Birmingham rally describes toll of rising antisemitism

From top left clockwise: Danny Cohn, Rabbi Adam Wright, Dov Wilker, Ed Fields

By Richard Friedman

With hostility and hatred toward Jews intensifying across the country, the Birmingham Jewish Federation hosted a “Stand Up to Antisemitism” rally at Temple Emanu-El on June 16.

According to the Federation, the event was “to not only show support to our community, but also educate the greater Birmingham community on the rise of antisemitism and what can be done to help educate and eradicate it.”

A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that one-fourth of American Jews have personally experienced antisemitism in the past five years, and that most American Jews have witnessed antisemitic comments targeting others.

At the program, Federation CEO Danny Cohn shared sobering reflections.

“When I arrived in Birmingham in March of 2020, one of my first welcomes was a video of high school students that was circulating around social media. It featured a young man with a swastika drawn on his back, and under it read ‘Heil Hitler’,” said Cohn.

“Fast forward six months when I received a call from a mother asking me what the Federation could do to help her. Her son was being bullied with antisemitism in school and it was suggested to eradicate the bullying that he attend school virtually for the remainder of the year,” he continued. “And just last month, another call from a father whose daughter had been called a Jewish whore and was being questioned as to why her mother was not in the gas chambers.”

Cohn said he wants to “amp up educational programs that the Federation offers and funds for our youth to help arm them with the tools necessary to feel comfortable speaking up on their own to help in our fight.“ He also highlighted some recent awareness and educational programs the BJF has undertaken.

The gathering was co-sponsored by Temple Emanu-El and the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council which, Cohn he noted, offers an online guide to fighting antisemitism.

Three Sources

Many observers believe that the rise in Jew-hatred is coming from three sources: the hard right, the far left and Islamic extremists. Though these groups are largely distinct from one another, they share hostility and hatred of Jews and often of Israel, the world’s only Jewish-majority country. And all of this is magnified and multiplied through the Internet and social media.

Assaults against Jews have grown since the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, a Gaza-based Iranian-backed terror group.

Featured speaker for the evening was Dov Wilker, the Atlanta-based regional director of the American Jewish Committee.

Last October, his group released a report that showed “Nearly nine out of ten American Jews (88 percent) believe antisemitism is a problem in the United States today and more than four out of five (82 percent) believe it has increased over the past five years.”

“Today the number is higher, scarier,” said Wilker. “Jews are being attacked, Jews are being assaulted. They are seeing antisemitism online. They are seeing it on the streets.” He lamented how much the American Jewish community has to invest in security.

“The same survey said that nearly 40 percent of Jews are afraid to wear something that visibly identifies themselves as Jewish,” Wilker continued.

The chilling dilemma that has haunted Jews throughout the ages has now come to America. Said Wilker, “How do we demonstrate our pride in being Jewish and our pride in Israel when you know someone might come up to you and spit in your face and call you a dirty Jew?”

Picking up on one of the major problem areas that Cohn highlighted, Wilker said, “The worst is what is happening to our young people. The battle ground today is often in the digital space — and it is a battleground of disinformation and misinformation, a battleground that often goes uncontested.”

Wilker’s organization recently partnered with the U.S. Conference of Mayors to recruit 650 mayors and county executives from throughout the country to issue a statement expressing concern over the growing antisemitism and calling for specific actions.

As the mayors’ statement noted, “According to the FBI’s 2019 Hate Crimes Statistics, American Jews — who make up less than 2 percent of the American population — were the victims of 60.2 percent of anti-religious hate crimes.”

Four Alabama mayors signed the statement, including Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham.

No Consequences

Other speakers included Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Adam Wright, who talked about the growth of Jew-hatred worldwide, including “on mainstream media and from elected officials without any consequences whatsoever.”

The rabbi believes that “silence and apathy” by the American Jewish community has allowed the problem to fester and grow. “It has been here for a while.”

He talked about recent antisemitic murders both at home and abroad that received little attention. He recounted Jew-hatred incidents that have occurred recently in the U.S., again maintaining that the Jewish community has been largely silent.

“It is our responsibility to be loud, to be vocal, where we don’t let up and continue to demand accountability,” he challenged his audience.

The rabbi said he is tired of Jews saying they have a “complex relationship“ with Israel. “Stop! Don’t hold Israel to a standard that no other country is held to.” It was a comment that generated applause.

The gathering was a “hybrid event” which offered people the opportunity to attend either in person or online. In attendance were approximately 100 people, made up of a cross-section of the Jewish community, and others from the broader community including some prominent Birmingham civic and religious leaders. There were an additional 140 who viewed the live event online.

Other speakers included Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries; Isabel Rubio, CEO of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama; and The Rev. Dr. Edwin Hurley, senior minister at South Highland Presbyterian Church.

Ed Fields, who serves on Mayor Woodfin’s leadership team as senior adviser and chief strategist, also spoke. “I have been touched by the message here tonight… the concern, urgency and pain is palpable,” said Fields. “I hope you know that you are not alone. We are with you.”

He said the message from the mayor is “Silence is not an option.”

Fields made reference to a 2019 incident that created controversy and discomfort among many in the Jewish community as well as many others when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute voted to honor Angela Davis.

“One of the reasons we end up in a circumstance like that is we are not having enough dialogue,” said Fields referring to the tensions and misunderstandings that erupted at the time. “We have so much more work to do… please let us know how we can stand against antisemitism.”

The program can be viewed online here.