The stabbings in a rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, during a Hanukkah celebration last weekend focused national attention once again on the appalling rise in anti-Semitic incidents nationally. Sadly, no state is immune to the trend – including ours.
“It's shocking how many anti-Semitic incidents have occurred just in Indiana alone in the past year,” Steven Carr of Purdue Fort Wayne said in an interview this week. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been 58 incidents reported in the state this year; in 2018, there were 38 incidents.
Carr noted that he's not aware of any reported incidents in Fort Wayne, and the situations the league lists in Indiana thankfully didn't involve violence. “But there's low-level harassment, vandalism, white-supremacist events, propaganda being distributed,” said Carr, interim chair of the university's Communications Department. “You have to pay attention to the kinds of seemingly low-level, 'harmless' events that are taking place.”
Carr is also head of PFW's Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which means he's thought a lot about how societies that tolerate demeaning labels, derogatory caricatures and breakdowns in customary civility are inviting far worse kinds of trouble. Carr is not one of those who would argue America is on the same path as Nazi Germany. But he does see a parallel between the America of 2020 and America just World War II.
“What's interesting about 2019 and 1941,” Carr said, “is that you have a lot of the ingredients for an outburst of anti-Semitism.” Economic uncertainty is one. In 1941, the United States was still recovering from the Great Depression; today, “we have a raging-bull stock market without necessarily seeing (that) kind of economic gains in the middle and lower classes.” Today's “toleration for extreme speech that borders on hate” and the abundance of conspiracy theories contain an echo of America's prewar mindset, as well, Carr said. Jews bore the brunt of that kind of thinking then, and Jews and other minorities often become the scapegoats of name-calling and misinformed theories today.
Carr is not arguing for abridging anyone's freedom of speech – just for being aware of the dangers of speech that is depersonalizing to groups and individuals. It's important to connect the dots – to understand how words can subtly change the way a society views situations or people – and to recognize that what seem like inconsequential, minor incivilities can lead to bigger problems by eroding the concept of basic, universal human dignity.
“Dehumanization works precisely because you don't see the consequences,” Carr said. It allows you to act as though “there aren't real people who are going to be affected by that rhetoric.”
The best time to try to counter those attitudes is before they blossom into threats and violence. The best place to start is in places such as Fort Wayne, where tolerance, free speech and traditional American values have been as natural as breathing.
Call out demeaning language, remind those who would diss or dismiss other racial, religious or ethnic groups that the people they are talking about may be our neighbors and friends – not demons on a dartboard.
The resurgence of anti-Semitism is no match for people of good will treating others as they would want to be treated themselves.