Next week, millions of Jews will attend synagogue to celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
It’s a time of spiritual reflection, family get-togethers, and increased security measures. That may seem like an odd list to some.
For Jews, it is par for the course today in America. Antisemitism is the world’s oldest hatred, and it’s on the rise. The violent synagogue attacks at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, California’s Chabad of Poway, and Colleyville, Texas’ Congregation Beth Israel underscore the sharp increase in antisemitic incidents.
The good news is that political leaders are waking up to this dangerous reality, and the need to do something to combat it.
This week, President Biden is hosting the United We Stand Summit to combat hate-fueled violence. The White House will follow up this week with a Protecting Places of Worship Roundtable.
Presidential attention is very important, but what does something actionable look like? What can we do that hasn’t been done before?
A lot actually.
It starts with education. Summits and roundtable discussions are important because words matter. The way we talk about the Jewish people, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel in our public discourse has a trickle-down effect. If, as President Truman said, “The buck stops here,” setting a good example starts at the top. Governors and mayors should be next, and we call on those officials to convene meetings and roundtables with their Jewish community leaders right away.
But as much as words matter, they are not enough. Generations of Jews have learned the hard way that there will always be people who parlay the hate in their hearts into violent action. The second step is prevention.
Jewish communities have had to become experts in the art of self-defense. Jewish day schools and synagogues employ a range of security measures from old-school barricades to high-tech monitoring and alert systems. As we approach the high holidays, you will be hard-pressed to find a synagogue that does not enlist security guards and local police at a bare minimum.
Prevention, though, is expensive. Thankfully, Federal and state governments have helped with nonprofit security grants that cover the cost of security guards, training, and physical improvements to nonprofit spaces. In some cases, the bulked-up security is a sufficient deterrent to would-be attackers.
This year, the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) was able to award $250 million in funds for this purpose. This is an important increase from 2021’s $180 million, but only funded about half of the grant applications submitted by synagogues, churches, and other faith-based institutions. Congress must allocate more funding for the NSGP program.
Congress should also complement this DHS program by allocating a portion of the millions of dollars of grants made by the Department of Justice to local police for the specific purpose of protecting houses of worship during high-alert times. These costs are currently borne by individual houses of worship.
While this funding won’t always prevent attacks from occurring, it plays a crucial role in preventing fatalities. The attacks in Pittsburgh, California, and Texas remind us that worshipers will have to make split-second decisions with life-and-death consequences.
Held hostage at gunpoint, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel, in Colleyville, Texas, credited the training and equipment made possible by NSGP grants for saving his life and his congregants’ lives.
That brings us to the third step: recovery and renewal. How we address antisemitic attacks after the fact is just as important.
Yes, public and communal leaders should denounce these attacks, but we also need to be clear about what antisemitism is. It seems almost comical that the world’s oldest hatred requires a dictionary, but here we are. Too many people twist the definition of antisemitism to make room for their perverted ideologies from anti-Zionism on the left, to “replacement theory” on the right.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) offers a detailed working definition of antisemitism that includes denying the Holocaust, perpetuating myths about Jewish stereotypes, and holding Israel to an absurd double standard. The US Departments of State and Education utilize this definition, as do the governments of Germany and other countries. Ten US states have adopted this definition. More should follow.
The American Jewish community will not meet the current rise in antisemitism with a retreat from our religious life. At America’s founding, George Washington made the new nation’s Jewish citizens feel at home by saying that America will give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” President Biden, and all American leaders, must meet that historic promise with a renewed call to action from the White House to the local and communal level. The last thing we should do is let the haters win.
Nathan Diament is the executive director for public policy for the Orthodox Union, the largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella in the U.S.