Our Opinion: A unified effort against anti-Semitism

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As 2020 dawns, the ancient scourge of anti-Semitism is still with us: globally, nationally, in Massachusetts and in Berkshire County. It is doubly discouraging that this vile hatred is not only still with us but appears to be escalating. It will require a concerted effort to defeat it, and it is encouraging to see that this effort has begun.

While the 2019 statistics are not in, Massachusetts recorded the fourth-highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in the nation in 2018 according to the Anti-Defamation League's Audit of anti-Semitic incidents, an alarming number for a state that likes to pride itself on its tolerance. Last summer there were three arson fires at Chabad houses in Arlington and Needham, Ma. and incidents of anti-Semitic violence and hate speech in schools, college campuses, places of worship, businesses and cemeteries around the state. In Great Barrington, a middle school student threatened Jewish students with an alleged kill list and two students from Framingham circulated a "Kill the Jews" Snapchat group.

All of these incidents were directed at a group that has been scapegoated throughout history for whatever ills and evils that plague society in general. It is difficult to pin these varied incidents to a specific motivating source, but there were two seminal events in recent American history that stand out for their impact. In August of 2017, President Trump reacted to a violent neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. by declaring "You also had people that were very fine people on both sides," apparently giving Nazi sympathizers equal footing to those who opposed them. In October of 2018 came the deadly shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which seemed to trigger copycat incidents at other synagogues in America.

The response to these incidents must be a rallying by Jews and a rallying around Jews by other religious groups and by those who don't subscribe to any particular religion but abhor vicious assaults by word and deed. A key component is education, as schools unfortunately can be hotbeds of anti-Semitism. In Great Barrington, Monument Mountain Regional High School was a pioneer in Holocaust study, leading to a curriculum that is used in schools across the country. Legislation has been filed in the state requiring students to learn about genocides throughout history, from the Holocaust and Armenian genocides to more recent ones in Cambodia and Bosnia. ("Escalation of incidents spurs push to educate," Eagle, Jan. 5.) These are the kinds of efforts that must be undertaken in all Berkshire schools as combating hate and racism in all its forms requires understanding its roots and the many shapes that it takes on.

In a letter of January 5, nearly 800 Massachusetts and New England Christian leaders, including several from Berkshire County, deplored anti-Semitism and vowed to combat it. ("Christian leaders decry rise in anti-Semitism.") The letter included a quote from President George Washington as he visited the Hebrew Congregational of Newport, R.I. in the summer of 1790. In declaring that the new nation would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," the nation's first president defined religious prejudice as fundamentally anti-American. That has not changed all these centuries later.

In a letter running on today's editorial page from Dara Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, and seven Berkshire rabbis, the Berkshires' Jewish leaders condemned anti-Semitic attacks and welcomed those who joined them in protest. In a striking statement that "We have not been the best allies to others marginalized by hate and bias. Our tradition teaches that we should not reproach neighbors for imperfections we see in ourselves.," the letter writers said they will commit themselves to building alliances. "We'll be reaching out more often, and we call on other leaders of faith and conscience to join us on that journey," read the letter.

Anti-Semitism and hatred of "the other" have been with us for centuries and will not be easily defeated. In our small corner of the world, it will take a concerted effort to eradicate both and teach younger generations not to hate to begin with. Here, early in a new year, there is reason to be optimistic that such an effort will be made and may succeed.

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