Synagogues, like other houses of worship, are meant to be welcoming places, where people embrace their spirituality, enjoy a sense of community and partake in age-old rituals that help define them. But someone wanted to take all that away from the congregants at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.
During the Jewish High Holidays celebration in September, the synagogue shut its doors out of an abundance of caution due to a threat of violence. This happened the same week as 32 headstones were vandalized at a Jewish cemetery in St. Paul.
Sadly, these are not isolated incidents, as the American Jewish Committee 2021 State of Antisemitism in America Report reveals. In surveys of American Jewish and general population attitudes on antisemitism, 24% said a Jewish institution with which he or she is affiliated has been targeted by antisemitism over the past five years. The same percentage of Jews said they had personally experienced antisemitism in the last 12 months alone.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the AJC report reveals that 39% of American Jews have modified their behavior, including not publicly wearing, carrying, or displaying things that might identify them as a Jew; avoiding certain places, events, or situations out of concern for their safety or comfort; and not posting content online that would identify them as a Jew. That should be a cause of alarm for all of us, Jewish or not.
For the past three years, since the largest slaughter of Jews in America occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, AJC has issued an annual survey of American Jewish and general population attitudes towards and experiences with antisemitism. The results are not uplifting. Instead, they paint a picture of a Jewish community grappling with hate coming from all different directions, both in-person and online, and manifesting itself in physical, emotional and verbal assaults. Some 90% of American Jews believe antisemitism is a problem in the U.S., while 82% say antisemitism has increased in the U.S. over the past five years.
During the fighting in May between Israel and Hamas–designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.–violent antisemitism increased across America. Jews in Los Angeles were attacked while eating dinner; in New York City, a man wearing a yarmulke was punched and pepper-sprayed by a pro-Palestinian group—one of 113 antisemitic incidents in the city through June–while a Jewish man in Las Vegas was assaulted by someone who called Jews “baby killers.”
Such violence was viscerally felt by the Jewish community. The survey found 72% of Jews believed the May uptick in violence made them feel “less safe,” although 66% believe law enforcement is responding effectively to their security needs.
The AJC survey confirmed what most American Jews already knew: Antisemitism is real, tangible, and scary. It is not a problem only happening elsewhere. It is also here in Minnesota. We cannot just wish it away. Synagogues certainly cannot. Many now have armed security or a police presence or security cameras when they are not open. The welcoming atmosphere, the warm sense of community that make synagogues such vibrant institutions are still there. But now they are too often found only behind guarded doors.
Fortunately, there are some positive signs: The survey found 65% of Americans know what the word “antisemitism” means, compared with only 53% a year ago. Moreover, 85% of the U.S. public agree the statement “Israel has no right to exist” is antisemitic, a jump from 74% in 2020.
Indeed, Americans surveyed who said they know someone who is Jewish, were consistently more cognizant of antisemitism and more likely to view it as a problem that needs to be addressed. Knowing your neighbors and introducing yourselves to new people, cultures and traditions helps create stronger communities and reduces ignorance and prejudice. It’s a foundation of hope and understanding we must all start building on now.
Jacob Millner is Director of the American Jewish Committee Minneapolis-St. Paul Regional Office.