Understanding and Supporting the Jewish Community in 2024

By David Cohen

Over the past few years, a strained conversation has been taking place in the Jewish community around what it means to stand up for the Jewish community and how we determine who is “against” the Jewish community.  This has always been an important issue for our community, but ever since the summer George Floyd was murdered and the Movement for Black Lives really came into the public eye – it has been particularly difficult to have a wider, comfortable conversation about how we stand against racism of all kinds - and also stand up to anti-Jewish or antisemitic language, harassment, and violence.

Clearly this is coming to the forefront in America right now as the war in Gaza is being described as genocide and as students on campus bear the brunt of anger and resentment aimed at the wider Jewish community and Israel.  Well before October 7th, a growing and loud refrain was already taking hold in our community that sought to explain how it is, for example, that University leaders cannot coherently speak up about antisemitism.   In their framing, it is as simple as saying that things like “wokeness” or “DEI” or “Critical Race Theory (CRT)” are to blame.  So even today, some feel the need to align these rising problems with one side of our political spectrum, saying it is all due to the rise of a left-leaning, nefarious ideology that is taking the country by storm – much like an illness or a virus. 

Though these same anti-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices have been around for centuries, some claim there is something “new” happening so they could include this theory in their new book or article on how “wokeness” or “DEI” is the downfall of America.  You would even get bonus points if you used the good old term for evil, “Marxist.”

While I know this may not be my most popular argument to date, I do believe this frame does our own community a disservice, and will actually do even more harm to our goals of bringing our own community closer together here in Greater Harrisburg and Central Pennsylvania.

I do believe our recent experience with the University Presidents giving horrible testimony in Congress is actually a very good example to use here.  When such visible ineptitude on an issue of grave importance to the Jewish community is on public display, we of course must make our voices heard - and yes, I do believe people should lose their jobs.  If what you might say about one minority group could get you fired in America, it should get you fired when it is about our community.  Full stop. 

But if we blame their poor performance in Congress, and their lack of vigilance about antisemitism in their daily work, on something as broad, vague, and politically motivated as “wokeness” or “the left gone crazy,” we are trying to find a new cause for something that didn’t need it. 

Anti-Jewish thought is as old as time.  The Romans had beliefs and biases about Jews – and the Christian Roman Empire, and then the Roman Catholic Church, created a whole lexicon that drove centuries of anti-Jewish thought, action, and violence.  None of the catastrophes Jews encountered in history needed Marx, Lenin, Joe Biden, or the Black Lives Matter movement for them to happen.  The point being - antisemitism is not partisan.  It is, sadly, universal.

Yes, just as White Supremacists, who are generally right-wing, use a classic xenophobia to spew their hate, left-of-center anti-Zionists also use a classic xenophobia to spew their hate.  Many don’t know the Jewish community in any meaningful way.  People writ large in society have their own preconceived notions about Israel, Jews, and our role in the world and how we impact the ills of American society.  That is called antisemitism, and has nothing to do with being “woke,” “progressive,” “right,” or “left.”  Simply because someone in the black or Muslim community may spew a vile stereotype about Jews does not mean it is “coming from the left.”  And if you really dig down, all the stereotypes are the same.  “It’s all about the Benjamins.”  That could be either a Klan member or Ilhan Omar.  “Jews ran the slave trade.”  Again, that is in bookshelves read by those on the right and those on the left.

In fact, if we have any hope of marginalizing antisemitism, we have to do so from one frame - the frame of knowledge, education, and outreach.  Not the frame of the left or the right.  We also cannot paint brushes so wide that we lose any ability to influence those who are most in need of our help and guidance.  Yes, major universities and their leaders are failing their Jewish students on campuses.  Does it matter that there are innumerable campuses and leaders who do it right?  I think it does.  Should our community be concerned and take action?  Yes.  And we do and have been.  For years.  To say that ALL campuses are hostile to Jews is insulting to those leaders and administrators who do things right and it also hides from our community where things are going well. 

Days after the testimony from Harvard, Columbia, and UPenn Presidents, Hillel International published a long list of major universities whose leaders ARE creating better policies to protect Jews.  If you only listened to those peddling in fear, those with a political axe to grind – you would not know that those places exist and that they FAR outnumber the places having challenges.  Again, we should always stand up when any place feels unsafe for Jews.  But how we frame the problem will impact whether we have the right solution.

Many leaders have come out to claim that DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) training is essentially antisemitic.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The bedrock of the Jewish alliance with so many minority communities, but especially the black community and our partnership in founding the NAACP, was based on our mutual desire to enhance an appreciation for diversity and inclusion in American law and American society.  Do I know for a fact that some organizations who conduct DEI trainings use a lens antithetical to Jews and Israel? Yes.  100%.  Just like I know for a fact that the Presidents of UPenn, Harvard, and Columbia acted in a way antithetical to the safety of Jews.  BUT.  Just like campuses, I know that most DEI organizations across the country operate in a way that counts respect for Jews as a core component of what diversity and inclusion is all about. 

And why do they do that?  Because the roots of bias and bigotry of all kinds are the same.  Misunderstanding, hate, and pre-judging another without knowing them.  That is what DEI addresses. Along with the ultimate problem - dehumanizing people to the point that you think it is ok to commit violent acts against them, simply because of who they are.   And none of that is a left or right concept.

And for those who do not include Jews in their DEI frame, why do they do that?  Not because they are left or right – but because they have their own biases against Jews and Israel.  Period.  And yes, they must be stopped from peddling their antisemitism and antizionism.  They are the ones corrupting DEI.  DEI is not corrupt in and of itself.    

So, what is the best approach to remedy this kind of rising antisemitism other than calling for the elimination of DEI and the firing of every University President everywhere?  Well, to counteract the biases instilled in our society in general, many JCRCs (Jewish Community Relations Councils) within Federations are emphasizing the work of interfaith or multi-cultural outreach to solve this problem.  The ability to get into churches and mosques to speak directly with those in the pews is key.  Another example is a new national JCRC/Federation program called “Student to Student,” where Jewish students are trained to give presentations to their fellow students – and students at other schools – about who Jews are and what the Jewish community is all about.  While these are not the only answers, they reflect a leaning into the problem instead of away from it.  To only ask our public officials to condemn things – without doing the work of trying to change hearts and minds - does not seem like the best approach.  We must do both. 

When we think about how other communities think about us in the age of social media and the rapid spread of misinformation, we need to ask - how much have we really invested over the years in our outreach to communities to show them who we really are?  I mean really invested time and energy into relating fully to those communities.  Not just about our needs.  But about theirs.  Many of us have committed to this work over the years – but clearly, we need to do more. 

Our community leadership will always be committed to calling out acts of antisemitism and anti-Jewish rhetoric.  We will always advocate for a better climate on campuses and in local schools.  Now we must also commit to engaging with those who have gotten horribly wrong information about who we are, what we care about, and what we believe.  In the coming months, Federation will be working to build up our Jewish Community Relations arm and will be looking for volunteers and support in these efforts.  We know our community sees the need – we look forward to joining with you to find programs to address the solutions.

To the Start of a Wonderful 2024!