What if the script was flipped and Christians were being threatened?
A memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephen Caruso/Pennsylvania Capital-Star)
I keep trying to picture it.
Catholics all over New Jersey walking into midnight Mass after being wanded upon entry. Episcopal parishioners filing into 10 a.m. service on Christmas, bags searched at the door. Methodists coming to celebrate a holiday lauding the birth of Jesus confronted by an armed guard or squad car out front, on the alert for suspicious activity.
Imagine the headlines.
Christians Under Siege in New Jersey
The War on Christmas Continues for Jersey Christians
Churchgoers Feel Like They’re Living in a Police State
Something like that.
You know who doesn’t have to try to picture these scenarios? Jews going to synagogues on an average Friday evening.
That treasured nativity set on your lawn — was there any hesitation when you placed the figures in the grass? Any fear of revealing that you’re a Christian in America?
As we celebrate Hanukkah, ask your Jewish friends if their menorah is public-facing in their window, and if it’s not, why? This representation of miracles, wisdom, and universal enlightenment is meant to illuminate, to transform the world into a holy, light-filled place. There’s a meme circulating on social media that puts it this way: Imagine if your cell phone was at 10% but lasted eight days. Now you understand Hanukkah.
Symbolism aside, how comfortable are our Jewish neighbors with such blatant announcements of their faith these days? Last month, the FBI issued a warning specific to New Jersey synagogues that they had received a credible threat. On Dec. 12, the Anti-Defamation League of New York/New Jersey called out the “alarming” gaps in data collection for hate crime reporting in 2021.
A graph on Jewish Virtual Library showing antisemitic incidents in the United States is bracing at a glance. It’s not so much that there were 129 incidents in 1979 as compared to 2,717 in 2021. It’s that the more recent spike from 2013 to 2021 went from 751 to more than triple that.
So what changed?
While I mostly set out to talk to clergy and leaders in Christian and Jewish communities about this, what proved far more interesting were my conversations with lay people.
For instance, reaching out to the Archdiocese of Newark yielded this: “We encourage our clergy and parish and school personnel to exercise caution and vigilance and to report any suspicious behavior to local law enforcement.”
Nutshell: No security needed.
Meanwhile, a conversation with a politically conservative Jewish man who says he doesn’t feel any more fear now than he did 10 years ago produced insights like this: “I know there has been a spike in gun ownership among visibly Jewish people” and “I think it’s more a majority/minority issue than anything.” He doesn’t see the uptick as political.
That has not at all been the experience for a non-religious Jewish woman I spoke to at length. “I never thought the world order would change. I keep thinking, wow, this is stuff my dad told me about. He was first generation here. It didn’t register as something I’d experience.”
She pointed to the march in Charlottesville and then-President Donald Trump’s reaction – “very fine people, on both sides” – plus the more recent antisemitic remarks by the former Kanye West as escalation points.
Another Jewish woman I talked to blamed “idiot celebrities” along with the political climate. Her increased unease came after the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the one at the kosher grocery store in Jersey City in 2019.
“This is not a time to be silent,” she said.
And that’s what brings me here, writing about this. Because I don’t know what else to do. We talk about being good allies these days, and that resonates with me, along with striving to understand better and speak up more when confronted with bias in day-to-day life.
Earlier this month, German authorities conducted a raid of right-wing extremists and took 25 people into custody. Our own country’s top law enforcement has had to devote more resources to battling racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists. There’s some solace in their action.
“What’s scary is, what’s the tipping point?” one woman asked me.
Can we even imagine?
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