An Iowa man was arraigned on Tuesday after sending death threats to a Jewish organization in New York. According to CNN, Garrett Kelsey, 31, admitted in a voluntary interview that he had harassed the organization through hate-filled, antisemitic emails and phone calls. Court documents quoted one message: “My people have f***ing slaughtered your f***ing people before and we will do it again. And right now you are giving us incentive to do that. …Filthy f***ing Jews.” If the organization didn’t remove a video it had posted about Nordic neo-Nazis in three days, Kelsey’s email said, “we [the Asatru religious movement, recently linked to antisemitic and other racist groups] will be taking action against your organization full of degenerates.” Kelsey was arrested and charged with one count of transmitting threats to injure a person across state lines, a charge which carries a maximum sentence of five years.
Kelsey is one man, one who wasn’t able to carry out his threats. But he is hardly the only threat Jews faced in the past year. The shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in October 2018 almost tripled the casualty count of the deadliest antisemitic attack in modern American history. Jewish memorial sites in Argentina, France, and Romania were vandalized and destroyed. In Poland, an effigy made to look like a stereotypical Jew was beaten as part of an Easter ritual. I have watched my local Jewish Community Centre – my preschool, my summer camp, my swimming pool – put up cameras and security checkpoints in formerly open hallways and “no automatic weapons” signs on the doors. Jewish grandparents around the world are crying as current events line up too well with a past they had hoped was long gone.
And the current president of the United States calls Nazis “very fine people” and didn’t mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Some steps are being taken, it’s true. The European Union unanimously approved a declaration in December that would call for its member states to develop a common security approach to better protect each country’s Jewish communities. In the U.S., former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney and noted Jewish activist Elan Carr filled the 2-year vacant position of U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism in February. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and World Jewish Congress have petitioned for stronger protections for Jewish citizens and decried antisemitic behaviours from politicians and laypeople alike. All of these are good and necessary efforts to combat the growth of antisemitism.
Still, Donald Trump’s answer seems to be the most popular response. After the Pittsburgh shooting at Tree of Life, he shrugged blame off the perpetrator and onto the victims: “If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better,” quotes the Washington Post. “When asked if he thinks all churches and synagogues should have armed guards, Trump said it is ‘certainly an option.’” Four police officers were shot and wounded by the Pittsburgh shooter in the incident.
Even if we are to assume that bringing guns and outside officers into places of worship will somehow stop antisemitic violence before anyone gets hurt, this response is nowhere near adequate. For one, Jews don’t only exist in synagogue. We have schools, community centres, and homes, and suggesting we invite armed guards into each and every building we exist in is more than foolish. These outside reminders of how much people want to hurt us don’t make us feel safe. They make us feel trapped and afraid.
Also, guns aren’t the only weapons used against us, and violent extremists aren’t the only people who pose a threat. Armed guards can’t defend us against defaced posters, graffitied homes, or slurs tossed from car windows, let alone triple parentheses around our usernames or elite, globalist, lizard-people cabal theories on our social media. Armed guards can’t save us from being kicked out of pride parades for being “too political” by existing publicly as a Jew, or from jeering college demonstrations about those “new Nazis” in Israel. Armed guards only set us apart further from the Christian world around us.
What we need instead is unity. And it can’t all fall on us.
Take a moment to think critically about the forms antisemitism around you might take. Swastikas and Nazi salutes and oven jokes, yes, but also all the lizard-people theories you think are so funny. Comedies with curly-haired nagging wives. Redheaded demons with big, pointy noses. Even little things like drawing Jewish characters in Christmas sweaters contribute to the erasure and marginalization of Judaism and can make Jewish people feel alone and unheard. Calling these things out when you see them takes the burden off of Jewish shoulders and lets us know we have allies.
For a more proactive angle, you can build some common ground yourself. Get to know the Jews in your area. There might be more than you think! What sort of people are they? Are they Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform? Maybe something else? Do they keep kosher? Which holidays are important to them? You can use that information to, for example, make sure your kosher-keeping coworker has something they can eat at the next lunch meeting. Or, if you know your friend starts drooling when they think about Hannukah latkes, you could try whipping up a batch yourself. Even simply wishing a Jew a happy holiday will definitely be appreciated, believe me. (December and April are great times of year to build some solidarity. It is not an easy time to be a Jew when everyone and their mother asks you when you’re getting your tree and what you’re doing for Easter Sunday.)
If you’re looking for a more formal way to engage with the community, you could also attend some Jewish ceremonies, as long as you’ve asked or been invited ahead of time. Make some friends! Ask dumb questions! Learn! Many of us are happy to talk with genuinely interested Gentiles, and good-humoured Jews would love to tear apart your solemn, skullcapped image of us with long debates over what would happen if a Jew became a vampire. Or if it’s “legal” to ask your pet dragon to light a fire on Shabbat. You know, typical stuff.
On a larger scale, it comes down, once again, to politics. When your activist group talks about Palestinian oppression and genocide, does every eye trail to the Jews in the room? Do your social media sites ban Nazi accounts? What plans do your favourite political candidates have to combat antisemitism, at home and abroad? Make your voice heard. Tell people in power that you stand with Jewish communities and want to make sure they are safe and protected. And don’t just take their word for it – follow up. Ask around in the communities they claim to work for and make sure those communities are getting what they need. Be an advocate for those around you.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s statistics for 2018, the year saw over a thousand cases of antisemitic harassment and more than double the antisemitic assaults of the year before. It’s a worrying trend, and one that can only continue if we fail to act. People forget that the first steps to genocide are isolation and mystification. It’s time now to reach out and learn.
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