews in Egypt and the potential for overthrow. “And that begins antisemitism.”
The pharoah’s initial response was harassment. Tax collectors were appointed. Storehouses were built to hold grain collected as additional revenue. It only got worse.
Just what is it that constitutes antisemitism three millennia later? The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance came up with a working definition in 2016. That was an essential start. “If we can’t define something,” Hausner said, “how can we fix it.”
The IHRA definition reads, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The United States and 30 of its individual states have adopted this definition.
It was 2018 that antisemitism came to a head in the United States, with the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people. Jury selection in the trial of the accused shooter has just begun. Hausner said the pursuit of justice has is its own virtue, but the renewed public attention will come at a cost. “It’s also going to bring out crazy people.”
This tragic attack woke up the U.S. Jewish community, which since then has worked continually to better protect itself against terrorism. “Tree of Life taught us a lot of lessons,” Hausner said. “This is our reality.”
But why does this problem persist in the first place? Ignorance is often at the root. “A lot of what people know about Jews is from South Park,” Hausner said. “In New York State, 20% of students didn’t know where the Holocaust was.”
On top of that, troubling contemporary realities can lead some people to look for scapegoats to blame for their problems. There was plenty of chatter on the internet, for example, blaming Jews for COVID-19. “It’s crazy,” Hausner said. “The problem is a lot of people believe it.”
“Antisemitism comes out of political needs of persecutors in a political climate,” she explained further. “Wherever there’s economic uncertainty, it always leads to antisemitism.” That’s true even when the reaction doesn’t start out exactly that way. “It always comes back to antisemitism.”
Tree of Life was targeted that day in 2018 because it was holding an immigrant Shabbat. So Jews were being blamed for helping others. Jews have in fact often been targeted for helping those in need.
Ironically, another common criticism brought by antisemites is that Jews stick to themselves. But there was a time, Hausner pointed out, that Jews were forced to stick to themselves, having little choice but to build their own communities and establishments. The need was existential. “We had to have our own hospitals,” she explained.
Today, ideas like these can spread, and find a receptive audience, quicker than ever through the internet and social media. Take Kanye West’s recent antisemitic outbursts. “Kanye has more followers on social media than there are Jews in the world,” Hausner said. “The people that follow Kanye, that’s the problem.”
She told the Women’s Philanthropy audience about the national ad campaign that was just beginning to appear on TV and social media to educate Americans about antisemitism and mobilize non-Jews to address the growing hate and intolerance. The campaign, launched by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, features a # and blue box icon as visuals and informs viewers that Jews make up just 2.4% of the U.S. population, yet they are victims of 55% of religious hate crimes. “Obviously a blue box isn’t going to stop antisemitism,” Hausner said, “but it can raise awareness.”
The campaign is built on the idea of not waiting for the audience to come around but to go out into the world to find it, as the Jewish Federation did with its Shine a Light Against Antisemitism Campaign during this past Chanukah. “If we want to reach people who are not really attuned to these issues,” Hausner said, “we need to meet them where they are.
“It’s our job to educate them.”