BY RABBI BATSHEVA H. MEIRI
The deadly attack on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 was by far the worst anti-Semitic incident in our nation’s history. But it was hardly the only one. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 57 percent in 2017 to a total of nearly 2,000 — the largest one-year increase ever. We can only wonder how many unreported incidents might make that number rise.
The most visible incident before the Pittsburgh attack was the Unite the Right rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., just 15 months ago. That August weekend, men in fatigues bullied and taunted the members of Charlottesville’s Jewish congregation by standing outside the synagogue with their automatic weapons while congregants worshipped, even as a Nazi website suggested it be burned down. The people who were brave enough to come to temple that morning had to scurry out the back door, carrying their Torah scrolls with them. Anti-Semitic mantras such as “Jews will not replace us” and Nazi slogans like “blood and soil” were chanted, and the day culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer and the injuring of more than a dozen.
These were extreme events. But there are other things we cannot shrug off as the sounds of a dog whistle. Listen carefully for the persistent diatribes against “globalists” — a word widely understood among neo-Nazis and their ilk to mean “Jews.” The man accused of the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh included that in his vocabulary of hatred, and it is regularly tossed around by public leaders, perhaps disparaging Jews. Denunciation of news media as “enemies of the people” is likewise dangerous to a free democracy, and it comes directly from anti-Semitic political propaganda of the 20th century, hatefully insinuating that Jews control the media. History bears sad witness to the intent — and effectiveness — of this kind of propaganda: appealing to prejudice, inciting fear and leading to violence rather than bringing out the best instincts of humanity.
“It can’t happen here” is what we’ve said to comfort ourselves. Unfortunately, it is happening here, in Asheville. I moved here in 2008, and in those early years, I was called into an Asheville City school once but also heard anecdotally from students in the congregation that they were bullied by peers who called them “Christ-killers.” For about five years, no incidents were brought to my awareness. However, since the 2016 elections, I’ve been called in to speak to school administrators following anti-Semitic taunting and bullying no fewer than on six occasions. Middle schoolers, primarily, making swastikas of their math manipulatives, sending suggestive Instagram pictures of gas chambers, using Heil Hitler salutes and shouting “chase the Jew” on the playground are just some of the examples that popped up. This touched me personally when my own daughter was a freshman at Asheville High School, and the administration turned a blind eye to a young man dressing in a Nazi brownshirt uniform at school while my daughter had a real possibility of being sent home if her skirt was shorter than fingertip length.
Crimes born of hatred do not “just happen.” They are the inevitable consequences of a dangerous climate that is growing in our country directed against Jews, but also against immigrants, refugees, people of color, transgender individuals and those who support them.
Fortunately, there is a powerful antidote: activating our best instincts by showering support on targeted communities. After the Asheville Jewish Community Center bomb threat in February 2017, my colleague, the Rev. Brent Norris, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, offered to have 50 people standing outside our doors if we felt scared to come to temple. More than 50 clergy members ascended the dais at the impromptu rally downtown in support of the Jewish community following the Pittsburgh shootings. I was stopped at a local café by a neighbor who lives behind the temple, who assured me that she watches out for our backyard. I received cards of support from faith communities and caring individuals all over Western North Carolina. These expressions of support were powerful, and they were vital. They helped my community know that there might be a few who choose to hate, but that we are at home here, and folks won’t stand by or tolerate hate or injury of any kind.
Certainly, we owe it to ourselves to keep demanding at the ballot box that our political leaders actively promote unity and bipartisanship. But we also need them to know that pushing divisive policies by stirring fear and hatred that targets any group diminishes us all. We need to call out propaganda when it rears its ugly head because it’s wrong and because physical violence is likely to follow.
Jewish sages of old said, “In a place void of humanity, we must strive to remain human.” They taught this, not theoretically, but at a time rife with violence. They could have advocated that their people keep a low profile and hope for the best. But they chose to rise up with the best they had in the face of the chaos around them. Inhumanity must not guide our way forward, either. Let us resist fighting hatred with hatred. Know your neighbor and love her as you love yourself. As diverse as we are, let us seek harmony and unity and prove that America is better than our fear and division by spreading the seeds of compassion and justice within us all.
Rabbi Batsheva H. Meiri is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth HaTephila since 2008 and loves her mountain home of Asheville. She offers this addendum: “With gratitude to those with whom I drew counsel in authoring and shaping this piece. It is a reflection of what is possible when dialogue between people with different political views come together and unite behind our common humanity and values.”