Like many American Jews who have been content to assimilate over the last half-century, basking in the warmth of what seemed to be a morally and ethically righteous era in our country’s tolerance of those outside the white Christian circle of humanity, Evan Bernstein admits to being one of the complacent ones. The aura of religious and racial tolerance whitewashed most of the overt signs of racism and anti-Semitism that slowly crept back into the nation’s landscape. Anti-Semitism was something that happened in Europe, not here, they said. Then things changed.
On the eve of Passover in April of 2014, a 73-year-old former Ku Klux Klan leader walked into the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and at a Jewish retirement community, Village Shalom, both in Overland Park, Kan., and opened fire killing three people -- two at the community center and one in the retirement community.
Four years later, the worst massacre of American Jews in this country occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, home to about one-fourth of the Jewish residents of greater Pittsburgh. A gunman, who later told police that he “wanted all Jews to die,” slaughtered 11 worshippers during Saturday morning services.
And last year, a 19-year-old avowed white supremacist entered the Chabad of Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover in Poway, Calif. Approximately 100 people were inside the synagogue. The gunman, carrying a semiautomatic rifle and wearing a tactical vest which contained five magazines of 10 rounds each, shot and killed a 60-year-old woman and then wounded the congregation’s rabbi.
For Jews like Bernstein, life was good – until it wasn’t.
“I think it's gotten progressively worse. When I started at the ADL seven years ago, my leadership, my board members were telling me that anti-Semitism was dead and that we need to worry about civil rights and that anti-Semitism is not the problem it was in the '60s or the '50s. That was really the mentality seven years ago and what a radical change has taken place since then. If you look at the number of incidents, the kinds of incidents, the scale, the scaling of those incidents from verbal harassment, to physical graffiti, anti-Semitic graffiti, then assault that then turned into murder,” says Bernstein, who is CEO of The Community Security Service (CSS), a 501(c)3 organization founded in 2007 that proactively protects the people, institutions, and events of the American Jewish community.
Led by a cadre of security professionals and military and law enforcement veterans, CSS is the leading organization focused on providing best-in-class training for physical security teams and safety programs. These programs are designed to empower members of the Jewish community to identify threats and proactively to protect themselves.
The Stats Tell the Story
In a report released in May 2019, the ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) says the American Jewish community experienced the highest level of antisemitic incidents last year since tracking began in 1979, with more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment reported across the United States, which is a 12% increase from 2018. According to Bernstein, the report’s numbers are staggering:
- Acts of harassment increased by 6% from 1,066 in 2018.
- Acts of antisemitic vandalism increased by 19% from 774 in 2018.
- Antisemitic assault increased by 56% from 39 in 2018. Eleven of the 61 assaults were perpetrated with deadly weapons such as guns or knives. The 61 assault incidents harmed 95 victims, including five fatalities.
A follow-up survey from the ADL is even more stark. Nearly two-thirds of Jews (63%) reported that they feel less safe than they did a decade ago. Many Jewish-Americans are concerned about themselves, their institutions and their community. Most are concerned about attacks centered around their place of worship. More than half (51%) are worried about a violent attack at a synagogue or about a synagogue being defaced, damaged or vandalized. Roughly half are worried that a person wearing a yarmulke, religious skullcap or other public display of Judaism will be physically assaulted (47%) or verbally harassed (50%) on the street or in a public place.
“Things have dramatically changed. A lot of times anti-Semitism is the canary in the coal mine. When you see these kinds of numbers around Jews, you know other minority groups are being affected as well, whether it's the black, Hispanic, or the Sikh community. Other faith-based institutions are also feeling this but if you look at the numbers, it's pretty staggering what the Jewish communities have gone through over the last five to six years. The record numbers have held frighteningly steady,” says Bernstein, explaining that when some catastrophic socio-economic event hits a community, throughout history, Jews have served as a convenient target for those disenfranchised by a crisis.
A Historically Easy Target
Now it is COVID-19 and Bernstein says that as the pandemic entrenches itself deeper into everyday life conspiracy theories -- charging that Jews either started the pandemic or are financing it -- and have ramped up anti-Semitic rhetoric to new levels. “We're even now starting to see assaults again in New York towards Jews in the last couple of weeks. These are really difficult signs,” he says.
Bernstein partially attributes the rise in violence and threats to the current political climate and the growth and boldness of anti-Semitic groups and the overt acceptance of white supremacy in recent years.
“Certain elements have allowed for this to metastasize and it has led to the erosion of the moderate middle in our American society. When you have extremes on the right and extremes on the left, you're going to get extreme behavior. That extreme behavior is impacting the Jewish community because you're seeing anti-Semitism at the highest levels from the far right and from the far left,” Bernstein chides. “We don't think there are more people that are necessarily anti-Semitic in the United States, we just feel the ones that are, are acting out. I think it's because they're getting more and more green lights, if you will, from the people that they're listening to in their particular bubble. I think with social media, people now are picking and choosing who they want to listen to, and they shut off other voices from other places on the spectrum politically and they are really only in an echo chamber. When you're in an echo chamber, that can be a very dangerous thing.”
Bernstein and his team at CSS understand that there is a cultural shift now taking place in the country. That what used to be isolated and random acts of hate and intimidation have evolved into coordinated terror campaigns rooted on social media and right-wing media. And as the pandemic drags and the economy sags, Jews are once again in the crosshairs of those looking for a scapegoat.
“We would never shut off our lines of communication with other groups, and we are keeping that going. But at the same time, we need to be very cognizant of what we need to do as a Jewish community to protect ourselves and be aware of what's taking place around us and not have our heads buried in the sand,” warns Bernstein. “You can’t think it's still 20 or 30 years ago when we weren't really looking at these acts of hate in the same way. Back then we weren't seeing these kinds of numbers.”
Bernstein is adamant that the complacency that lulled the American Jewish community into a false sense of security needs to give way to a strategic plan of proactive resistance and protection. He points to the example of post-WWII Europe. Following the war, with the embers of the Holocaust still burning in the survivors, those who chose to stay in Europe immediately took possession of their own future and safety, not depending on the police and security forces who previously failed them.
“They said after the Holocaust, we are going to take control of our destiny and our security. And they created these security groups in the U.K. and others across Europe -- France, the Netherlands and Austria. All the Jewish communities had their own security groups that if you wanted to go to a synagogue in Europe, you have to go through the Jewish communal security group a week or so in advance to show your passport before you got into a synagogue,” Bernstein says, explaining that after the war, the American Jewish community did little to establish internal security and relied mostly on law enforcement, which in some cases were not aligned with their interests. “The CSS understands that the golden age is over and it is important that we replicate what has gone on for over 50 years in Europe and in Australia and South Africa because these communities are very established with their protocols and their best practices for securing their Jewish populations.”
The CSS has grown from a group dedicated to protecting a single Manhattan synagogue to over 4,500 trained volunteers that protect Jewish events, institutions, and synagogues across the United States. It is a unique organization that provides for the Jewish community’s overall security architecture by training and operating security teams composed of community volunteers. These teams are professionally trained to follow a methodology developed by leading security organizations and experts to identify suspicious activity and address security and safety situations long before they escalate into serious incidents. CSS strives to embed security knowledge within the Jewish community in a scalable and sustainable way.
A growing number of Jewish activists around the country are changing the stereotype of Jews being the eternal victims and instead, like CSS, building a “culture of responsibility” that is one of the most crucial steps that any synagogue, school, or Jewish organization can take in boosting their security preparedness.
Having an increased sense of awareness and taking a proactive stance when assessing potential risks are traits Bernstein and other security professionals urge the Jewish community to embrace. Understanding that the world has changed and threats to personal safety are present not just for those who are visibly Jewish by virtue of their dress and appearance, but because of their place of worship or assembly, must be addressed.
“If you look at the people that were murdered in Pittsburgh, those were traditional Reform Jews that don't necessarily overtly wear yarmulkes or overtly lead with their Judaism in a public way with their traditional religious garb, yet they were still targeted. I think Jews now really need to understand that this is a Jewish problem, not just a particular sect of Jews. It's a Jewish problem that needs to be dealt with, and the awareness of every individual needs to be very cognizant of that,” says Bernstein. “Especially synagogues that may have never felt that they've had anything to worry about, need to understand that at any moment, at any given time they're vulnerable. If they haven't had a threat assessment, if they don't have volunteers that are thinking about security, if they don't have a security committee, if their rabbi and the board is not thinking about security, then they're very far behind the times and they're very far behind on what should now be a best practice.”
For more information on Community Security Service (CSS) click here.
About the Author: Steve Lasky is a 34-year veteran of the security publishing industry and multiple-award-winning journalist. He is currently the Editorial Director for the Endeavor Business Security Media Group, the world’s largest security media entity, serving more than 190,000 security professionals in print, interactive and events. It includes Security Technology Executive, Security Business and Locksmith Ledger International magazines, and SecurityInfoWatch.com, the most visited security web portal in the world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org