Montgomery County confronts antisemitism

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Barbara Goldberg Goldman | Special to WJW

No community is immune from hate crimes, not even Montgomery County, long-considered an enlightened bastion for embracing and respecting a diverse and culturally rich community.

Yet, in recent years, our own community has become a parallel venue for the national uptick of antisemitic hate crimes. Make no mistake about it, hate in all forms will not stop by itself. It is incumbent upon us to halt and condemn it, remaining cognizant that antisemitic speech by itself, like other hate speech not accompanied by violence or vandalism, is protected under the First Amendment.

Last week, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution affirming the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism as a useful educational tool and attesting to the county’s commitment to combat antisemitism, discrimination and hate. The resolution also makes clear that “criticism of Israeli government policies or actions does not constitute antisemitism.”

This action was not taken in a silo. Tragically, antisemitic incidents have become increasingly familiar in our own backyards. Is it a coincidence that just last week marked the fourth anniversary of the mass murder in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh?

Perhaps. But, since that time, heinous acts against members of Jewish communities across America have become more frequent than at any other time in the past half century. Nationally, just in this past year, antisemitic crimes increased by 47%.

The resolution was not a sudden reaction written without careful consideration. On the contrary, many community leaders and members were given ample opportunities to weigh in over several months. The council stayed true to the original intent of IHRA’s drafters by using language that could not be misconstrued as formal codification or adoption of the definition. Councilmembers are to be lauded for taking painstakingly thoughtful action.

According to the Montgomery County Police Department’s 2021 Annual Report on Bias Incidents, there were 143 reported bias incidents, 22.2% more than the number of bias incidents conveyed in 2020. This is the highest number of bias-related incidents reported to the MCPD since internal reporting processes changed in 2015.

On average, the department records 11.9 bias incidents per month. Of the incidents motivated by bias toward religion, 85.3% were considered anti-Jewish, despite Jewish persons making up only 10% of the population. Of all the incidents motivated by bias toward race, 60.8% were considered anti-Black and 20.3% were anti-Asian. White supremacist groups were referenced in at least two multi-racial incidents of vandalism and intimidation.

Just last Tuesday in Bethesda, as the council deliberated the resolution, a white supremacist group rallied taking Heil Hitler stances on the Bradley Boulevard bridge overlooking I-270 and I-495. In August, three antisemitic crimes in Montgomery County occurred one after another.

Montgomery County is home to miles of magnificent and serene walking and biking paths where families and individuals often pause to enjoy the beauty of nature, not symbols of hate. Yet, spray-painted swastikas, antisemitic graffiti and white power symbols were found on a white fence along the Bethesda Trolley Trail. Antisemitic writing was discovered on a bridge, and an antisemitic poster was displayed in St. Paul Park in Kensington.

Antisemitism is one of the oldest forms of worldwide baseless hate. The Jewish people, like other groups experiencing such attacks, are all too familiar with such revulsion. Standing strong and demonstrating resilience against such abhorrence is what we do in Montgomery County.

It is not surprising that our local Jewish leaders, agencies and community members, including rabbis, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the local AJC and ADL offices worked together to craft a resolution that affirms the IHRA document as a tool to help identify antisemitism without codifying it and not impinging on our First Amendment rights of freedom of speech.

Two polls, one in 2021 and one in 2022 conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute reflect fear and concern within the Jewish community that antisemitism is on the rise. The most recent poll two months ago found that 61% of Jewish voters are more concerned about antisemitism originating from right-wing groups and individuals compared to 24% who are more concerned about antisemitism coming from left-wing groups and individuals. The July 2021 polling showed that criticism of Israel is generally not seen by the Jewish community as antisemitic unless it veers into denying Israel’s right to exist.

These two polls reflect reality. Many equate what they are seeing as disturbingly similar to uprisings in Berlin in the early 1930s. Like all odious incidents, antisemitic tropes and attacks must not be ignored. They must be loudly denounced. Our Jewish core values mirror the very fabric of America. When they are under assault, we run the risk of unraveling all that we hold dear. The challenges facing us as a nation, a people, a community, a neighborhood and a mishpocha are daunting.

The burden does not rest alone with our elected officials. It also is up to us to safeguard our freedoms to live in communities without fear of being ostracized and attacked. We are at crossroads on so many issues. Which direction will we take? Kudos to our current Montgomery County Council and executive for taking the correct one by addressing antisemitism with prudence and careful deliberation. Let us make certain not to permit such acts of hate to become the norm and commonplace. As President Joe Biden said, “we must confront antisemitism wherever it occurs.”

And in Montgomery County, we are doing just that.

Barbara Goldberg Goldman lives in Potomac. The opinions expressed here are her own.

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