The blunt assessment? “The climate of antisemitism is worrisome.”


By Peter Maer, Special To The Jewish Light

Three top Jewish community leaders have a blunt assessment of the upsurge in antisemitism along with cautious hope for the future.   They commented during an online discussion sponsored by Camp Ben Frankel and the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, Southeast Missouri and Western Kentucky.  Federation Executive Director Aaron Hadley forged a partnership with 13 other small federations for the Tuesday evening event.  Hadley described, “how acutely these small communities are concerned about increasing antisemitism.”

Panel member Jordan Kadosh, St. Louis-based Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, shared the concern, telling the audience “The climate of antisemitism is worrisome.”  The ADL’s Heartland office found antisemitic incidents in Missouri doubled; and in Illinois more than doubled over the past year. As the ADL tracks ever-increasing hate speech and incidents aimed at Jews, it has found that one in four Americans believe at least one anti-Jewish trope. Kadosh said website hate outpaces in-person harassment.  He added, “We live in a digital world” where online hateful messages are “accelerants.”

Kadosh said the news “is not all bad.”  He pointed to recent findings showing that “people who have a basic knowledge of the Holocaust and what happened believe in the fewest number of anti-Jewish tropes.”  He emphasized that Holocaust education must start in grade school. He reminded the nationwide audience that, “facts win out over lies.  We just have to scream them from the rooftop.”

Another panel expert, Renee Birnberg Silberman, is chair of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Children of Survivors Chicago Area Cohort.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

As the program took place on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Silberman, daughter and daughter-in-law of Holocaust survivors, reminded the audience that the Shoah “didn’t start with gas chambers.  It started with words. It started with propaganda.”  She noted antisemitism was once “below the surface” but “what we’re seeing now is the normalization of the use of hateful words against Jews as well as propaganda.” A frequent speaker at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Silberman expressed concern about young people “who are bombarded by social media.” She reminds student groups that, “what you see isn’t always the truth” while challenging them to “respect each other as human beings” and “to stand up against hateful speech.”

Erez Cohen, Executive Director of the University of Illinois Hillel, sees “an uptick in antisemitism” on college campuses.  He said white supremacist groups spread anti-Jewish messages at colleges and universities.  The University of Illinois receives reports of a swastika on campus at least once a month.  Cohen is most concerned about social media posts calling to “exterminate Zionists.”  Jewish students are responding with campus government resolutions of support and calls for action by university administrators.

The ADL’s Kadosh said anti-Jewish sentiments often start long before college.  He pointed to findings showing children as young as ten see white supremacist propaganda online and “begin to be radicalized.”   Renee Silberman agreed, telling the audience young lives “should not be defined by social media and the messages they are receiving.”

Instilling “Jewish pride in our children” was the other major theme of the conversation.  Renee Silberman advised parents to remind their children that, “for thousands of years, the reason the Jewish people have survived is because they have been Jewish.  They have acted Jewishly.  They have taught their children and they have done so in the worst of times and continue to do so because that is our legacy, to carry on our traditions and our history.”

Panelists also emphasized the importance of Jewish camps.  Renee Silberman noted, “Camp is such a great venue for helping students feel pride in their Judaism and empowered in expressing themselves.”

Aaron Hadley focuses on Jewish identity and Jewish pride at Camp Ben Frankel as “cornerstones, foundational elements to what Jewish summer camp is all about.”  He says Ben Frankel is a “community that is safe and welcoming” where campers “meet others like them while learning from strong, proud Jewish role models.”

Expressing hope for the future, Hillel’s Erez Cohen believes, “The next generation of leaders is a lot stronger than we give them credit for.”

While most viewers of the virtual program were in Illinois and Missouri, people in 24 other states joined the “Zoom” conversation.

“Talking To Our Kids About Pride in Being Jewish In The Face Of Rising Antisemitism can be viewed here: 

Camp Ben Frankel alum Peter Maer served as moderator for the online forum. A native of Granite City, Maer is a retired CBS News White House Correspondent