We often remind readers of the importance of the First Amendment in ensuring a free press and an informed citizenry. But the First Amendment protects other vital aspects of American democracy: our rights to assemble and speak freely and petition the government. It also guarantees something most of us take for granted – freedom of religion.
Religious tolerance often becomes the rallying cry for issues that spring from cultural or political differences. The freedom to worship or not worship without fear, though, is not just a right, but a cornerstone of our U.S. Constitution.
A recent discussion about anti-Semitism with Jaki Schreier, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne, and Ben Eisbart, president of the federation's board, provided a vivid reminder of that.
Schreier and Eisbart take indications of anti-Semitism's resurgence nationwide very seriously. Those signs include an attack by a man with a machete that left five people injured at the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York, and several other violent incidents during Hanukkah last month.
Though there have been no such incidents in Fort Wayne, “I think we could never take it for granted that it wouldn't happen here,” Schreier said. “It has become much more acceptable to say things that are anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic – and there are no repercussions for it.”
“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Eisbart said. Recent confrontations between Iran and the United States carry the possibility that Israel will become involved, and could contribute to anti-Jewish feelings in America, Eisbart said. “My guess is it raises the temperature a bit,” he said. Like other Jewish federations around the country, the local organization has trained, armed security at its events.
Eisbart and Schreier also see attacks on Jewish sites as part of a larger trend of attacks on houses of religion, noting that the day after the Monsey rampage two congregants were shot to death at a Church of Christ facility in Texas before a member of the church's security team shot the gunman.
“We don't ever want to think that it's just the Jewish community that's picked at,” Schreier said. “Any time any group is allowed to be picked at, you're opening the door for everyone.”
Muslims here stood with Jews to denounce the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 that left 11 dead. “We've always showed up,” said Ahmed Abdelmageed, a leader of Fort Wayne's Muslim community. “When the City Council took up the hate-crimes bill, I spoke and I listed the Pittsburgh victims by name.” Abdelmageed noted that Jewish and Christian leaders joined with local Muslims to denounce anti-Islamic violence when three Muslims were murdered in North Carolina in 2015.
Jews and Muslims tend to disagree sharply on such questions as “the politics of Palestine,” Abdelmageed said. “But on religious freedom, I don't think you would find differences there.”
When the string of anti-Jewish incidents began to play out in New York, this community had just concluded a remarkable, monthlong celebration of Jewish culture and courage.
“What underscores the beauty of the Fort Wayne community to me in light of these incidents was the incredible response to Violins of Hope,” Eisbart said. “We distinguished ourselves as a community of caring people by that participation.” Though there are an estimated 700 Jews in Fort Wayne, thousands of local residents attended the November events and exhibition of violins that survived the Holocaust.
Schreier said she and co-organizer Jim Palermo, director of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, have fielded calls from cities all over the country asking how a Jewish-themed event drew support from a range of secular organizations and overwhelming communitywide participation.
“I think it begins at the home, for the most part, in exposing kids to different cultures, different religions,” Eisbart said, “talking about the basic sense of humanity and goodness of people irrespective of whether they wear a cross or they wear a Star of David or are a Muslim. ... People basically are good. ... If you develop a loving, caring relationship with society, within the home and outside of your doors, that should, theoretically, mitigate anti-this, anti-that, and anti-Semitism.”
“One of the reasons the United States is so great is because of the diversity,” Schreier said. “I don't think we ever want to move away from that beautiful gift of being able to worship like we want and say what we want and vote for whom we want.”
Schreier puts it exactly right. Whatever group it is directed at, intolerance is not just wrong, but un-American. Those who persecute those of other faiths are striking at the American soul.
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.