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How antisemitic rhetoric is impacting Jewish communities, and what to do about it

Rabbi Eliana Fischel addresses a group of American University students in October. She tells NPR that the national rise in antisemitism is prompting many congregants to change their behavior.
Washington Hebrew Congregation
Rabbi Eliana Fischel addresses a group of American University students in October. She tells NPR that the national rise in antisemitism is prompting many congregants to change their behavior.

The rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, cast a bright spotlight on the age-old problem of antisemitism in recent weeks, with his offensive remarks inspiring other demonstrations of hate and stoking fears among the Jewish community.

Ye's promotion of antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories did bring about some condemnation and consequences — dropped business partnerships, blocked social media accounts and pending legal action have made headlines for days.

But his words also sparked action: Last month, a group hung banners over a Los Angeles freeway with antisemitic messages including "Kanye is right about the Jews." The Holocaust Museum LA was flooded with hateful and threatening messages after inviting Ye for a tour, which he declined.

"There's always been threats, there's always been antisemitism. But it feels like an epidemic right now," says Beth Kean, CEO of the Holocaust Museum LA. "And the spread of hate and lies is just happening at a lightning speed, and Kanye really opened the floodgates a couple of weeks ago with his comments."

The problem is much bigger than any one public figure, regardless of their reach (Ye has twice as many Twitter followers as there are Jews on Earth, the museum noted). Antisemitic incidents have hit an all-time high in the U.S., and antisemitic rhetoric is increasingly pervasive in many areas of politics and public discourse.

In October, former President Donald Trump said Jews in the U.S. needed to "get their act together" and show more appreciation for Israel "before it is too late." Last week, the Brooklyn Nets temporarily suspended Kyrie Irving for his repeated failure to "unequivocally say he has no antisemitic beliefs" on the same day that the FBI said it had received credible information about a "broad" threat to synagogues in New Jersey.

Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, says the "longest or oldest hatred" is being normalized anew — making people think it's OK to do or say certain things.

"It's both physical dangers — we just commemorated the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue [shooting], where people were murdered just for going to synagogue," she says, "It's also little kids learning that ... instead of [being Jewish] being a source of joy, it's something that can bring you bodily harm."

NPR's Morning Edition spoke with several Jewish leaders about the impact that rising antisemitism is having on their communities, and how they are working to combat it. They say education and allyship go a long way toward identifying and responding to hate, and are hoping more people take note this time around.

In tough times, Jews seek community — even with risks

Rabbi Eliana Fischel is an associate rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation, a large Reform synagogue in Washington, D.C. She says many congregants are grappling personally with the national increase in antisemitism, even if they haven't faced harassment themselves.

Fischel is an associate rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation, pictured during services in September.
/ Washington Hebrew Congregation
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Washington Hebrew Congregation
Fischel is an associate rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation, pictured during services in September.

She's gotten questions from people who are wondering if it's still safe to wear a Star of David necklace in public or put a mezuzah on their front door.

"A lot of people are not wanting ... to tell the world that their home is Jewish because they fear for their safety," Fischel says. "And that's a huge change and a huge shift that I've seen, that it's actually affecting our behavior in a way that it hasn't before."

Fischel has also noticed that more people come to synagogue after antisemitic incidents, seeking community and guidance. That's true even though many are also more anxious about doing so, and tend to have questions about building security.

Fischel says safety concerns are nothing new, particularly after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the Texas hostage-taking, and every rabbi in the country has likely thought about what they would do if something were to happen in their own synagogue.

"I think that unfortunately, our staff has gotten used to this, and living in both of those worlds," she adds. "The world of fear ... as well as knowing that we are doing really good work and providing people with this beautiful religion of 3,000 years of tradition that gives meaning and elevates their lives to an extent that I really believe nothing else can."

Despite safety concerns, Fischel says people want to talk to their religious leaders and peers about how antisemitism is affecting their lives and what they can do about it. She said 70 young professionals came to a Shabbat service in late October and participated in the discussion, which was about Ye's tweets and the power of words.

"No one else is giving us an answer, and no one else is talking about it except for social media, where it feels really hurtful and harmful," she says. "So how can we have a conversation about this that actually feels OK and leaves me feeling proud to be Jewish and and thinking about what those next steps are?"

Fischel, who grew up in a suburb with a large Jewish community, says it took her a while to realize how prevalent antisemitism actually is across the U.S. She believes it's crucial to empower others to identify and respond to common antisemitic tropes, and is now starting to teach that for the first time in her five-year career — on the day she spoke with NPR, she was holding her two first sessions, for the congregation and for Jewish congressional staffers.

As she sees it, people get riled up about antisemitic incidents in brief bursts, then assume things are OK when they are not. Within her congregation, she's sensing both anxiety about Ye's remarks and frustration that this will be one of those cases.

"I think the more that we have this mix of anxiety and frustration, ideally, the more Jews are going to speak up and say, 'This is not OK, we are a minority and we are ... the highest targeted religious group for hate crimes in the country and this needs to be taken seriously,' " she says.

Fischel would love for the takeaway this time to be that people need education — not just about Holocaust history and antisemitism, but to be able to call out all forms of racial hate.

LA's Holocaust museum got hate mail — and more visitors

The Holocaust Museum LA bills itself as the first survivor-founded and oldest Holocaust museum in the U.S.
/ Holocaust Museum LA
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Holocaust Museum LA
The Holocaust Museum LA bills itself as the first survivor-founded and oldest Holocaust museum in the U.S.

Shortly after Ye's antisemitic tirade began, well aware of the damage such rhetoric can do, the Holocaust Museum LA reached out to the rapper to offer him a tour.

Kean, the CEO, says museum leaders were upset that such an influential celebrity was using his platform to spread antisemitic hate, and wanted to help him understand the reach and power of his words by showing him the museum and introducing him to a Holocaust survivor, "so he could learn from a firsthand witness where hate and prejudice can lead when bigotry goes unchecked."

What they didn't expect was the flood of antisemitic emails and social media comments they would go on to receive — Kean says it went from something they'd see "maybe once in a blue moon" to a "daily occurrence," with 10 or so each day.

She says most of the messages were alluding to Ye being right about the Jews, and appear to be from young people who are regurgitating his rhetoric without understanding what it means. That includes repeating offensive antisemitic tropes that Kean calls reminiscent of the dangerous propaganda leading up to the Holocaust.

Beth Kean is the CEO of the Holocaust Museum LA and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She says her grandmother saw "her own siblings and parents walk straight to the gas chambers, and it started with words."
/ Holocaust Museum LA
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Holocaust Museum LA
Beth Kean is the CEO of the Holocaust Museum LA and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She says her grandmother saw "her own siblings and parents walk straight to the gas chambers, and it started with words."

"I think of my grandparents who were Holocaust survivors, and they would never have imagined in a million years that something like this would happen. I'm actually thankful that they're not alive to see this," Kean says. "The Holocaust started with words and and we need to be mindful of that."

Between Ye's tweets, the freeway banners, antisemitic flyers distributed in Beverly Hills and the backlash to the museum, Kean says the community is shaken. But she's also seen people channel those feelings into action — and museum attendance.

After the weekend the banner and flyers were displayed, Kean happened to get to the museum early and saw dozens of students in school uniforms waiting outside with their teacher. The teacher had decided to walk them the few blocks to the museum because they were so upset about what had happened.

Even though it was a busy day and the group didn't have a reservation, Kean says they were able to get them set up with an audio tour. All told, two large classes came unannounced that week, and the museum started getting phone calls for more.

This past weekend, L.A. Rams offensive linebacker Tremayne Anchrum brought a group of kids from the local Boys and Girls Club to the museum for a visit, an experience that Kean called "life-changing" for the kids and an example of someone using their influence for good.

To Kean, it's a sign that kids are affected by and worried about antisemitism, and that there are great teachers and Holocaust educators who can help. She's hopeful that they can use their voices to reach a wider audience and call out people like Ye when things like this happen.

Holocaust education is lacking in the U.S., and mandatory in fewer than two dozen states as of last year. Kean says the museum knows that many students may be reluctant to visit Holocaust museums, or question why such field trips are necessary. But visitor evaluations show that 96% of students leave the LA Holocaust museum convinced that other young people need to learn about the Holocaust in order to understand where racism and prejudice can lead.

"When they come to the museum they meet a Holocaust survivor, they come face-to-face with artifacts from the Holocaust, which really humanizes this history, they learn about ... the danger of stereotypes and propaganda, and they really leave with an understanding," she says. "And that's important."

Addressing antisemitism is a shared responsibility

Holocaust survivor Joe Alexander, 99, poses with a group of students visiting the museum (at which he is a frequent speaker) in 2019. The museum welcomes thousands of students each year and provides bus transportation for schools.
/ Tamar Leigh
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Tamar Leigh
Holocaust survivor Joe Alexander, 99, poses with a group of students visiting the museum (at which he is a frequent speaker) in 2019. The museum welcomes thousands of students each year and provides bus transportation for schools.

All of the leaders NPR spoke to for this story stressed that antisemitism doesn't only impact the Jewish community. It harms society at large, and fighting hate — in all forms — should fall to everyone, they say.

Kean, the Holocaust museum CEO, says that when one group is oppressed or suffering, everyone should care, and recalls the uptick in harassment and violence against Asian American and Pacific Islanders by people who blamed them for the coronavirus pandemic.

"We all have a shared responsibility," Kean says. "We really need to build a culture that's rooted in empathy and tolerance and treating people with respect ... That's where it really starts ... How do you hate someone you do not know? It just doesn't make sense."

She underscores the need to build bridges and broad coalitions, like how people of different backgrounds — including many Jewish people — came together for racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. And she points to an example in her own state: California Gov. Gavin Newsom has just announced the creation of a Council for Holocaust and Genocide (on which she will serve) and the allocation of millions of dollars toward educational resources.

But what can regular people do in their everyday lives?

Kean recommends speaking up and defending the truth in environments where it's safe to do so — think classmates on the playground rather than strangers on the street.

Fischel, the rabbi, believes that the "No. 1 thing that's going to combat antisemitism is Jewish pride, is saying that we are Jewish and we are proud of it, and for people to know who Jews are." That could mean wearing a Star of David necklace or kippah in public, attending services or doing social justice work through a Jewish lens.

"If one does feel safe but just uncomfortable, then yeah, wear the Jewish star and wear they kippah and say, 'This is who I am and if you have hate towards Jews, know that that hate is being directed towards me — someone that you know and love,' " she says.

Fischel also emphasizes the importance of allyship, adding that in the U.S. many people assume Jews to be part of the white, upper-class majority, and therefore don't pay as close attention to the hurt and hate that comes their way. She would like non-Jews to be open to engaging in those conversations.

Lipstadt, the antisemitism envoy, offers a similar assessment. She says there's not one easy answer, but it's clear "there's been a failure to take antisemitism seriously."

"Jews can pass, unlike people of color, who don't have a choice ... [Some people] look at Jews, and they say, 'Oh, they're well-set. They're in good shape. What do they have to worry about?' " she explains. "Jews don't present as many other victims of prejudice. I know Jewish parents who are now having with their children the equivalent of what Black parents have had for decades — 'the conversation.' It's a danger."

Morning Edition assistant producer Kaity Kline contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.