NJ Jews Seek New Allies After Synagogue Threat, Kyrie Irving Incident
When the FBI alerted New Jersey Jews to a “widespread threat” to their places of worship last Thursday, the community sprang into action.
Some synagogues closed early, others increased security measures and many worked with local law enforcement to send additional patrols around their temples.
A day later, the FBI announced that it had “identified the source of the threat … to an unspecified synagogue in the New Jersey area” and said the person “no longer poses a danger to the community.” On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark said a Middlesex County man had been charged with transmitting the threats via an online manifesto that promised “an attack on Jews.” But that has offered only limited relief to a community that has seen anti-Semitic words and acts become worryingly widespread in just the past few weeks.
The ugly comments from Kyrie Irving and Kanye West were just the latest in a seemingly constant stream of artists, athletes and bipartisan politicians who have expressed hostility or traded anti-Semitic tropes in recent years. Students say they have been targeted on campus for publicly identifying as Jewish. Worshipers in synagogues across the country have died in mass shootings and Jews have been assaulted in the streets.
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“It’s a sad reality of the 2022 world we live in,” said Rabbi David Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, who implemented additional security measures after the FBI’s warning.
“What was most frightening was that when this threat caught our attention, we had no idea if it was a white nationalist, a radical anti-Israel Muslim, a left-wing anti-Israel instigator or a product of the new Kanye-related anti-Semitism,” he said. “The ironic thing is that it doesn’t matter: the stench is the same from all sources of hate.”
New Jersey is no stranger to such threats.
In December 2019, four victims were killed in a shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City; the attackers, who were also killed, had planned a large-scale attack on the local Jewish community. Days later, a man wielding a machete attacked five people at a Hanukkah party at a rabbi’s home in Rockland County, New York, killing one and injuring others.
In April, a New Jersey man was arrested after allegedly targeting four Orthodox Jewish men in Lakewood: Police say the assailant forced an Orthodox man out of his car, then deliberately punched and attempted to kill three other visibly Orthodox men; one was stabbed in the chest. The suspect told detectives that the attacks “must be done,” authorities said.
A record 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews were reported last year to the Anti-Defamation League, the civil rights group that fights anti-Semitism. This is a 34% increase from the previous year and the highest number on record since the group began tracking such behavior in 1979.
New Jersey recorded 370 anti-Semitic incidents last year, trailing only New York state’s 416, according to ADL figures.
West, the rapper and fashion designer now known as Ye, has been widely condemned for a tweet deleted since Oct. 8 in which he threatened to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.” It took time, but under public pressure, both Adidas and Gap severed their financial ties with him.
NBA star point guard Irving was suspended by the Brooklyn Nets and dropped by Nike after he last month shared a link to a 2018 anti-Semitic film, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America.” The film, based on the book series of the same name by director Ronald Dalton. includes anti-Semitic stereotypes and Holocaust denial. Since Irving’s tweet, it has become an Amazon bestseller.
The ADL and other groups called on Amazon to remove the book and video or label them with a warning about their offensive content.
Irving posted an apology on Instagram last week, saying he “initially reacted out of emotion at being unfairly labeled an anti-Semite, instead of focusing on the healing process for my Jewish brothers and sisters who were hurt by the hateful remarks made in the documentary,” he said.
West and Irving are just the most recent celebrities to generate a firestorm.
US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, invoked Hitler and the Holocaust in political metaphors about COVID restrictions, while Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, was criticized for her comments on the political influence of American Jews.
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In Pennsylvania this year, GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano faced heat for his ties to Gab, a far-right social media platform, and its founder, Andrew Torba, over comments anti-Semites on the site. The Republican lost Tuesday’s election to a Jewish opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Gab has a dark history in Pennsylvania: It’s where Robert Bowers posted his anti-Jewish rants before killing 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, in the deadliest attack ever on American Jews.
Mastriano also made waves in September when he accused Shapiro of having “contempt for people like us” because the Democrat attended and sent his children to a Jewish school that Mastriano called “privileged, exclusive, elitist.” . His comments were condemned as evoking sinister stereotypes about Jews.
Stand up and push back
Experts attribute the surge in hate to a variety of factors, including the unstable political environment in the United States, economic hardships and social media, which have amplified the voices of extremists and made it easy for enemies to find each other.
“Our country is at serious odds with itself,” said Alvin Rosenfeld, a scholar on anti-Semitism at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. “Everyone is tense, and social and political life is more tense. It is a breeding ground for hatreds of all kinds. There is tribal animosity between different groups. When the economy collapses, the Anti-Semitism often rises because people look for a scapegoat. Traditionally, it’s the Jews that people blame.”
In New Jersey, Jewish leaders say hate doesn’t just affect Jews. It harms society at large, so everyone must participate in the response, they argue.
“This country is having an important conversation about diversity and equality, but anti-Semitism is off the agenda, and it’s not,” said Archie Gottesman, co-founder of JewBelong, an organization Montclair-based nonprofit that fights anti-Jewish sentiment. “We have to talk about anti-Semitism. The hatred is illogical: Jews represent only 2% of the country. People who don’t even know the Jews say they hate them.
The group paid to post neon pink billboards and email messages across the country with witty messages to combat hate.
“Can a billboard put an end to anti-Semitism? one asks. “No. But you’re not a billboard.”
Rosenfeld said the Jewish community needs to educate people and inform them about what constitutes anti-Semitism. “Most Americans aren’t anti-Semites but don’t know much about Judaism or Israel and can be vulnerable to misinformation.” Also, he said, the community must protect itself. If there are real threats, “we have to employ security guards.”
Rabbi David Levy, director of the New Jersey branch of the American Jewish Committee, said everybody must speak out against anti-Semitism wherever it occurs.
“There are more and more people who think it’s okay to express hate. When they hear members of their friends and work groups sharing anti-Semitic things, people often shut up because they don’t want to get involved. But they have to speak out, because there is no place in our society for anti-Semitism and hatred. Speaking out is one of the most powerful antidotes. more powerful to hate.”
“It can’t just be the Jewish community speaking out,” he added. “We need allies. We live in a time where one in four Jews said they had been the target of anti-Semitism in the past 12 months, whether online, verbally or physically.”
Jason Shames, CEO of the Paramus-based Northern New Jersey Jewish Federation, agreed. “The best way to prevent it is to get non-Jews to stand up on our behalf. It would be nice if those with spheres of influence would stand up on social media and firmly and unhesitatingly reject the rhetoric hater of Kanye and Kyrie.”
It seems that a superstar has already taken this advice.
John Mellencamp:Mellencamp denounces anti-Semitism
In Cleveland last Saturday, legendary New York entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When he took the stage to make remarks about his friend, rocker John Mellencamp took the opportunity to deliver an impassioned speech denouncing bigotry against Jews.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to speak out if you’re an artist against anti-Semitism,” said Mellencamp, whose hits include “Jack & Diane” and “Hurts So Good.”
“Silence is complicity,” he said. “I stand here tonight loud and clear with Allen, his family and all of my Jewish friends and all of the Jewish people in the world.”
This led some Jewish music and sports fans on social media to think they knew where they would spend the money they previously spent on Ye merchandise and NBA games: on John Mellencamp albums.
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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