Photo Credit: St. Petersburg Police Department
The Florida Holocaust Museum spraypainted with the words Jews are guilty

(Israel Hayom via JNS) The United States, one of the nations that was hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, seems to be returning to normal, having reopened its shops and airports and lifted the mask mandate. And yet, another plague is already rearing its head: antisemitism. 

Antisemitic content has become widespread on social media, and synagogues, Jewish institutions and anyone who is easily identifiable as a Jew have become prime targets. 

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Several weeks ago, at the height of tensions due to the Israel-Gaza conflict, 31-year-old Joseph Borgen was assaulted by a group of pro-Palestinians in New York. 

“I tried to shield myself with my arms, so much so that my joints still hurt. I have almost recovered physically, but mentally it is much more challenging, I admit,” he told Israel Hayom

Borgen was on his way to a pro-Israel rally in Times Square, having attended a similar march the week before. 

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists clash in New York, May 12, 2021

“Everything was very peaceful during the first march. A week later, on my way to the second rally, I stepped out of the train station and was waiting for my friends when I saw from the corner of my eye that someone was running towards me.

“Before I could do anything, I found myself surrounded by a group of people who began kicking and punching me, spraying me with pepper spray. I wrapped my head with my arms to protect myself. In those moments, I thought I was going to die.” 

Q: How could they tell you were Jewish? 

“Because of my kippah. I was not holding an Israeli flag, nor did I say anything in Hebrew. I simply wore a kippah, as I am doing right now.” 

The attack was filmed by several bystanders. Footage showed Borgen beaten mercilessly until the arrival of the police. He was taken to the hospital and discharged a few hours later. Several of the attackers were arrested, some managed to flee the scene. 

In response to the attack, a major pro-Israel march was held in Long Island, where Borgen grew up. He was invited to share his story, which he also retold in dozens of interviews with the media. 

Q: Some leaders are advising Jews not to wear symbols that make them identifiable as Jewish. What is your opinion on this? 

“I don’t think anyone should be hiding their Jewish identity. I continue to wear a kippah. What happened makes me more cautious, I keep looking over my shoulder to make sure everything is alright. But if there is another pro-Israel march, I will be happy to participate in it, wearing a kippah. I will take more precautions, perhaps going with more people, so I will not be a lone target. However, I will not hide the fact that I am Jewish and that I support Israel. 

“Hiding our Jewish identity is the last thing that we should be doing. That is what they are trying to achieve. No one should worry about leaving their home just because they are members of a minority, it doesn’t matter if you are Black, Asian or Jewish.

“We must persevere, be strong, and show that we are Jews and we support Israel. At the same time, we mustn’t pretend current times aren’t challenging. The person who attacked me is walking around freely. His surroundings perceive him as a hero, and he might repeat his actions and hurt other Jews. It is disturbing to think that he is not in prison now, but I am trying to move on.”

Joseph Borgen (Nir Arieli)

Borden’s words describe the experience of most American Jewry. For years, the community turned a blind eye to the spread of antisemitism, saying, “something like this would never happen in the United States.” But the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas has awoken a dormant type of antisemitism in the US, one that American Jewry can no longer ignore. 

 

It began rearing its head in the early 2000s, and American Jewry blamed “the other side.” When Barack Obama was president, the Right accused him of spreading hate against Israel, and therefore the Jews. When Donald Trump took office, left-wing Jews accused him of Neo-Nazism and white supremacy, and blamed him for the 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and the attack in the Poway synagogue in 2019.  

Although such political disagreements continue to this day, all Jews – no matter their religious affiliation or political views – agree on the matter of antisemitism: that the uptick is unprecedented and worrisome, that Jews abroad are perceived as responsible for Israel’s actions and that left-wing political echelon is silent when it comes to Jew-hatred. 

As for the Jewish leaders themselves, most of them stay silent too. Twenty-three Jewish congressmen from the democratic party were outraged over the antisemitic statements made by Muslim representative Ilhan Omar, who, essentially, expressed support for Hamas. The congressmen held two secret meetings to discuss the matter, but could not agree on condemning Ohmar publicly. In contrast, President Joe Biden condemned the rise in antisemitism. So did representatives of the Republican party, considered Israel’s main supporters. 

The Anti-Defamation League, which works to fight discrimination against Jewish in the US, tallied 305 antisemitic incidents in May 2021 alone, double the number compared to the year before. According to the organization, “the most dramatic year-over-year increase was in the category of assault, which rose from zero in May 11-31, 2020, to 11 in the same period in May 2021. There is evidence that at least seven of the antisemitic assaults were motivated by anger over the conflict in the Middle East.”

Its report listed incidents such as pro-Palestinian supporters accosting diners in Los Angeles, after they confirmed they were Jewish, and screaming “You should be ashamed of yourselves”; a stranger assaulting a Jewish man in Las Vegas with cries of “Jews are baby killers” and “are not going to exist”; a Jewish high school student in New Orleans, who was harassed by a fellow student for wearing a kippah and was told to “take his dirty Jew hat off”; and antisemitic chants in Arabic during a pro-Palestinian rally in Washington, such as “Oh you Jews, the army of Muhammad shall return.”

According to the report, the number of antisemitic attacks tripled in the last eight years. It went from 751 assaults in 2013 to 2,204 attacks in 2020. It is clear that an even higher number will be recorded in 2021. 

Pro-Israel rally in New York (Foreign Ministry)

In response to the alarming spike in antisemitism, American Jewry took to the streets to support Israel and stand up to discrimination, with hundreds of rallies held across the States. 

On June 3, more than 200 people gathered at the Holocaust memorial in Miami Beach for an inter-faith march called “No hate. No fear,” organized by the Jewish Federations of North Florida. Many more were expected to arrive, but “perhaps the public has grown tired from the large number of such rallies,” one of the organizers said. On the other hand, “maybe some worry that such a rally might turn into a conflict with pro-Palestinian supporters.” 

The local Jewish community, which boasts 123,000 members, is unlike any other in the US: a third of them were born abroad and immigrated from Russia, Israel, Canada or France; the ultra-Orthodox community has a much more significant presence compared to other areas in the US; and even Jews who are Democrats are ardent supporters of Israel. 

A day before the march, a Jewish student told Israel Hayom that the Instagram account of a local Jewish business was flooded with antisemitic and anti-Zionist comments and the door of her own college dorm room was vandalized with a swastika and the word “Nazi.” 

The situation got so bad that even Aaron Keyak, US President Joe Biden’s “Jewish engagement director,” tweeted: “It pains me to say this, but if you fear for your life or physical safety, take off your kippah and hide your Magen David.”

One of the speakers at the pro-Israel march was Jake Solomon, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. He said in an interview with Israel Hayom after his speech that “several Jewish buildings and objects were vandalized recently, and security footage recorded someone spitting on a menorah outside a local synagogue. All instances happened in broad daylight and in public spaces.” 

Jake Solomon

When asked whether it was dangerous to walk in the street wearing a kippah, Solomon hesitated, but answered no. 

“Nevertheless, I do know people who prefer to put on a baseball cap instead of a kippah. If you do wear a kippah, most likely, you will not be a target for an attack, it is not an incident that happens every day. The situation here is not as bad as in New York.

“And yet, things have gotten much worse over the years, both in terms of the number of assaults and the feeling of unsafety among Jews. The current spike in antisemitism is a cause for concern. The beginning of 2021 has set a worrisome precedent for the rest of the year. 

“Social media is making things even worse: everyone is exposed to the demonization of Israel and cannot distinguish between antisemitism and criticism. It’s become a trend to stand up against Israel. We’re talking about the same people who are supposed to preach empathy, like the Black Lives Matter movement or [other] organizations that fight discrimination or support human rights or LGBTQ rights. Why are they not speaking up against antisemitism?”

Q: Do public leaders speak up against it? 

“Not at all. The number of public leaders who have spoken out against Israel is 100 times higher than those who condemned the antisemitic assaults.”

Q: What do you think all this means for the future of American Jewry? 

“There are people who say that what’s going on today reminds them of the time before the war [World War II] in Germany. People see what happened in Britain and France. Most of their Jews moved to Israel, but we are not there yet. 

“I speak to people in the community, and they are very much aware of what is going on, both on a personal and a security level. I’ve studied history and know what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Whoever does not pay attention now, will pay the price later on.”

The Florida Holocaust Museum spraypainted with the words “Jews are guilty” (St. Petersburg Police Department)

Gabriel Groisman is the mayor of Florida’s Bal Harbour, who also came to speak at the march. A few weeks prior, a Jewish family in his city was verbally assaulted by Palestinians who drove by in a car and screamed antisemitic slurs, such as “Hitler was right” and “the Jews killed Jesus.” 

In his speech, Groisman called on all American Jewry to stand up to such discrimination. 

“We must put political differences aside,” he said. “These differences are unimportant when worshippers in synagogues are being attacked and verbally assaulted. We must unite in order to stand up to our enemies. We must fight for the truth, we must fight for our place in the beautiful American democracy, and we must fight together for our Jewish homeland, the state of Israel, and its place in the world. 

“We must continue to teach our children about our roots, religion, history, land and country, and how to defend ourselves physically and intellectually. History has taught us that things can escalate quickly, and if we become complacent, we become vulnerable. We are being asked to hide the signs that make us identifiable as Jews, but we must stand up to that.”

In an interview with Israel Hayom, Groisman said, “I think our response must be vocal, proud, strong and unapologetic, to make sure antisemitism doesn’t rise to a level we don’t want it to. We are not at a time yet when Jews cannot live in the US, but our golden age seems to have come to an end. 

“The attackers and their supporters want to destroy our Jewish identity and our support for Israel and convince us that they are not antisemites, that they only oppose Israel and Zionism. 

“The general approach in the community is to avoid confrontation, but that is not how I was raised. My approach is to be tough and vocal. To run away from the problem or hide in your room when you are confronted on campus will not help you in any way. The Jewish community here is very small, and it cannot allow internal disagreements to take place here. 

“I’m Republican. Jewish mayors that spoke before and after me are Democrats. When it comes to the subject of antisemitism, we see eye to eye. We speak every day and work together. When it comes to hurting Jews, all politics are put aside.” 

Q: What can you say about the Jews who take part in inciting hatred against Israel? Like the Jewish editors of the infamous New York Times front page, which featured the children casualties of the operation in Gaza? 

“In the 10 years that I’ve been fighting antisemitism, I learned to deal with white supremacy, BDS, Muslims who hate Israel. But the hardest thing is to stand up to Jews who speak out against their own people. That is why I say that the responsibility is, first and foremost, on us.”

Gabriel Groisman giving a speech at a pro-Israel march in Miami Beach (Ariel Kahana)

African-American Democratic Representative Evan Shields also attended the rally. 

“It is crucial to show our solidarity with the Jewish community at times when antisemitism in the US is on the rise,” he told Israel Hayom. “For me personally, it’s essential to be here not just as someone who is active in the community, but as a Baptist pastor and an African-American. Our community must stand together with everyone who is subject to intolerable hatred.

“I grew up in Alabama in the 60s-70s. There Martin Luther King understood that we need to connect and show solidarity with other communities in order to increase support for our cause in the whole world. One of the most important things he did was invite rabbis and Jewish leaders.

“It worries me that not enough members of my community came here today. That is why I am here with my wife. We both think that time has come to revive the connection between the Black and Jewish communities. The two need each other. That is why I also understand how important my presence here today is.” 

Q: What do you think about those who draw parallels between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Palestinians? 

“I fully support Israel. If someone was launching rockets into my home, I would protect myself and my family with everything I have. It’s true that many in the Black community identify with the Palestinians, but our struggles are not similar. We, the Black community, are fighting for civil rights in this country through making connections in a peaceful way. The Palestinians, many of whom support Hamas, are very different from us in this matter.” 

Representative Evan Shields (Ariel Kahana)

Another march in response to antisemitism was held on June 6 in St. Petersburg, on the other side of Florida. It took place outside the local Holocaust museum, which had recently been vandalized with a swastika and the words “Jews are guilty.” 

Ten days after the incident, the museum’s executive director, Elizabeth Gelman, still struggles to make sense of such hatred. 

“They don’t know my stance on Israel and its actions, and it doesn’t even matter. The very fact that this institution deals with the Holocaust somehow makes it ok to target it.” 

Gelman grew up in Chicago and moved to St. Petersburg in 2015. 

“It’s one of America’s most diverse cities. When it comes to elections, the difference between the support Democrats or Republicans receive is always minute, and everybody lives alongside each other in peace. It’s an open and empathetic community.

“Several buildings were vandalized with swastikas, but it was the first time “Jews are guilty” was sprained on one of them, which is such an antisemitic statement. When I found out about it, I felt the ground disappear beneath my feet. We are all heartbroken, because the community in this city is better than that. 

“Many contacted us to show support – the municipality, the police, elected officials. But the fact that there’s been an increase in such incidents this year is alarming. It seems that the perpetrators are just looking for a reason to incite hatred, and the conflict in Gaza was one such reason. I live in Florida, not in Israel, and I have no way to influence what happens there. And yet, people here are also attacked. Why? Because they are Jewish. 

“I ask Holocaust survivors who come to speak at the museum, what their message is to the world. Many of them say that such an atrocity will never happen to anyone else. Their message is for the Jews, but not only. One of the take-away messages from the Holocaust is the importance of standing up to antisemitism, thoroughly. We must not leave space for such hatred.”

The Florida Holocaust Museum receives 150,00 visitors every year. Interestingly, the museum does not display horrifying images from the Holocaust. 

“We want to make sure children can come to the museum and connect to the message, and not get lost among the graphic images that might leave them traumatized,” Gelman explained. 

“There was always antisemitism in the US, under the radar, and people knew there were things that couldn’t be said. Lately, they began to say things they would have never dared in the past. And it’s not just against Jews. It’s also Asians, African-Americans, Hispanic people, immigrants. 

“In 2017, we had to hire armed security because the museum received threats from civilians, the very people we serve. It made me cry, because the purpose of this place is to give people hope for the future, to educate and make sure things like that never happen again. And yet they are.” 

Q: What is your take-away from the situation? 

“There is so much hatred in the world, it is terrifying. The Jewish people alone are not capable of dealing with antisemitism. We need allies, we need to connect with other communities that are also discriminated against, and get to the root of antisemitism – hatred. Often people don’t realize that they act or speak in a way that is antisemitic. Some don’t even know what it means that someone is Jewish. 

“It might sound naive, but what would be an alternative? I chose to be naive. This is my hope for the future. This is my outlook, and that is the message the museum would like to send.” 

Q: What about making aliyah? 

“I have visited Israel, but am not thinking of moving there. I am an American Jew and a citizen of the world.”

Elizabeth Gelman (Ariel Kahana)

Antisemitism is no stranger in the ultra-Orthodox area of New York either. Due to the nature of their clothing and customs, Jews here have long gotten used to discrimination, more so than in any other area. 

There have been hundreds of incidents of cursing, assaults, car break-ins and attacks on Jews in Brooklyn. The religious way of life does not allow for members of the community to hide their Jewish identity, and they feel local authorities do not respond effectively to attacks. 

S. is an Orthodox Jew who lives in Brooklyn. His 18-year-old son and nephew have recently been attacked by a group of Muslims on Shabbat. S. asked to remain anonymous out of fear his family would be targeted again. 

“They were attacked by three young Muslims. They punched them in the face, back, all of their body, really.

“The attackers demanded that they say ‘Free Palestine,’ but didn’t succeed, because my son and nephew fought back. They then went to their cars to bring cricket bats to hit the boys, but fled. Then, out of nowhere, a Muslim Uber driver stopped his car. My son and nephew were worried he was one of the attackers, but he convinced them his intentions were good. The boys got in the car and he took them a few streets away to safety. That is how they were saved.” 

The day before his interview, S.’s daughter and her friend were verbally abused in Times Square after several people noticed they were Jewish, based on their clothing. 

“They cursed them and said ‘Stupid Jews’ and ‘Get the hell out of New York,’ and more. I don’t hear politicians speaking up. Most of them, even the Jewish ones, keep silent,” S. said. 

Yochonon Donn is an opinion writer at Mishpacha magazine and a member of the Karlin-Stolin Hassidic dynasty. He said antisemitic attacks were happening all the time and swastikas were spray-painted on Jewish buildings almost daily. He has instructed his children not to leave the house after it gets dark. 

“Here, nearby is located the electoral district for Senator Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate. He is a Jew who has gotten to the most distinguished position in American history. In an interview with a Jewish radio station a few days ago, he described himself as ‘the protector of Israel,’ and behind the scenes, he tries to strengthen his connection with the community and help with budget and other things. 

“But publicly, Schumer dares say nothing, because he is afraid that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a popular congresswoman with the progressive leftists in his party, who also lives in this district, will challenge him and win. He saw what happened to Eliot Engel, a veteran congressman, who lost to a young and progressive competitor, and he is worried that if he speaks up in support of Jews in an obvious way, he will lose his young voters. 

“When is the only time they [the Left] speak out against antisemitic attacks? Only if there was an attack at that time, or in that same place, on another minority. So, for example, if one mosque was vandalized and ten Jews were brutally attacked, the Left will say, ‘we condemn all incidents’ and briefly mention the Jews. With them, there is no such thing as condemning an antisemitic attack alone.”

Yochonon Donn (Ariel Kahana)

Elhanan Popko works as a teacher at two Jewish schools in Manhattan. He teaches students techniques to deal with panic attacks. 

“Paradoxically, those students who learn in public schools, with non-Jewish classmates, are more stressed. During the Israel-Gaza conflict, some were told, ‘You are a Jew, I don’t want to sit with you.’ In contrast, those who study in Jewish schools have had no such interactions.”

Rabbi Moshe Hauer, who heads one of the most powerful Jewish institutions in the United States, the Orthodox Union, said he expected a “clear condemnation of attacks on Jews. Without justifications of the other side, without context, without mentioning other minorities. We are working hard to better protect the community and to make sure that the right things are being said. 

“We live in a world that has fewer values. People react with rage to so many things. They perform violent acts publicly. Polarization is growing. Politics separate people, who no longer feel connected or responsible for each other. That is why they allow themselves to do things that would never have been done in the past, and it doesn’t matter to them whether they are breaking windows in Jewish buildings in Manhattan or those of the Capitol. This is how I see the current events.”

Rabbi Moshe Hauer (Screenshot: Orthodox Union)

Ari Lamm, the chief executive of Bnai Zion, which fosters inter-faith connections, said he had never before seen this much antisemitism in the streets.

“To see such things in our little city, a rally against Israel – I have never seen such a thing. Or for the city council to be afraid to put up an Israeli flag, which goes against their own decision a few months back. This is true antisemitism. And the daring of Israel haters to come to Jewish and Hassidic areas to protect, unheard of. 

Q: What do you think brought about a change? 

“The United States has a tendency of projecting its own story on the rest of the world. The latest conflict between Israel and Hamas was presented here as the conflict between white people and African Americans. You and I know that this is not the case, for many Jews have a Sephardi background. In no way are we talking about whites against black, it’s not even about Jews vs. Arabs, for the Israeli public is made up of so much more than Jews alone. 

“Journalist Matti Friedman explained, in an article he published recently, that when the US gained independence, a classic hero was a white cowboy, with blonde hair and blue eyes.  

“Things have changed, because today’s American hero is dark-skinned, so Israel is perceived as the strong white oppressor. The American understanding has nothing to do with reality in Israel. The US is projecting its own misdeeds onto Israel and others. And this is crucial, because Israel is paying the price for that now.”

Q: What do you think the current rise in antisemitism means for the future of the US? 

“There is a tremendous difference between previous exiles of the Jewish people and the current exile in America. In all of the previous ones, we were dependent on the regime or the country that hosted us for protection. They enjoyed that which we contributed, and got rid of us when they felt like it. America is the first one to host Jews, because it needs us more than we need her, because the country is based on the notion of equality before God. It is a Jewish idea, that comes from the Bible and our sages.”

Q: What if things escalate? 

“At any moment, I can join my family, parents and sister, who live in Israel. My community, synagogue and army are always waiting for me there.” 

But before moving to Israel, many Jews chose to move to Florida, which is considered to have lower taxes, a more efficient local government and a safer place for Jews. 

“The police are weak in New York, because of the liberal approach of the governor and the mayor,” said Lamm. “Florida has a strong police, and much fewer potential attackers.” 

Ari Lamm (Twitter)

In New York, Israeli ambassador to the US and United Nations Gilad Erdan held a meeting with the heads of major Jewish organizations, due to the rise in antisemitism and as part of a diplomatic campaign he leads at the UN.

Erdan’s goal is to have the UN adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism – namely that Jews should not be held responsible for events in Israel, but also that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are two sides of the same coin – and to submit a resolution against Holocaust denial at the UN General Assembly.

He has also called on countries to boycott the UN event marking the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Racism in Durban, which featured antisemitic messages. As an alternative, the ambassador is planning to hold an alternative conference that will deal with all kinds of racism, including antisemitism.

“During the operation in Gaza, we saw an alarming outbreak of the disease of antisemitism, which has been on the rise in recent year,” Erdan told Israel Hayom. “The fact that the leaders of prominent Jewish organizations have united to discuss and battle it together only emphasizes the harsh reality and the need to step up and fight against Jew-hatred.”

{Reposted from Israel Hayom}

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Ariel Kahana is a diplomatic correspondent for Israel Hayom.