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Antisemitism is on the rise, so let’s get closer

If we want to feel safer, billboards won’t help.

The JewBelong-StandWithUs billboard campaign in Toronto
The JewBelong-StandWithUs billboard campaign in Toronto
Stephen D. Smith

A billboard at the Hippodrome theater in London depicts a blonde woman in her early 30s. She is wearing a white tank-top that shows her sleeve tattoo. The billboard reads, “Why am I 500% more likely to suffer hate crime?” It is followed by the hashtag #BecauseImJewish. It is a spunky message in times when we need to be bold. Anti-Jewish hatred is surging. This billboard is one way to call out the haters.

I try to imagine the average theatergoer who is not Jewish arriving to see “Les Miserables.” I wonder whether that person sees the billboard and decides to check their unconscious anti-Jewish bias at the door. I somehow doubt #stopantisemitism will mute their unvoiced feelings. Campaigns like this one may make Jews feel like we are standing up to haters. But to those who hate Jews, this type of campaign makes Jews look weak.

Another campaign in Los Angeles seems to recognize the unlikelihood that poster campaigns prevent anti-Jewish hatred. “Can a billboard end antisemitism?” It then answers its own question: “No. But you are not a billboard.” Good point. But still, I wonder who the audience is. We do not need billboard campaigns to remind antisemites that they hate Jews.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine about my own decision to convert to Judaism. She said, “It amazes me that people want to convert to Judaism when there is so much anti-Jewish hatred.” I replied, “Quite the reverse is true. After three decades fighting such hatred from outside of the Jewish community, I now have 13 million new friends who care about me.” I have never felt safer.

My decision to convert to Judaism happened shortly after retiring from the USC Shoah Foundation. A few weeks later I was at the Western Wall and realized that after many years fighting antisemites, I would rather spend the rest of my life being a part of the Jewish people. We overcome hatred. History is on our side.

At a recent Holocaust education program someone from the audience asked me a fear-loaded question about a small neo-Nazi group in their state. I responded that there was not a single neo-Nazi group that could muster 250 people on a cold winter evening, no matter how significant their hell-bent hatred. What are we so scared of? We outnumber them.

I am not saying do not fight back. I am saying be smart about it. Be open, be vulnerable, allow people to experience the wonder of the Jewish story. Jewish defense organizations need to dial back the poster campaigns explaining how much we suffer. Resources need to be directed towards keeping institutions that display antisemitic tendencies accountable; to inform politicians about anti-Jewish hatred; to teach classroom teachers; and to challenge universities. The anti-Zionism must stop. Changing society requires laws, policies and personal engagement, not billboards.

I am battle-scarred when it comes to the topic of anti-Jewish hatred. In my 30-year career, I have taken on Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis and Christian institutions. I know what it is like to receive hate mail and death threats.

That said, I still believe the best way to protect ourselves is to be more confident and grateful for who we are, for our community, our history, our values, our religion and having one another. If you think this is the soft option, don’t be so sure. It takes more courage to be quietly confident in ourselves. It takes commitment to hold on to those things that have sustained us for generations—faith, trust, education and community.

To all the security organizations and individuals that stand guard and protect our physical bodies, thank you! As a Holocaust scholar I know exactly how lethal anti-Jewish hatred can be. There are many who hate us enough to kill us. We need to guard our doors. We also need to keep an open door. It means being willing to engage with those who despise us—especially those who despise us.

If we want to feel safer, billboards won’t help. We must double down on what makes us special—our loyalty to one another, our fierce sense of identity, our confidence and trust in one another. We feel vulnerable because the threat is real. We must also remember that we are the best protected group on the planet, and that’s not due to El Al security; it’s because we have one another.

Fighting anti-Jewish hatred outside of the Jewish community was lonely, hard and demoralizing. What do I care now if people hate me? I am grateful I have you!

Stephen D. Smith is CEO of StoryFile and executive director emeritus at USC Shoah Foundation.

Originally published at Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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