Words matter. Symbols matter.
They can hurt deeply, color attitudes and influence beliefs. They can escalate into racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, discrimination and, ultimately, violence. They can wreak havoc on governments and civil societies. In the Jewish community, we have been witnessing what seems to be an escalating number of anti-Semitic incidents—swastikas and hate graffiti drawn on houses, in schools, in parks and on signs, among other rhetoric and images directed against Jews.
In the past few weeks alone, we have seen reports of an Arizona Jewish family’s chanukiyah twisted into a swastika; a swastika scrawled on the sign outside Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati; an anti-Semitic message painted onto a headstone in an Indiana cemetery; and swastikas in six locations in Palo Alto, California. Just yesterday, 16 JCCs received bomb threats, prompting hundreds to immediately evacuate these community havens. We are so thankful that no one was injured—or worse.
In Whitefish, Montana, neo-Nazis have harassed the town’s tiny Jewish community and are planning a march timed to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend—a march, as its organizer says, “against Jews, Jewish businesses and everyone who supports either.”
The year 2016 saw a rash of alt-right, neo-Nazi and white nationalist messaging directed at Jews and Jewish journalists by people we presumed were hidden in the dark shadows of America. An Anti-Defamation League study that looked at just social media harassment from August 2015 to July 2016 found more than 2.6 million anti-Semitic messages, with 68 percent of them targeting journalists.
Historians are warning us of the dangers our country is now facing in light of seemingly growing hatred, writing in an open letter shortly after Election Day of the “fragility of democracies and the consequences for minorities when democracies fail to live up to their highest principles.”
In late December, the Center for Jewish History issued a statement reminding us that the Nazi campaign to annihilate the Jews “began with hateful words.”
So, what do we do to combat such hate?
We don’t dismiss it as childish pranks, or as no big deal. We call it out every time we see it, whether that hatred is against Jews or other minorities. We demand that our lawmakers and leaders condemn it; we urge them to follow the example of Montana’s governor, attorney general, U.S. senators and representative, who issued an open letter stating, “We stand firmly together to send a clear message that ignorance, hatred and threats of violence are unacceptable and have no place in the town of Whitefish, or in any other community in Montana or across this nation. We say to those few who seek to publicize anti-Semitic views that they shall find no safe haven here.”
We work with our communities, organizations and congregations, coming together and using all of our voices to fight hate. And most of all, we educate.
We educate through coalitions with members of other religious and racial groups, through teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides, and through explaining how words unchecked can lead to violence.
We educate by teaching our children about our own history, as well as the histories of other persecuted and marginalized groups.
We educate by teaching diversity, tolerance and empathy.
We watch our own words. We choose them even more carefully. And we use them to lead, to defend, to challenge and to educate.
Richard Sandler is chair of the Board of Trustees and Jerry Silverman is president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America