Several Bay Area Jewish organizations came together on Thursday in a show of solidarity and resistance against the rising antisemitism that Jews across the country have experienced since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The Bay Area has not been spared from the wave of antisemitic incidents that have occurred around the world, including in Los Angeles, New York City, London and Toronto.
In San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood, a Chabad preschool was vandalized on May 14 with graffiti that read “Death to Israil,” spurring a police investigation. And in a move that some say is rooted in antisemitism, the San Francisco public teachers’ union on May 19 passed a historic resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.
“We understand our community is feeling vulnerable in this moment,” said Tye Gregory, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, during the opening of Thursday’s virtual forum “When the Conflict Comes Home.”
It was a chance for two of the larger Bay Area Jewish institutions to debrief the community in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict, which ended in a cease-fire after hundreds were killed and injured. JCRC’s Middle East project director Karen Stiller and the Anti-Defamation League’s S.F.-based regional director Seth Brysk spoke about distinguishing between legitimate criticisms of Israel and criticism that has crossed the line into antisemitism, shared the data behind the rising incidents in the region, and discussed how the Jewish community can navigate in more progressive spaces.
“We have a diverse set of views across our community around the conflicts,” said Gregory. “We think that regardless of your view, you shouldn’t be scapegoated [and] targeted with antisemitism, which is what we are hearing from all of you.”
The event coincided with a nationwide forum hosted by the national ADL earlier in the day. “Day of Action Against Antisemitism” featured video clips of a wide range of political, religious and celebrity figures denouncing Jewish hatred, among them House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy, of California, condemned comments by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia this week after she compared face mask requirements to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in the Holocaust.
Individuals who previously have been called out for their own antisemitism also made remarks, including entertainer Nick Cannon. “As someone who has dealt with my own controversy, I’ve learned a great deal about how hurting people is never going to help bring us all together,” Cannon said during a three-minute video clip.
In San Francisco that evening, Brysk offered attendees a chance to do a deep dive into the data behind the rising cases of antisemitism. (The ADL keeps a tally of antisemitic incidents around the country.)
According to Brysk, between May 10 and May 23, there were 222 antisemitic incidents across the country reported to his organization, an increase of 75 percent over the prior two weeks. Brysk noted that the number of cases within the last decade has been “historically” high, with 2019 as the worst year on record.
Brysk said several incidents have taken place at local protests since May 16.
“Many of the rallies remained peaceful, and did not include antisemitic language,” he said. “But some speakers, signs and chants did include attacks against Zionists or even trafficked in hateful, antisemitic tropes.”
JCRC’s Stiller said the Jewish community is at a “unique inflection point” and called out those on social media who were “not thinking deeper about the nuances” of the conflict.
“It’s all about the infographic,” said Stiller, referring to a recent trend mostly seen on Instagram of sharing informational slides that critics say are an oversimplification of the situation.
Countering the narrative, Stiller said, will require more community involvement at the local level.
“More representation at commissions, showing up at board meetings, getting involved in local party politics, running for office, volunteering for [parent-teacher associations], on the ground and in grassroots, civic spaces,” said Stiller. “Even volunteering at the food bank, a library or homeless shelter. And doing all of this as a Jew. Bring it all forward, your Jewish values and your Jewish identity.”
The evening ended on what Gregory described as a more “controversial” note, addressing how Jews fit into the diversity, equity and inclusion movement (commonly referred to as DEI), a conversation that has overlapped with the current tensions in Israel.
“There’s a perception that the Jews are a privileged, white community,” said Gregory. “Now, of course, we know without even considering non-Jewish populations in Israel, the plurality of Jewish Israelis are Mizrahi, Sephardi, Ethiopian, and not Ashkenazi. But the reality is, in the United States we are still a predominantly Ashkenazi community. So how do we navigate this conversation around whiteness, Jewishness, privilege? When do we talk about when we are white in some situations and when we are Jewish in others?”
After several seconds of silence, Brysk spoke up. “Well, first of all, we talk about them. And second of all, we listen,” he said, “bringing in the voices that might not have been [traditionally] heard.”
“If you have to think to yourself, are you perhaps one of those voices? Are those voices usually dominant?” Brysk asked. “I would urge you to think about taking a step back and letting others fill the space and include them and give them the opportunity.”
That diversity of voices will move the community toward “having a kind of world that we, as Jews, want to see being built.”