Last week, Jewish people around the world gathered to celebrate Passover, a holiday that commemorates the flight of enslaved Hebrews from oppression in Egypt. We partook in festive meals, retold our people’s story and discussed what it means to be free.
In the Exodus story, we recalled, the Israelite people were not always persecuted. In fact, Joseph became a trusted advisor to Egypt’s Pharoah and helped the country weather seven years of famine. As a result, “The children of Israel were fruitful and multiplied and increased and became very, very strong.”
But within just one generation, “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” In what is likely one of the oldest examples of antisemitic tropes that have become commonplace throughout history, the new Pharoah spouted conspiracy theories about the Jews becoming too strong and powerful, and in his “disgust,” he decided to enslave them. He saw Jews as “other,” an outside force infiltrating the community rather than part of it, and through his position of power, he spread this fear and belief across Egypt.
Since this first description of institutionalized antisemitism in Jewish literature, we have seen how Pharoah’s Jew-hatred has repeatedly manifested itself throughout Jewish history. Today, conspiracy theorists are once again disseminating the antisemitic message that Jews are an alien “other.” Like Pharoah, whose hatred of Jews was fueled in part because he “did not know Joseph,” many who perpetuate antisemitism are ignorant about the Jewish community, our positive contributions to North America and our core beliefs and values. And their message is, sadly, making headway.
According to the FBI, antisemitic hate crimes increased by nearly 20% from 2020 to 2021 and accounted for a large majority of religious-based hate crimes, despite Jews being just 2% of the population. Similarly, many other minority communities are discriminated against, causing them pain and degradation simply because of who they are.
One of the best defenses against these campaigns of hatred is a vibrant civil society marked by strong community relations. That’s why Jewish Federations have for decades invested in efforts to lead through Jewish values, showing up for what we believe, standing by our neighbors when they need support and building strong ties with civil society organizations. We have seen time and time again how strong community engagement can help keep antisemitism and all forms of hate at bay.
For example, when two Jewish men leaving services in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles were shot by a terrorist in February, Jewish organizations had a support system in place.
As a result of the years the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles spent investing in civil society, relationships had been developed with elected representatives, law enforcement and leaders of other faith communities. The Federation had taken the time to engage with issues of concern to other groups in its community, including standing up against anti-black and anti-Asian racism and supporting the LGBTQ+ and Latino communities. Its work supporting human services and working toward justice and equity reinforced that the Jewish community is an integral part of the broader community.
As a result, when Federations convened a town hall to address the shooting, the community showed up. Mayor Karen Bass, Police Chief Michel Moore, Sheriff Robert Luna and the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office Donald Alway affirmed that anti-Jewish hatred is as unacceptable as other forms of hatred and racism.
In the greater Washington, D.C. metro area, a spate of antisemitic incidents in recent weeks, including several targeting Jewish public-school students—through swastikas scrawled on their school desks and jokes about burning them at the stake—was similarly met with support from the strong civil society the local Federation had spent years supporting.
Strengthening democracy and community outreach are part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s framework for action against antisemitism, which is one reason why, after years of showing up for other communities in times of need, the Federation and its independent Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) were able to spring into action.
Having spearheaded interfaith coalitions to ensure that public schools are closed on all major religious holidays (not just the Jewish ones), the Federation and JCRC were able to collaborate with the school district in Montgomery County, Maryland to ensure that antisemitic and racist incidents are documented on perpetrators’ permanent records, parents of offenders come to school to deal with their children’s actions and the culprits apologize directly to their victims. The Federation and JCRC partnered intensively with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to create and implement teacher-training modules on identifying and confronting antisemitism in the classroom.
With the support of the JCRC, Jewish students found strength in numbers, courage in solidarity with non-Jewish allies and bravery in their determination not to let the forces that would make us “other” prevail.
Antisemitism fosters an environment that can lead to violence. It perpetuates damaging stereotypes, erodes social cohesion and causes intergenerational trauma. Our capacity to resist it, as we know from the Passover story, comes from concerted collective action and from never losing faith in our capacity to overcome oppression.
Working together within a strong civil society enables us to pool our resources, benefit from diverse perspectives and both support and encourage each other. Our faith must be not just in God, but in the power of human beings to create our own miracles.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said the Passover story “defines what it is to be a Jew: a living symbol of hope.” This Passover, we are again tapping into that hope and looking forward to a day when we can depend on our friends to help us overcome our enemies.
Adam Teitelbaum is associate vice president of public affairs and executive director of the Israel Action Network at Jewish Federations of North America.