Our community is still reeling from the antisemitic graffiti that defaced a wall at the Florida Holocaust Museum a week ago.
Just two days earlier, several faith leaders had written an open letter registering their disgust at the surge in attacks against Jews and other incidents of antisemitism.
“Those of us who are Christian carry a particular responsibility to identify, condemn, and resist antisemitism in any and every form,” they said in the letter posted on Facebook on May 25.
“To our neighbors who are Jewish, please know that we hold our relationships with you as sacred, that we stand in solidarity with you, that you are not alone and will not be asked to face these challenges alone,” the religious leaders said, writing under the banner of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.
Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg responded: “Much appreciated,” he wrote. “I can protest against hatred of Jews until I’m blue in the face, but knowing I have allies is far more powerful.”
That allyship was on full display Thursday evening as whites, Blacks, other people of color, Christians, Muslims and others gathered in front of the Holocaust Museum with members of the Jewish community for a “Unite Against Hate” rally. The feeling of kinship was palpable, with applause for the singing, speeches, prayers and calls for action.
Still, it’ll take courage to change the entrenched prejudices of relatives, friends and acquaintances, to not ignore their thoughtless, hateful words and actions. I agree with museum officials for emphasizing the role of education in creating the change that we need.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that its preliminary data shows an uptick in antisemitic incidents linked to the recent Middle East conflict. ADL says it has documented “disturbing antisemitism on multiple platforms – from Facebook and Twitter to TikTok and Instagram – with messages including explicit praise for Hitler, promoting tropes about Jewish control and demonizing all Jews.”
Spewing hate on social media is nothing new, of course. Last summer, Bruce D. Haynes, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis and a senior fellow in the Urban Ethnography Project at Yale University, addressed antisemitic social media posts by Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
“Unknowingly or not, Jackson and the other Black athletes and celebrities have tapped into this fractured storyline of ‘Black’ anti-Semitism that continues to cloud Black and Jewish relations,” Haynes wrote in The Undefeated, a platform that explores the intersections of race, sports and culture.
“Ironically, their posts echo refrains from white nationalists across the globe, who have long engaged in conspiracy theories about the Jewish race … These theories have been rekindled in the current political environment, where white supremacists march openly … Not only do Black people sacrifice their moral credibility by indulging in anti-Semitism, but we lend legitimacy to those very groups that seek to disempower us as well.”
The Black spiritual leaders who spoke at Thursday’s rally needed no such lecture. In fact, the Rev. J.C. Pritchett II of Faith Church St. Petersburg and president of the InterdenominationalMinisterial Alliance, emphasized the crucial role Jews played in Blacks’ struggle for civil rights.
Like so many others, for me, the defacement of the Holocaust Museum feels personal. As a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, I wrote stories documenting the museum’s move from its humble home on Madeira Beach to its brand new building in St. Petersburg, across the road from the paper. I was fortunate to interview the late Walter P. Loebenberg, the St. Petersburg businessman and philanthropist who escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 and had the vision for the museum. I’ve told my grandchildren about the Holocaust survivors and their children who courageously shared their stories.
But last week, swastikas and the message, “Jews are guilty,” were spraypainted on one of its walls.
The day before the rally, executive director Elizabeth Gelman said the most concerning thing about the defacement was what it said.
“This particular phrase is the oldest, most ancient antisemitic trope used as an excuse to foment discord and to murder Jews from the earliest times,” she said, pointing out that the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations have long rejected such teachings.
“But how amazing that it is somewhere roiling under the surface, as so many terrible prejudices for all different kinds of people are. You think that it’s gone away and then it bubbles up.”
But the support of the community has lifted her heart, Gelman said. “We know St. Pete and Tampa Bay are full of wonderful people, but I have also heard from people around the country and around the world. They have reached out to say, ‘We are with you,’” she said.
“The Florida Holocaust Museum is an institution that strives to create a future where the respect and dignity of every person – not just Jews – is paramount. We use the lessons of the Holocaust to do that. It is truly unfortunate when we see so plainly the true hatred that is hiding underneath our society and how easily it is to strike the match.”
Lonny Wilk, senior associate director for ADL Florida, said that the organization’s audit of antisemitic incidents indicated a 4 percent drop nationally in 2020 compared to 2019. Florida, though, saw a 40 percent increase.
The Covid-19 pandemic, while a common foe, did not create a general sense of amity as one would have expected, he said. “We continue to see that those wishing to espouse antisemitism and bigotry sought new ways to express their hatred. We are getting incident reports every single day. What we’re asking from all people of good intent, from allies, is solidarity,” Wilk said. “Antisemitic or any bias-motivated incidents targeted against an individual or an institution usually send a broader message of fear and intimidation throughout the community.”
The organization is asking those who witness or experience an antisemitic incident to report it to law enforcement where appropriate and to ADL at adl.org/reportincident.
Rabbi Alter Korf of the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg reacted to the vandalism at the museum in a letter to his community. “We were shocked by this act of hatred, which is all the more painful for having targeted the Holocaust Museum, a beloved community institution dedicated to erasing hate,” said Korf, who attended Thursday’s rally with one of his daughters, Mushkie.
“In the face of any darkness, we need to remember that each of us has it within ourselves to be an agent for positive change around us, bringing more light into the world and making it a better place for everyone,” he said.
Weintraub, who spoke at the rally, told me that he was disappointed by the vandalism. “I feel like St. Petersburg is a little bubble and separate from the rest of the world and that the problems of the world don’t come here. I am disappointed it happened here, but I wish I could say I was surprised. Jews have always been the canary in the coal mine,” he said.
“I am pleased to see the positive reaction from the community … It is a stain, not just for us, but for the whole community. St. Petersburg should not be a place of hate for anyone. Hatred against any community is a stain against the community.”
Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, chair of the Collective Empowerment Group of the Tampa Bay Area, Inc., an interfaith organization, also was not surprised by the vandalism.
“I was not surprised, given the overall climate we’re in, globally, nationally, locally,” said Aquil, who gave the opening prayer Thursday.
“I think it is cowardly. I think it’s more apt to be some misguided individual and not some organized group. I think we should be careful that we don’t blow it out of proportion,” unless law enforcement officials say it is an ongoing threat and more serious, he said. “I think that is the kind of information that the community should know.”
The lineup of speakers Thursday also included Mayor Rick Kriseman, Rabbi Joel Simon of Congregation Schaarai Zedek of Tampa and president of the Tampa Rabbinical Association and the Rev. Stephan Brown, SVD, of St. Joseph Catholic Church/Iglesia De San José, Divine Word Ministry. Holocaust survivor Toni Rinde spoke poignantly of hers and her parents’ ordeal, before eventually coming to safety in America.
Michael Igel, chairman of the museum board, held up a signed copy of one of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s books and asked others to raise the personally meaningful books they’d been asked to bring.
“Hold up your books together to remind the world that education is the solution to stopping antisemitism,” he said. “Unity and education will always stamp out hate.”
While buoyed by the singing and prayers and speeches, the Rev. Kenny Irby of Historic Bethel AME Church and director of community intervention and juvenile outreach for the St. Petersburg Police Department, reminded those gathered that there was more to be done.
“Consistent work to overcome the weapon of darkness, which is hate,” he said. “The work must be done by us working together as humanity.”
Surely that must mean valuing our commonalities and learning about and respecting our differences.