Situational awareness

The questions and nuances of combating antisemitism in the face of the Day of Hate

In Short

Though fringe and vague in many ways, the call to a Day of Hate left us, along with many other Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders, asking questions about this incident and the broader societal context. In some ways, the Day of Hate challenged us to dive into the gray zone of antisemitism where answers are far from clear. 

Recently a radical neo-Nazi group issued a call on social media announcing a national “Day of Hate.” The chatter called on like-minded individuals to disseminate banners, stickers and flyers and vandalize with graffiti. While this messaging appeared to have an antisemitic focus, the broader focus on hate led law enforcement to alert faith-based and minority communities, and eventually, the general public, to the threat. Numerous Jewish organizations — local, regional and national — shared this information with a call for Jews to be situationally aware and to contact law enforcement as necessary. 

Though fringe and vague in many ways, the call to a Day of Hate left us, along with many other Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders, asking questions about this incident and the broader societal context. In some ways, the Day of Hate challenged us to dive into the gray zone of antisemitism, where answers are far from clear. 

Perhaps a bit ironically, as the message of the Day of Hate spread more widely and as it emerged front and center within our communities, we were able, in real-time, to delve into a range of essential and ongoing questions with a cohort of senior Jewish leaders from across North America. As members of the inaugural cohort of Spertus Institute’s Leadership Certificate in Combating Antisemitism, they had convened in Chicago to explore together the challenges of antisemitism, and gain skills and tools to combat hatred against Jews.

Initially, the questions we discussed had to do with communications. How should we respond to this threat? Who should be made aware of it and when? What messages should we, as leaders, be sending our communities and constituents about this hateful message? What values should our messages express? How do we, through these messages, shape people’s understanding of the threat of antisemitism, and what, if anything, should we call on them to do in response? How do we engage on social media, in a way that does not amplify the messages of these bad actors or cause undue or unwarranted fear? 

Considering these questions raised additional questions about the differing ways in which our communities are experiencing antisemitism. How do we understand the differences within our communities and the different ways that individuals understand, experience and respond to antisemitism? Given these differences, how do we support and hold our communities in times of crisis?

We then turned to the threat of this message. How do we understand the level of threat, and importantly what should our responses be? Is it sufficient to be alert and aware? Should we be enhancing security? If so, what are the tradeoffs of these choices in time, resources and priorities? How do we obtain a level of comfort with our security choices? What are the dangers we face in over- or under-reacting to individual situations? How do we understand the broader context of antisemitic threats, expressions and actions?

Finally, we asked about how antisemitism intersects with other hatred and bias. Who should we be reaching out to beyond our community and when? How do we engage with law enforcement, other religious groups and society more broadly in times of crisis? What steps needed to be taken in advance in order to easily call on our allies in our time of need? 

Ultimately, as seen across many Jewish communities, the Day of Hate stole a great deal of our time and energy and forced us to refocus our work for a period of time, yet again. Of course, the Day of Hate was particularly challenging given the context of rising antisemitism in the U.S. and across the globe. The rise in antisemitism is reflected in some disturbing numbers. 2021 was the worst year for antisemitic attacks in a decade according to the World Zionist Organization and The Jewish Agency, with an average of more than 10 antisemitic incidents reported every day. Similarly, the ADL’s most recent audit of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. indicated the highest levels of antisemitic activity since the organization began tracking in 1979, with a total of 2,717 antisemitic incidents (a 34% increase over the prior year). According to a Jerusalem Post article, there was a 50% increase in hate crimes committed toward Jews in Canada in 2021, for a total of 3,360 incidents. This was a 67% increase from the prior year and the first year in the previous three with an increase. In ways that feel quite unfamiliar, there are almost daily headlines of antisemitic rhetoric and incidents that have deeply unsettled the Jewish community. According to a new survey by the American Jewish Committee, 43% of American Jews view antisemitism as a very serious problem, and 41% of American Jews feel less secure than they did a year ago.

In an unexpected, though not unpredictable way, our last case study to tackle as a group with the cohort of students participating in the Leadership Certificate in Combating Antisemitism was “ripped from the headlines.” At the conclusion of the intensive week of learning, the cohort members immediately gathered together to apply the knowledge and skills they had been sharpening to determine their next course of action. Together, we reflected and workshopped many of these layered questions, highlighting the strength and impact of learning and acting together. Though each leader, in their respective community and context, ultimately had to make their own decisions, the richness of the discussions palpably demonstrated the importance of engaging with colleagues, of considering diverse perspectives, and having a sacred sounding board.  

Members of this inaugural cohort of Spertus’ new Leadership Certificate in Combating Antisemitism represented different types of organizations (JCRCs, JCCs, Hillels, Federations, synagogues and social justice organizations) from across North America. Like the Jewish communities writ large, they must all address antisemitism today, albeit in different ways, through different lenses, and with different personal, organizational and communal perspectives.

These leaders came to campus having learned together online for 5 weeks. They brought their full selves into deep, complex, nuanced, and at times hard conversations. While some came for answers, they all left with questions and a recognition of the need and the ability to navigate the gray that antisemitism delivers today. They were a deeply committed group of executives with a robust and open learning stance. Collectively they have now formed a valuable network of colleagues who can help to guide us through the murky and potentially difficult waters ahead. They gave us real hope for the future.

In the end, although we realize we will never have all the answers, we learned that we are best served by preparing in advance, understanding context and cultivating critical networks to support us as we think through and act during difficult moments. With the case study of the Day of Hate in hand, we considered how we may have responded to this issue before the seminar and our work together. Deeply troubled as we all were, we also felt more secure, nuanced, and reflective. Everyone agreed that we wanted and importantly needed to create a community of practice to leverage our connections and collective knowledge, insights and experiences to the benefit of all as we navigated this and, unfortunately, the next crisis and future threats down the road. This was one of the most inspiring moments of our learning together — a sense that across difference we were partners in the work to mitigate, redress and perhaps someday, even eliminate antisemitism.

Spertus is now accepting applications for the second cohort of the Leadership Certificate in Combating Antisemitism. We encourage you to share information with leaders from your own community so they can take part. Thanks to the generosity of individual donors and local and national foundations, costs are heavily subsidized for the upcoming cohort, easing the path to participation for those on the front-line. The preferred admission deadline is June 1. Find information at spertus.edu/lcca. Many of the themes that emerged in the response to the Day of Hate and as part of the Leadership Certificate Combating Antisemitism were also addressed in a recent public program, Spertus’ annual Critical Conversations. Members of the public joined us and four of the faculty experts who taught during the seminar: Dr. Lila Corwin Berman, Dr. Miriam F. Elman, Nancy K. Kaufman and Dr. Dov Waxman.

Dr. Dean P. Bell is the president and CEO of Spertus Institute. Dr. Keren E. Fraiman is Spertus Institute’s dean and chief academic officer.