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Concerns over antisemitism rise as Jews begin observing Passover

American Jewish Committee issued a report earlier this year that found that 94% of Jews and 74% of all U.S. adults say antisemitism is a very serious or somewhat serious problem.
Nam Y. Huh
American Jewish Committee issued a report earlier this year that found that 94% of Jews and 74% of all U.S. adults say antisemitism is a very serious or somewhat serious problem.

During the week leading up to Passover, the website Combat Antisemitism Movement put out a list of what it called the "most shocking" anti-Semitic instances of March 2024. Among the instances it details:

  • a Jewish man being attacked outside a Chicago screening of a documentary about the Hamas attack on the Nova music festival in southern Israel on October 7
  • the film director Jonathan Glazer making claims that Israel's prosecution of the Israel-Hamas war is "dehumanization"
  • fake accounts on X, formerly known as Twitter, pushing the phrase "Zionism=Nazism"
  • a forum hosted by the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee at which Jewish students shared first hand accounts of being threatened on college campuses

Stories like these and many others have Jewish leaders increasingly alarmed as the holiday of Passover gets underway.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a report earlier this year that included nearly 3,300 anti-Semitic instances in the final three months of last year, including 56 physical assaults, 554 incidents of vandalism, 1,347 examples of verbal or written harassment, and 1,307 rallies on colleges campuses that involved anti-Semitic rhetoric — including ones that involved support for terrorism.

Perhaps most acute on this first day of the Jewish holiday is the ongoing situation on college campuses. Columbia University 3rd year student Eden Yadegar is from Los Angeles and president of the group Students Supporting Israel. Because of her leadership role, she's witnessed and heard from other students about scores of instances.

"Saturday night was horrible," she says, describing, how a couple of Jewish students on campus holding an Israeli flag had it ripped from their hands and set on fire. "Someone threw fake blood at my friends on campus," Yadegar says.

Other instances have included protesters yelling "Go back to Poland!" according to Yadegar. She says the frequency has escalated in the days leading up to Passover, especially calls for violence.

That increasingly heated language as well as instances of actual violence have American Jewish Committee CEO Ted Deutch alarmed.

"When protestors take to city streets and college quads to sing the praises of Hamas," Deutch says, "and when they applaud Iran launching missiles at Israel, we should be appalled."

Deutch says this issue of extremist rhetoric is not only of concern for the Jewish community but for everyone. And he argues speech that celebrates terrorism and terrorist groups like Hamas is not protected political speech but rather hate speech specifically directed at Jews.

"It's not serious political speech," he says. "It's antisemitism."

He says this Passover, he's particularly disturbed by the fact that Hamas is still holding 130 hostages in Gaza. Deutch says that situation makes the scene in the biblical book of Exodus where Moses tells Pharaoh to "let my people go" especially poignant.

A rise in religion-based bias

A report titled "The State of Antisemitism in America" published by the American Jewish Committee in February found that 94% of Jews and 74% of all U.S. adults say antisemitism is a very serious or somewhat serious problem.

The national survey also found that American Jews are uncertain about their place in American society. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that the status of Jews in the U.S. is less secure than one year ago, up dramatically over recent years.

FBI data released in October 2023, covering crimes reported in 2022, shows that about 55% of all religion-based hate crimes were driven by anti-Jewish bias. About 8% involved anti-Muslim bias. No FBI data is available yet on more recent instances.

Jews are not alone in experiencing religion-based instances of intimidation. The Council on American-Islamic Relations' annual Civil Rights Report says that last year it received the highest number of anti-Muslim bias complaints ever. CAIR says it took in 8,061 bias reports in 2023 and that nearly half of them came in the final three months of the year, following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The report found that 7.5% of complaints involved allegations of hate crimes, including the case of 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume who was allegedly stabbed to death by his family's landlord and his mother wounded during an attack in an apartment near Chicago.

Prosecutors in that case charged suspect Joseph Czuba with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and two counts of hate crimes.

What can be done to challenge anti-Jewish hate

"I've never been more frightened or disturbed," says Robert Williams, executive director of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation and the UNESCO Chair on Antisemitism and Holocaust Research.

He says the normalization of rhetoric calling for violence that he's seen and heard on college campuses and elsewhere needs careful attention. "We need our political and cultural leaders to say enough is enough," Williams says. "These actions are not acceptable."

Civil dialogue, he says, is what's needed and civil dialogue has been sorely lacking in the months since Oct. 7th. He understands that the very real concerns on the various sides of the Israel-Hamas War deserve to be aired out. But Williams says that needs to be done in ways that don't devolve into violence or calls for violence or the carrying out of actual violence.

The larger solution, he says, is not an immediate one because the best corrective against antisemitism is education, which is a long-term prospect. Williams points out that antisemitism didn't end in Germany immediately after the Allied victory in World War II but rather took decades of purposeful dialogue, lessons and political will.

A portion of the people clearly intend to create harm, Williams believes, but he also says perhaps a significant number might not know that they're saying hurtful things.

The phrase 'From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free' is a slogan often heard at pro-Palestinian rallies. What some might yell as a call for Palestinian liberation from occupation and freedom from violence, many Jews hear as a call for the annihilation of the state of Israel (situated between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea), which they see as an existential threat to Jews in general.

Williams sees a tendency for people outside of an experience to tell people what is and is not victimization. In recent years, people have grown used to the idea that women, people of color and LGBTQ people have the right to label language or actions sexist, racist or homophobic.

But Williams says sometimes, "human rights discourse has been absent of discussions of anti-Jewish bias." Doing so might help people see that rhetoric calling into question the existence of Israel or its right to defend itself is experienced as anti-Semitic although those saying it might be using the language in what they understand to be political terms.

"I hope the Jewish diaspora realizes," says Williams, "that there are allies at this moment and there is always an opportunity to turn the tide."

The heated anti-Semitic rhetoric around the country and the world, as Jews begin the observe Passover, is a real challenge, he says. But the holiday is an opportunity to reflect on Jewish strength, resistance and resilience over millennia.

"We're being put to a considerable test today," Williams says, "but there is always hope."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.