Community must stand together to combat antisemitism

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Friday, June 17, 2022

Daniel Olsen, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, takes part in an ecumenical service in 2021. He was a panelist during a June 16, 2022 discussion about combatting antisemitism. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The key to combatting antisemitism is for all members of the community to speak up and stand together, according to “Stand Up Against Antisemitism,” a June 16 panel discussion hosted sponsored by the Highland Park Baha’i Community at the Highland Park Art Center.

The discussion came at a time when incidents of antisemitism in the United States have been rising. According to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks such incidents, there were 2,717 reported incidents of antisemitism in the U.S. in 2021, a 34 percent increase from the year before.

“It’s the oldest hate in the world,” said panelist Alison Pure-Slovin, Midwest director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “When people need someone to blame, it’s always the Jews.”

Panelist Emily White, director of the Jewish United Fund’s Israel Education Center, said antisemitism is growing on campuses in both the political right and the political left, although on left it is often coded as anti-Zionism. She has heard from more students who try to hide their Jewish identity in public by, say, not wearing a kippah (a head covering often worn by Jewish men) or tucking a Star of David pendant inside their shirt.

Daniel Olsen, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said he has also heard from Jewish colleagues who are involved in interfaith dialogue that now when they leave their cars, they check to make sure they aren’t, for example, visibly carrying Hebrew-language books.

“They’ll go into public differently in the last couple of years,” said Olsen. “There is violence happening now in places of worship, in public gatherings, and that has added to the level of fear.”

He cited the Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate,” the 1965 Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, and its denunciation of antisemitism, and pointed to the Archdiocese of Chicago’s efforts to educate its leaders about the Jewish faith and antisemitism, including nine weeks of study in the Holy Land for seminarians and visits to synagogues for men in diaconate formation.

This year’s visit to Congregation KINS in West Rogers Park was scheduled for a week after the synagogue was vandalized in January, and hearing about the crime directly from synagogue leaders really brought home the devastating effects, Olsen said.

Panelist Leah Rauch, director of education at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, works to not only explain and teach about the Holocaust, but also to help visitors and students understand contemporary bigotry, including antisemitism, and how to resist it.

“We focus on honoring the past, honoring those who died and honoring those who survived, but we don’t stay in the past,” Rauch said. “We focus on using the past to transform the future.”

Pure-Slovin spoke about antisemitic flyers that have been distributed to homes in several north suburbs, featuring, in many cases, pictures of Jewish elected officials. They appear to be distributed on social media, and people print them out and put them in plastic bags with pebbles or rice to weigh them down, then toss them on driveways.

The flyers often carry a disclaimer at the bottom saying they don’t encourage violence, but Pure-Slovin said they still have made the people whose pictures are on them targets.

An audience member, who said she had received a “hate baggie” on her driveway in Northfield, asked what she should do to respond.

Panelists advised her to report it to the police, but also to reach out to her Jewish neighbors to let them know she stands with them.

Olsen agreed that relationships are important.

“In our office, we say, ‘If you get the relationships right, the issues will follow,’” he said.

White said she works with Jewish college students to not only be confident in their identity, but to form friendships and be an ally to members of other marginalized groups, including Black people, other people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

“If you want to have allies, you have to be an ally,” she said.

Audience member Hugh Semple, a Black man who has lived in Highland Park for 25 years and is a friend of Steve Sarowitz, who moderated the discussion, said being an ally isn’t enough. There were many Jewish allies in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he said, and some even were killed, but the Jewish community has in large part stayed out of more recent anti-racist struggles.

“I want relationships between people that are willing to endure time, to really get to know one another and build strength,” said Semple, who used his friendship with Sarowitz as an example. “It’s hard work, but it doesn’t have to be miserable work.”

White allowed that the term “ally” might seem to denote a relationship shallower than what is needed.

“We need to understand each other’s mutual humanity, understand each other’s pain,” White said.

All people who are part of marginalized communities are targets of bigoted hate, Pure-Slovin said.

“I can guarantee that if someone hates me, he’ll also hate Mr. Semple,” she said. “Or other Black people or brown people or LGBTQ people. There are a lot of people to hate.”


  • interfaith
  • antisemitism

Related Articles