Anti-Semitism is rising: A threat to marginalized communities

flags of Palestine and Israel painted on cracked wall
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On Tuesday, about 300,000 people converged under blue skies and bright sunshine on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in a march billed as solidarity against antisemitism and for Israel in the wake of the brutal attack by Hamas on Israel Oct. 7. Among the marchers were many from the Philadelphia area, which has seen numerous pro-Palestinian protests as well as smaller solidarity marches in the city and near suburbs in support of Israel.

The peaceful march saw no arrests. A mix of speakers included the controversial far-right President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, who addressed the crowd by video from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), some notable Jewish celebrities and other supporters of Israel. Students from colleges under fire from antisemitic attacks including the University of Pennsylvania, spoke of their fears and feeling unsafe.

Family members of Hamas hostages spoke as well. Alana Zeitchik told the crowd that no one has to choose between support for Jewish and Palestinian victims of the current Israel-Hamas war. Six of Zeitchik’s family members have been held hostage since Oct. 7. She said, “For too many, it feels like to care about one family — to love one child — is to diminish the suffering of another,” Zeitchik said.

“But,” she said, “the simple human truth is that you don’t have to choose. You can abhor the suffering of Palestinian families and the suffering of Israeli families like mine. You can call for peace and the immediate return of the innocent men, women and children who were violently taken from us. It doesn’t need to be political to share in my grief or in the anguish that the Israeli people are feeling.”

Zeitchik’s is not the prevailing message, however. Since the Oct.7 attack, Israel’s retaliatory response, meant to rout Hamas and end any further attacks on Israel, has been met with near unilateral condemnation from other nations as well as the UN and a host of NGOs

The massive casualties among Palestinian civilians — counted as more than 11,000 and including about 4,000 children — have been deemed far outside any reasonable “collateral damage” of wartime and have been termed “genocide” from many quarters, including some Muslim members of Congress, like Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American. 

Tlaib was censured last week by the House for using antisemitic tropes and language. That such a prominent figure is using such language speaks directly to the inability of many to distinguish between the acts of the government of Israel and individual Jews and the Jewish community as a whole — including LGBTQ+ Jews, many of whom have participated in protests calling for a ceasefire, like the one that closed down 30th Street Station two weeks ago.

The scenes out of Gaza have horrified many, including Jews, and galvanized pro-Palestinian protests throughout the U.S., Europe, Canada and the Middle east. Those images of bombed out cities and bloodied children have all but obliterated the images and stories of the Oct. 7 massacre in which whole families were killed, including babies and other children, with some burned alive. The discovery Monday that noted international peace activist Vivian Silver, thought to have been among the abductees, was in fact dead, having been killed by Hamas, stoked further outrage.

Yet with anger over the plight of Gazans and Israel’s steadfast refusal to consider a ceasefire has come a significant rise in antisemitic attacks, harassment and hate crimes. U.S. antisemitic incidents are up about 400% since the Israel-Hamas war began, a new report says.

A locus for antisemitism in the U.S. has been college campuses. Jewish students at Ivy League Cornell University were sent rape and death threats through an online chat group by a fellow student. Patrick Dai, 21, and a rising junior, has been charged federally with “posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s Northern District announced. The charge is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Dai threatened to kill and injure Cornell’s Jewish students and “shoot up” the university’s predominantly kosher dining hall, 104 West. In one post, Dai wrote he would “bring an assault rifle to campus” and shoot Jewish people, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Last week the University of Pennsylvania, which has already seen donors pull out over a pro-Palestinian literary event, saw antisemitic messages projected onto University of Pennsylvania buildings. University president Liz Magill said the messages were shined on the walls of Penn Commons, Huntsman Hall and Irvine Auditorium and that Penn Police are actively investigating.

“For generations, too many have masked antisemitism in hostile rhetoric. These reprehensible messages are an assault on our values and cause pain and fear for our Jewish community,” Magill said in a statement. “Penn has a long and rich history of robust debate about complicated issues of the day. Projecting hateful messages on our campus is not debate, it is cowardice, and it has no place at Penn.”

The Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia said in a statement, “The appalling projections of antisemitic messages at UPenn serves as another reminder of the unsafe antisemitic environment that has become normalized at far too many college and university campuses.”

University staff, specifically naming Penn Hillel and Lauder College House, received threatening antisemitic emails. Magill said earlier this week the FBI joined the university’s investigation into the emails. The investigation is still ongoing. On Nov. 4, Penn junior Tara Tarawneh was arrested after allegedly stealing an Israeli flag from the front of a Campus Apartments house near Penn’s campus.

“Upon submitting the results of the investigation to the District Attorney’s Office, charges of Theft and Receiving Stolen Property were approved against the suspect, who was arraigned on November 5th,” DPS wrote in a statement.

Online reports citing a clip of a speech from a pro-Palestinian rally in Center City on Oct. 28 suggested that Tarawneh called the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 “glorious” and said she felt “empowered and happy” when Hamas invaded Israel. The theft of the Israeli flag was reported the same day.

Reports like these are making Jewish students feel unsafe, one Penn senior told PGN, requesting anonymity.

“The climate is totally against Jewish students since the war,” they told PGN. “You can be a member of a peace group, but it doesn’t matter. I have been told my mere existence is evidence of genocide. Who do I report that to? We just have to live with it — and we know the longer the war goes on, the worse it will get. If like me, you are also queer, your life will be under constant threat.”

Some campuses have been too lax and others too restrictive in efforts to deal with these antisemitic actions. Columbia University is suspending Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as official student groups through the end of the fall term. The move is roundly criticized as punitive and an attack on free speech and Palestinian students.

The Anti-Defamation League and Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law sent a joint letter to nearly 200 college presidents urging them to investigate campus chapters of SJP for potential violations of federal and state laws against providing material support to terrorism.

But is anti-Israel rhetoric actually a terroristic threat or even antisemitic?

The inability of college campuses, law enforcement and even Congress to tease out the difference is making it less safe for Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere. At the March on Washington, there was resistance to any critique of Israel or even calls for a ceasefire, with CNN commentator and former Obama administration official Van Jones getting chanted down when he suggested a humanitarian ceasefire was needed with thousands calling “no ceasefire” in response — a disturbing response to a call for peace by a Black progressive there in solidarity.

A march solely against antisemitism in France on Nov. 12 saw 100,000 mostly peaceful protesters standing in solidarity against anti-Jewish hate. Among the marchers were politicians on both sides of the aisle, including the prime minister (equivalent to the U.S. Speaker of the House), Élisabeth Borne, whose Jewish father survived Auschwitz, but took his life when she was 11, who said at the outset of the march that when it came to antisemitism, the nation “must let nothing pass.”

What can’t be ignored in the U.S. is that Jews here are an historically marginalized group and rising antisemitism has long been associated with rising fascism. So antisemitic attacks are inevitably an historical marker that fascism is indeed on the rise: Jews have long been targeted by groups like the KKK and other white nationalists.

A CNN analysis last month noted: “Recent antisemitism is also a reflection of destructive forces tearing at American and western European societies, where stability and democracy are already under pressure.”How that will play out in the coming weeks if the war continues as it has remains to be seen. But in a country with a long history of antisemitism that included turning Jewish refugees away during the Holocaust, it could become increasingly difficult — and unsafe — to be Jewish in the U.S.

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