Rising anti-Semitism requires communal security response

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A large, green swastika was spray-painted on an entrance sign to the Flower Valley neighborhood in Rockville in 2015.
A large, green swastika was spray-painted on an entrance sign to the Flower Valley neighborhood in Rockville in 2015. (File photo)

By Robert Graves

Special to WJW


In my 22 years as a special agent of the FBI, I encountered many kinds of hate and violence. None is more pernicious or more persistent than the vilification of people based on their ethnicity or faith, particularly when that hatred is used to justify violence.

Over the last several years, we have seen dramatic increases in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes. According to the FBI’s most recent data, fully 58 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes targeted the Jewish community, an increase from the year before and the highest level in recent history. The ADL’s recently released annual report on anti-Semitism in the United States supports this: 2019 saw the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in any year since the ADL first published the report in 1979, with an increase of 12 percent of anti=Semitic incidents overall, including a 56 percent increase of anti-Semitic assaults.

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The Greater Washington area has not been spared, facing incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism and harassment, as well as other threats. While we have not experienced violence fueled by anti-Semitism, we must not be complacent. We have avoided violence, in part, by having a strong approach to preventing it, undertaken in partnership between Jewish community organizations and with law enforcement.

In early 2019, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington partnered with Secure Community Network (SCN), the designated safety and security organization
of the Jewish community in the United States and Canada. That same year, I decided to change careers to work full-time on the safety and well-being of the Jewish community, largely because I recognized the threats and challenges posed by rising anti-Semitism.


The partnership between Federation and SCN, and the work that it has enabled, could not have been implemented at a more critical time. We will not choose the time and place of the next incident, but we can choose our preparation. Our best strategy to protect our families, our community and our institutions is to build a culture of safety, security and resilience. We do this through planning, preparedness, and vigilance – as individuals, as organizations, and as a community. To this end, I work daily (even during the COVID-19 lockdown) to help synagogues, JCCs, day schools and other Jewish organizations to be safer, more secure and better prepared to face threats. I provide advice, education and training, all grounded in the simple truth that it is up to every one of us – individuals, community leaders, parents, teachers, role models – to do all we can to make our community safer.

Being safer begins with paying attention to the world around us – whether we are at our synagogues, in our homes, at our children’s schools or at work. This includes developing strong working relationships with our local police and other first responders. The more engaged we are with our environment, the better we can recognize hazards and threats. The more our neighbors know us as people and as a community, the better positioned they are to notice and warn us of danger and to stand with us against threats.

We should also make ourselves tougher targets for potential perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts. This starts with the recognition that the simple things we already do – or should be doing – to protect our families and our homes from criminals offer a blueprint for how to protect our community facilities. Just as we check before allowing strangers into our homes, so too should we control entry to synagogues and Jewish organizations. We can welcome the stranger without allowing the wolf into the fold. Likewise, just as many among us have trained to save someone who is choking or having a heart attack, we should also train in first aid and to know how to respond to active threats. We should learn and practice the emergency procedures of our synagogues and other organizations. Honing such skills can imbue us and our organizations with resilience and self-confidence that dissuades opportunistic predators.

We should also commit to action in the face of threats. We all know the slogan, “see something, say something.” We should amend this to, “see something, do something.” If something seems wrong or out of place, investigate (if it feels safe to do so). If it does not feel safe, take action by notifying the appropriate person or authority, bearing in mind that the police would rather be called for something that turns out to be nothing, than not be called for something that turns into a tragedy.

Finally, we must report acts of anti-Semitism that we experience to local law enforcement, especially those involving violence or threats of violence. The police will make a determination if under law an incident is a hate crime, a bias incident, or something else. I work with law enforcement daily to coordinate reporting, assessing, tracking, and responding to anti-Semitism.  We have the highest confidence in these agencies and are grateful for their partnership.

Anti-Semitism is a scourge that has plagued civilization for millennia. In the face of resurgent anti-Semitism today, across the country and in the Washington region, our best response is to face this challenge as a community. By contributing as individuals to build
prepared, vigilant, secure and resilient institutions, our community will be safer for us all.

Robert Graves is regional director of security for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

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