Despite mounting threats, American Jews stay calm

 16 Mar 2017 - 21:16

Despite mounting threats, American Jews stay calm
FILE PHOTO: People demonstrate at a Stand Against Hate rally at Independence Mall on March 2, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images / AFP)

By Catherine Triomphe / AFP

New York: On Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, a mixed community where Jews and Muslims interact with ease, sits a Jewish center for the elderly.

Last week, the center was the victim of a bomb threat -- one of more than 150 targeting American Jewish institutions since the start of the year. Swastikas have appeared on walls: cemeteries have been desecrated.

But the recent spike in threats has not shaken the community. Many Jews in the United States -- which has been largely spared from anti-Semitic attacks over the past 50 years -- say they feel safe.

Stuart Gourdji, a 25-year-old who runs Yachad Gifts, a shop specializing in Kosher gift baskets, had to evacuate when the bomb threat to the community center was received. "It was scary," he admitted.

He says he has lost count of the reports of threats he has seen on television, but he and his employees are not worried, and Gourdji would never think of removing his yarmulke in public for safety reasons.

"You have one stupid person probably ringleading this thing," he told AFP. "He will end up being arrested -- it will pass."

But not everyone is as calm as Gourdji.

"I have seen an enormous amount of anxiety," especially among the parents of children who attend schools that have been targeted, explains retired rabbi Jack Moline.

The 64-year-old Washington resident says he has never seen such a wave of anti-Semitic threats in his life.

"The clear purpose of those acts is to unsettle Jewish life in this country," he said.

Like Gourdji, Moline says the threats experienced in the United States pale in comparison to those experienced in Europe and especially in France, where there have been deadly attacks -- notably on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 or the siege of a Kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015.

Both also agree that the threats should serve as a wake-up call to the nearly six million Jews in America.

"Anti-Semitism exists," Gourdji said.

'Thing of the past'

Many had believed that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past because of the "tremendous improvements" made since the end of World War II, said Kenneth Jacobson, the deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The group, one of the oldest battling anti-Semitism and discrimination, has been the target of several recent threats.

In the period between the world wars, anti-Semitism was not uncommon -- and such views were vocally expressed by auto industry baron Henry Ford in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent.

Aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh and controversial priest Charles Coughlin also delivered anti-Semitic screeds to millions to Americans.

There also were unofficial quotas at universities and for housing, and even restrictions on Jews getting certain jobs, Jacobson explained.

"All of that is a thing of the past," he said.

"In the 2,000 years of the Jewish diaspora, there has never been a Jewish community that has felt as comfortable and equal citizens as American Jews have felt for the last 50-60 years, and we still believe that to be true."

Since 1964, the ADL has regularly gauged the level of anti-Semitic sentiment in the country.

Once as high as 29 percent, that figure has dropped to 12 or 13 percent in recent years -- a major improvement, though "that still means 30 to 35 million Americans" feel that way, he noted.

Hate speech liberated?

For Jacobson, the other major victory for the Jewish community in recent years has been the stigmatization of racist and anti-Semitic speech.

"When public figures would engage in hate speech of any kind, they would have their reputation ruined, they would sometimes lose their jobs," he said.

But the ADL official says that progress is now under threat -- and he points the finger of blame at President Donald Trump.

Jacobson does not consider Trump to be anti-Jewish -- the Republican leader has strong support among a certain part of the community for his fierce support of Israel.

But by targeting Muslims, women and Mexicans for criticism and sometimes ridicule, and by winning the presidency despite all that, Trump has helped liberate those "who may have harbored hatred" to speak out, he said.

"There is a feeling of empowerment... and so the anti-Semites felt it was their moment to come out," Jacobson said.

Some like Moline are angry at the Trump administration for not being "more diligent in separating themselves from groups" like far-right nationalists who supported the billionaire's candidacy.

Jacobson said the ADL recently "suggested five or six different things" to the White House as possible ways to improve their communications.

In the face of racism and anti-Semitism, "there needs to be more of a consistent kind of articulation from the bully pulpit -- and the president has the number one bully pulpit in the country," he said.