By Janis Fontaine
Hate speech is on the rise.
We see it on the news and social media. We hear it from the mouths of celebrities and politicians. Our children experience it at high schools and colleges. On Twitter, antisemitic tweets doubled from June 2022 to February 2023, according to research from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank.
And though Jews are not the only target of hate speech, they’ve been a favorite scapegoat for centuries. They make easy targets because Americans have been indoctrinated with a trash bag of myths about Jews.
Jews make up less than 2.5% of the adult U.S. population, but they are targets in 58% of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the nation, according to FBI statistics for 2020. In hate crimes directed at ethnic groups, Jews constitute the third-largest target. Hate speech itself is not a crime and is not tracked.
Many Jews remain silent in the face of hate speech. But, experts say, to remain silent in the face of bullying only emboldens the bullies. It makes it easier for them when they don’t encounter any opposition. But the answer isn’t silence or answering anger with anger.
“Clearly we need to push back against antisemitism when we encounter it, but we have to take a more intelligent approach to it,” said Lonny Wilk, the deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League in Florida. “Any dialogue has to begin with the right intention. Is your goal to denounce antisemitism or to educate someone? But there is no singular, formulaic response.”
The key to change lies in understanding what antisemitism is, said Tara Laxer, founder of #TheMovement — Standing Up Against Antisemitism Together. Laxer has worked in nonprofit and government affairs with a focus on women’s studies, foreign policy and antisemitism for more than 20 years.
South Florida is a melting pot that brought a lot of Christians and unaffiliated people in contact with Jews for the first time, and professionals reached out to Laxer to understand this new element.
“They wanted to know what antisemitism was,” she said. “So first we needed a definition of antisemitism that we could use to identify it.”
#TheMovement adopted the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
It’s possible that some people didn’t know their comments were antisemitic, and the mantra of #TheMovement became “If you can’t define it, you can’t defeat it.” Laxer said, “There’s such a fine line between free speech and hate speech. But we have to test that line for there to be a free exchange of ideas.”
When antisemitic messages were distributed to residents in Boca Raton in January and then again in April, local leaders “denounced these hateful messages directed at our Jewish population.” The antisemitism took the form of printed propaganda in plastic bags with a few popcorn kernels or pellets to keep them down.
Restricting hate speech is a slippery slope. Americans vehemently believe their right to free speech quashes any attempt at censoring the content of one’s message. And it’s true.
There are very limited exceptions to freedom of speech. Crimes like fraud, slander and libel can be prosecuted but only after the cat is out of the bag and only if real, measurable damages occurred. But everyone knows you can’t un-ring a bell.
Laxer says, “One thing I do is teach people how to lobby while keeping your sanity. If we can have a civil discussion, if we can change one mind, that sends out ripples of change.”
“I believe in ‘counsel culture’ replacing cancel culture,” Wilk said. No one ever became more tolerant or accepting by knowing less about a subject. But having conversations about religion (or race or politics or parenting) is hard.
Wilk suggests these conversations not happen in the heat of the moment or in public, but later, one-on-one, you might calmly say, “I felt what you said was antisemitic.”
“When political leaders and celebrities express antisemitic views, their influence on wide swaths of society is real. Having someone important say it gives credence to the words,” Wilk said.
At Florida Atlantic University, “Ye is Right” protesters flooded the walkways after Kanye West spewed his antisemitic “death con 3” tweets. In response, the university’s House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning antisemitism and supporting the Jewish community with a vote of 25-0. The measure was proposed by student representative Inbal Shachar, a Jewish student leader, who said, “It takes courage to generate such change.”
It is hard to shout down the opposition. We’re not going to win a war of angry words, Wilk said. Instead, we need to speak smart. “They’re using their voices. We need the courage to use ours.”
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local reports of antisemitism, 2022
Vandalism, Boca Raton: A swastika was found on a lifeguard station on a public beach.
Harassment, Boca Raton: A student made an antisemitic comment to members of the competing team during a school basketball game, stating, “Hitler should have finished the job.”
Harassment, Boca Raton: Comments were posted in the chat of a synagogue’s Shabbat service livestream, including antisemitic, racist and homophobic slurs.
Harassment, Palm Beach: Staffers at a synagogue received a message through their website that said, “Zionism is racism. ‘Israel’ is an apartheid-racist-terrorist state. It will fall sooner than later.”
Harassment, Boca Raton: Antisemitic fliers praising Hitler were distributed in a residential neighborhood.
Harassment, Boca Raton: The Goyim Defense League, which the Anti-Defamation League calls a hate group, distributed propaganda that read, “Every single aspect of gun control is Jewish” and “Every single aspect of mass immigration is Jewish.”
Harassment, Boynton Beach: Two people got into a verbal altercation when one stated to a Jewish neighbor, “You’re a psychotic Jew who can’t raise herself without her parents’ Jew money.”
Harassment, Palm Beach: A synagogue received a fax of an anti-abortion flier that said, “Rabbis will be held accountable for ignoring God’s word and the responsibility to teach their congregations! So make the right choice. God bless you for choosing Him.”
Harassment, Boca Raton: A synagogue received a violent antisemitic message via an online contact form.
Harassment, Palm Beach: A synagogue received a violent antisemitic message that voiced support for the Holocaust.
Harassment, Palm Beach: A synagogue received a threatening antisemitic message via an online contact form.
Harassment, Boca Raton: A Jewish day school received a threatening phone call.
Harassment, Boynton Beach: A Jewish nonprofit received an antisemitic email.
SOURCE: Anti-Defamation League