Anti-Semitism still poisons society

For thousands of years, stereotypes, discrimination, conspiracy theories, and scapegoating have served as the roots of anti-Semitism worldwide. Historically, Jews have been singled out for being different, for maintaining different religious traditions.

Some of us today still remember a time in recent history when Jews were openly discriminated against and excluded from universities, hotels, resorts and social clubs nationwide. Doors were shut to those with Jewish-sounding names. Indeed, this shameful history used to be a reality in parts of South Florida.

Fast forward to modern-day South Florida. We live in a culturally-rich and ethnically-diverse society, but remnants of anti-Semitism persist, which stain our community.

While South Florida Jews have overcome many of the overt exclusionary barriers of decades past, Jews today contend with more subtle and troubling anti-Semitic nuances that generate murky conditions through which to navigate. Anti-Semitic undertones that elusively emerge through uncomfortable slurs in a boardroom, or anti-Jewish undercurrents in the workplace that lead to unjust employment discrimination, or the blurred line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitic narratives are just a few clouded barriers that can be difficult to confront.

Jews in South Florida and elsewhere also bear witness to an old challenge that has newly materialized through virulent forms of online anti-Semitism and Internet-based conspiracy theories blaming Jews for many of society’s misfortunes. While it is no surprise that Jews and other groups who have historically faced discrimination are now being discriminated against online, there is a dimension of complexity in dealing with anti-Semites who exploit the Internet’s power to disseminate their hateful messages and recruit people to adhere to their often extremist ideologies.

In the 1950s, the Anti-Defamation League initiated the anti-mask law in Georgia, which, while recognizing the right of hate groups to demonstrate, required that KKK marchers not hide their identities behind their hoods. The unmasking of the Klan symbolized a core ADL principle: The best way to fight anti-Semitism and haters is to expose them to the light of day.

Today, many anti-Semites and hateful extremists use the anonymity of the Internet to hide behind their keyboards and espouse poisonous hate-filled untruths on an unprecedented exponential level. Striking the right balance between freedom of speech and countering the viral spread of online anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories poses great challenges on many fronts.

Since 1979, ADL has conducted a national annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents to gauge the level of anti-Semitism and identify new solutions. While ADL tracks online anti-Semitic content, the daunting number of anti-Semitic expressions that appear on countless websites and social media outlets are nearly impossible to quantify. As such, only when Jewish individuals or institutions are targeted personally in an online forum is such an incident included in the audit.

In 2012, according to the most recent audit, 927 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded across the United States, marking a 14 percent decline from the 1,080 incidents reported in 2011.

Statewide in Florida, there were 88 reported incidents of anti-Semitism. Of those, 56 occurred in the South Florida (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties). The good news is that the statewide number of reported incidents declined by 20 percent from 2011. The bad news is that the number of incidents remained exactly the same both in South Florida, and specifically in Miami-Dade County.

Whether it’s a swastika etched onto a Holocaust survivor’s car, or an elderly Jew told by two aides at an assisted living facility that he should “Go back to Nazi Germany and they will finish you off,” or “You killed Jesus” scrawled in front of a prominent Chabad Hanukkah display on South Beach, or a middle-school student bullied for months at school for being Jewish and repeatedly being called a “dirty Jew” — the fact that such anti-Jewish bigotry persists locally is unacceptable and reinforces the need for greater civility, education and vigilance.

Since 1913, ADL has remained dedicated to its 100-year-old mission to eliminate anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry whether they manifest themselves in our schools, college campuses, workplaces or online.

Although we have made tremendous progress in South Florida in addressing anti-Semitism through anti-bias education, public awareness campaigns, law enforcement partnerships and training programs, and the safeguarding of religious freedom and civil liberties, some barriers still remain, reminding us that the long-term struggle to change hearts and minds is not yet over.

Hava Leipzig Holzhauer is the Florida regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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