Recent anti-Semitic incidents are pushing local rights groups to stand together

Two men at podium

Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, of Kol Tzedek synagogue, stood amidst the broken tombstones at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia last Sunday, shocked and saddened by what he saw. It was the second of at least three grave sites desecrated in recent weeks. In the last month, nearly 100 Jewish community centers across the country received bomb threats.

On Friday, law enforcement officials said they had arrested a man in St. Louis in connection with a number of the phone threats. Gov. Andrew Cuoma has asked State Police to investigate the destruction of headstones in a Jewish cemetery in Rochester, New York as a possible hate crime. Meanwhile swastikas have been showing up on city streets, campuses and communities.

“It was heartbreaking in many ways,” Fornari said. “It was stunningly devastating to see the piles of broken tombstones, echoing back to our history.”

Fornari stood in vigil for hours, along with other Jewish community members and others of Muslim, Quaker and Christian faiths who were there in solidarity. The presence of non-Jewish supporters, who helped to pick up the gravestones, provided a glimmer of hope. Amidst the rise in anti-Semitic acts, interfaith coordination and cooperation between different nonprofits and networks has arisen as a clear path for Jewish groups and individuals to fight hate.

After all, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are two heads of the same monster — hate. Jewish and Muslim congregations and organizations, in concert with African American organizations, immigrant rights groups and others that advocate for minority communities, are finding that working together is the best way to stand up to hate.

Amidst the grave stones, Fornari met Tarek El-Messidi, director of Celebrate Mercy,  a nonprofit that produces webcasts and videos on the life of Muhammad. He arrived at the cemetary, luggage in hand. El-Messidi had been on his way to the airport when he heard of the vandalism. He turned straight around to come to the cemetery.

“It was just an incredible act of solidarity," Fornari said. “He stayed all afternoon and into the evening.”

El-Messidi, with Linda Sarsour of the organizing network MPower Change, started a campaign to raise funds for repairs to the cemetery. Now, he’s working with Fornari to create an ongoing fund that supports solidarity across faiths. “We’re just beginning to dream up how our communities can support each other,” Fornari said. “Solidarity happens when we truly show up for one another.”

Nationally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations also has risen to the forefront, including by offering a reward for information on who is responsible for bomb threats against Jewish community centers. When the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery was desecrated in Missouri on February 20, the local CAIR chapter worked with the Jewish community to clean up the damage.

“Bigots aren’t brain surgeons,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesperson for CAIR’s national office. “They tend to hate everybody. Whether its Muslims or Jews or African Americans or Hispanics. You name it, they hate it. Unfortunately in the recent year and months, we’ve seen a tremendous uptick in the level of anti-Muslim bigotry, but [also] bigotry targeting a number of minority communities.”

Interfaith coalitions are not a radically new concept. Jewish Voice for Peace has been building relationships with Muslim, African American and immigrant groups for two decades.

Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of JVP, says the organization has since 9/11 been working with CAIR and other Muslim-led organizations on the damaging impacts of Islamophobia. “We’ve been building for a long time and have always seen the ways that they are mutually enforcing,” she said.

"This moment is an opportunity to deepen these relationships,” Wise said. “A lot of people now in the Jewish community are scrambling to develop the relationship with the Muslim community."

Besides Jewish-Muslim solidarity, M. Dove Kent, who recently left her position as executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice in New York City, says working with other allies, such as African American and immigrant communities, is vitally important. Kent has been working over two decades on building communities around police brutality, and anti-Black and anti-Muslim racism.

"It’s a blessing to be able to rely on those relationships,” she said.

With ally groups, JREF has been doing training for bystanders who witness police brutality, which focus on de-escalation, as well as creating hate-free zones as a method for community defense.

“Now we’re in the next chapter of that work,” Kent said. “We know that whiteness is about power and not about skin tone. What we are seeing in this moment is the conditions of the Jewish community’s relationship to whiteness are coming to the fore.”

While white Jews may benefit from white privilege, they are still targeted by white supremacy, she said.

Minnesota was targeted with two bomb threats against Jewish community centers, on in St. Paul and one in a suburb of Minneapolis, in addition a number of incidents of swastika graffiti on homes, crushed in the snow, and on the campus of the University of Minnesota. On March 2, the nonprofit organization Jewish Community Action organized a rally that featured many of the partners that JCA has developed relationships with, including the local CAIR chapter, the NAACP, Neighborhoods Organization for Change, and Mesa Latina, an immigrant rights group.

“I think what we’re seeing in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Minneapolis... there are local communities just having each others backs in fundamental, material ways,” Kent said. “That’s the direction we need to be going. Local organizing is so deeply important. We need both to build power and to keep our neighbors safe.”

Vic Rosenthal, the outgoing executive director of Jewish Community Action, says the rally was not just about responding to the rise in anti-Semitism, but also about connecting those hateful acts with Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism. “It’s all connected,” he said. “To gather and not acknowledge that connection would be a mistake.”

In his remarks, Michael Waldman, of the St. Paul Jewish community center, said that bomb threats and the desecration of cemeteries is outrageous and offensive, the real story is the way that the friends and neighbors of the center came together to show support. “We choose to say no to the intent of a phone call and yes to an inclusive community,” he said.

Jaylani Hussein, director of CAIR's Minnesota chapter, said at the rally that it is “time to dust up those old boots and march again. The Jewish community knows that if we hear of hate incidents, they are not anomalous." 

Wintana Melekin, an organizer for Neighborhoods Organization for Change, told the story of how she texted Carin Mrotz, incoming executive director of Jewish Community Action, when she learned that a swastika had been painted on a garage door in North Minneapolis at the end of 2016. Melekin immigrated to the United States from Sudan when she was 3 years old, and is a Black Catholic of Eritrean heritage.

“When I saw on Facebook that someone drew a poorly made swastika, the first thing I did was text her and said, ‘Let’s paint over it.’ If our organizing isn’t intersectional, it isn’t organizing,” she said.

Members of Jewish Community Action showed to protest the killing of African American teenager Jamar Clark. They also supported Neighborhoods Organization for Change and the greater Black Lives Matter movement when a gunman opened fire on protesters. “JCA showed up for us, and we show up for JCA,” Melekin said.

Will you keep The World spinning?

Donations from listeners like you are absolutely crucial in funding the great music and human-centered global news you hear on The World. Recurring gifts provide predictable, sustainable support — letting our team focus on telling the stories you don’t hear anywhere else. If you make a gift of $100 or pledge $10/month we’ll send you a curated playlist highlighting some of the team's favorite music from the show Donate today to keep The World spinning.