Jewish leaders address rise of anti-Semitism as Yom Kippur arrives

When Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, arrives this evening, Senior Rabbi Stephen Hart of Temple Chai in Long Grove will be among the religious leaders addressing recent demonstrations of anti-Semitism as he speaks to his congregation.

"I think it's a profound call to strengthen our collective partnerships," Hart said of last month's white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. "It's a larger community concern."

The rally and other examples of emboldened anti-Semitic rhetoric also serve as a reminder of the Jewish people's solidarity as the "other" - or outsiders - in the societies they've been part of dating back to their Scriptures in the Torah, Hart said.

As such, the rally provides incentive for a renewed commitment for Jewish people to strengthen partnerships, including with peoples of faith like Christians and Muslims, he said.

"Sadly and regrettably, in the mainstream media news cycle, these issues come and go very quickly," Hart said.

Among Temple Chai's members is 82-year-old Samuel Harris of Kildeer, a survivor of the Holocaust.

Harris said every Jewish person will interpret the hatred expressed at the Charlottesville rally in his or her own way. But his perspective is unavoidably influenced by his background as a Holocaust survivor.


Samuel Harris

Anti-Semitism has been around for a long time," Harris said. "People are trying to find fault with others for their own problems. In this country, we can't stand for hatred. We're a country of people from all walks of life. There is no place in the melting pot for hatred."

Such problems call for solutions, and for Harris the solution has always seemed to be education. That's why he helped establish the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

"When they started to write that the Holocaust didn't happen, I had to speak up," he said. "I survived, and a million and a half Jewish children died."

Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, vice president of education and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, sees the scapegoating of others and a general breakdown of civility at the roots of the recent wave of anti-Semitism.

"Unfortunately, I think it's not an aberration but an amplification of what's happening in society," Buchholz-Miller said. "Public discourse has gotten pretty coarse, and it's become more acceptable to use hateful language."

Lonnie Nasatir, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Upper Midwest Region based in Chicago, said social media has played a role in making language deemed unacceptable for 50 years look and sound almost mainstream.

"I think it's always been there, lurking under the surface," Nasatir said. "It is a concern when you hear that kind of language. It hearkens back to the Holocaust."

Nasatir, Buchholz-Miller and Harris emphasize that they see little comparison between present-day America and 1930s Germany. Strong American institutions are a significant difference between the two societies, they say.

But one common element is an inherent danger that exists when people who don't agree with such hate stay silent.

The white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville were ostensibly reacting to the potential removal of Confederate-era statues, but they also targeted recent Muslim and Hispanic immigrants.

While none of those issues would seem to have anything to do with Jews, the anti-Semitism at the event was clear, including through the chant "Jews will not replace us."

Anti-Semitism has always been part of the white supremacist movement's DNA, Nasatir said.

That belief system has historically held that anyone not white and Aryan is inferior, Buchholz-Miller added.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum hopes to counteract such beliefs through education. Some 100,000 people - 60,000 of whom are students and teachers - visit each year, and leaders hope there is a secondhand benefit through all the people the visitors will encounter in their lives.

"I think we all feel our role has never been more crucial," Buchholz-Miller said. "It's important for all of us to remain vigilant. Democracy is inherently fragile."

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