Letter to the Editor

Antisemitism: When the Phrase “New Normal” Should Not be Applied

Just a couple of weeks ago, Christine Posnock, along with other congregants of Congregation Beth El in Colleyville, Texas, tuned in to her weekly Saturday morning service on Zoom. About halfway into the service – and in the middle of prayer – she began to hear incomprehensible yelling before her connection was suddenly lost. As she and the other online worshippers were left alarmed and confused, those on the other side of the Zoom camera were left absolutely terrified. In one sudden moment, they became hostages to an armed British national. They were held captive in their own temple for 11 hours. 

Later that night, and after hearing about the event, my dad showed me a Facebook post that my aunt and uncle created calling for prayers for the health and safety of all those affected by the situation. It turned out that my Aunt Melissa had been childhood friends with Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi involved in the event. She and my uncle had stayed in touch with him throughout the years. Suddenly, the whole situation felt much closer to me than it had before. 

Despite the shock of Colleyville, I don’t have to look very far to find similar instances. Shortly after Holocaust Rememberance Week, a local synagogue was defaced with a spray-painted swastika in West Rogers Park, a Chicagoan neighborhood. That same week, there were three incidents of storefront windows being smashed in Jewish businesses in the area. And just a couple of days ago, Park Ridge residents woke up to antisemitic flyers hung around their neighborhood. Depicting Israeli flags next to the caption “Lets Go Brandon” (a phrase used to insult President Biden) and several federal officials, the posters were laced with antisemitism and even offered links to anti-Jewish content online. 

Growing up in Wilmette, I have always remained aware of religious differences and their manifestations in everyday life. From minor events, like decorating Easter eggs in preschool, to larger situations, like missing school for the High Holidays because we weren’t granted the days off, I have developed a sense of pride for the character of my religion. Despite my protests, going to Sunday School, Hebrew School, services, and spending holidays with my family have helped me feel further invested in Judaism. So when I hear about other Jewish communities being threatened, I feel a certain sense of responsibility to make sure the same thing doesn’t trickle down to mine. 

Acts of antisemitism are not uncommon, though the recent event in Texas has made me reflect on the issue in a much different way than I ever have before. It could be due to my age, family connections, or increased awareness about acts of hate that I feel a deeper sense of discomfort. While I do not have much – if any – personal experience with antisemitism, it doesn’t seem like I’m alone in that feeling; according to a study conducted by NPR, in 2021, one in four American Jews reported of having experienced a form of antisemitism. And while Jews make up just 2% of the American population, in 2020, 54.9% of all religiously biased crimes were related to antisemitism. Yet only 60% of the general population believes that antisemitism is an issue in America. In short, the response to antisemitic events is not equal to how serious the situation is in American society, and even the New Trier community.

Antisemitism is defined as a prejudice or discrimination against Jewish individuals or groups based off of myths and stereotypes against Jewish people and the State of Israel. It dates back to Biblical times, when tension between the Jews and Roman leaders rose out of the Jews’ refusal to practice another religion, which was viewed as a threat. Persecution followed them into the Middle Ages, when Jews became ostracized and were denied job opportunities and government positions while being accused of having horns and tails in order to commit demonic acts towards Christians. The Holocaust further showed rampant antisemitism by labeling Jews as a separate, lower-class race that required termination. Among other atrocities, such as denying citizenship and requiring dress codes, the systematic murder of over six million Jews marked the attempted decimation of the religion. Following the disturbing results of World War II, it was seen as shameful to be publicly antisemitic, however situations similar to what happened in Texas just a few weeks ago still occur.

The last few years’ history has indicated a lack of concern about blatant acts of antisemitic behaviors. All too often, a disturbing incident will occur and minimal discussion and action will ensue. When looking at the Colleyville, Texas hostage situation, President Biden issued a public response, multiple news sources reported information to viewers, and after a day or two, conversations began to subside. Meanwhile, at New Trier, none of my classes initiated a conversation about the event. It was only acknowledged in my Jewish community, where I discussed the issue with friends and family and my rabbi penned a letter to the congregation.

And what happens when religion finds its way into a flaring political climate? In recent years, political protests have been enhanced by the use of antisemitic values, therefore potentially diluting the seriousness of anti-Jewish hate. Take, for example, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, where white supremacists chanted antisemitic profanities through the streets. Local temples hid their Torahs and evacuated the premises. Jews across the country felt unsettled. And yet, then-President Donald Trump declared that there were “fine people on both sides” in an effort to maintain a certain demographic of his followers. 

The polarization of America’s politics has caused people to feel increasingly defensive of their views and perceived status in society. An opinion editorial published shortly after Charlottesville by the Atlantic touched on this, pointing out that, “Universalized movements that aim to fight oppression against all peoples in all of their identities … invite backlash from those who feel that they’re losing their place in society.” Insecurities fuel attacks against others, specifically those who have been treated differently due to their identities in the past. 

The Constitution states that all citizens have the freedom to follow their religion, as well as the idea of the separation of church and state. But when religion is unjustly seeded into a political or governmental practice, Jews (and other minority groups) become the recipients – the target – of hate. The age-old practice of scape-goating comes into play. Historically, it has been used in policies of economic, social, and political exclusion and isolation, and offers a quick route to escape one’s own wrongdoings. Minority groups are often subject to such treatment. After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims rose by 1617% between 2000 and 2001. Instead of realizing the root of the problem in the 9/11 attacks, people wanted to place the blame on “another” group by instilling fear into and against the Muslim community. The results of such hateful acts showed; according to a study conducted by UC Berkeley, following 9/11, 80% of Muslims felt “insecure and afraid” for their families while living in the Western world.

When it comes to antisemitism (and other forms of hate against minority groups), politics need to be separated from the issue at hand. Politics cannot overshadow the sensitivity of antisemitism. Taking a political stance on a humanitarian issue dilutes the reality of the effects that antisemitism has on Jews. And while issues such as gun control and mental health – which are often players in acts of antisemitism – should be recognized, we cannot ignore that these acts are taken against specific minority groups. Undoubtedly there are many issues that must be remedied, but we must recognize the encroachment on antisemitic values in both our community and the country as a whole. We must draw a line in the sand because then we can prevent compliance. 

Over the years, I have noticed how my temple has increased its security. Automatic locks have been placed on exterior doors. Each comes fully equipped with call buttons so that visitors can state who they are. Security guards line main doorways during services. My temple has adapted, though I don’t think the discomfort I feel about such changes will ever become easier to accept.  

When it comes to any event centered around the idea of hate, it is easy to become complacent with accepting the situation, especially if the latter is geographically or emotionally distant from yourself. Whether it’s having a conversation or learning more about it, acting upon antisemitic events can help bring the community forward. Organizations like the Jewish Federation supply articles, links, and resources about ways to discuss and cope with antisemitism in the community. All it takes is one Google search and the information is at anyone’s fingertips. Online movements such as #EndJewHate give people space to share their antisemitic experiences with others, which inevitably raises public awareness of the issue. No matter how one chooses to gather information, it is vital that people simply engage with the issue of antisemitism because we need to embrace the discomfort – we cannot accept the unacceptable. 


Sam Fellman

NT ’22