OAKLAND, Calif. — Antisemitic incidents soared 800% in Northern California last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit released last week.
Northern California logged only 13 events in 2001 but saw 117 in 2002. Thirty-five occurred in San Francisco; 27 occurred in Alameda County, including Berkeley and Oakland; and 13 occurred in Santa Clara County, including San Jose and much of Silicon Valley. Many of these were verbal — including anonymous phone calls and public taunts — or written, including a blood-libel flier distributed on a college campus and many instances of swastikas and other graffiti. But local Jewish leaders are particularly concerned because 2002 brought a spate of severe physical attacks as well.
In Oakland, arson caused $24,000 in damage to Congregation Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue. In San Francisco, police found unexploded Molotov cocktails on the roof of the Conservative-Reform Congregation Beth Israel-Judea during Passover. In Sacramento, two men asked a pedestrian wearing a yarmulke whether he supported Israel; when he said he did, they came at him with fists and a stun gun, inflicting bruises and a sprained elbow, the audit notes.
Nationwide, the ADL audit showed an 8% increase in antisemitic incidents, from 1,432 incidents in 2001 to 1,559 in 2002. These figures included a 17% increase in harassment such as intimidation, threats and assaults aimed at people or institutions, and a 4% increase in vandalism of Jewish community institutions, synagogues and property.
Northern California’s increase in antisemitic incidents, said Jonathan Bernstein, the San Francisco-based director of the ADL’s Central Pacific region, can be attributed to the growing acceptance of the kind of attitudes embodied in a sign carried at a university campus demonstration last year that read, “Smash the Jewish state, smash the Jewish race.”
“That kind of sums it up right there,” he said. “The antisemites who are committing these acts are using Israel’s response to terror as an excuse to act on their antisemitism. That kind of incident is responsible for the increase here.”
Although fewer than a dozen incidents logged by the ADL actually occurred on Northern California’s campuses, Bernstein attributes much of the region’s problem to large, sometimes barely-controlled pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests last spring at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley. “If you’re out there carrying a sign saying ‘No war for Israel’ and you’re surrounded by tens of thousands of people and no one is objecting to your sign, you might start to feel that ‘Hey, I’ve got a big community out here that supports my sentiment on this,’ and it’s going to embolden you to go even further,” he said. “All kinds of things are being said now that people weren’t comfortable saying a few years ago.”
Berkeley Hillel’s executive director, Adam Weisberg, had a cinder block thrown through his institution’s glass front door last March, and a bomb threat left on its answering machine last April.
The spring of 2002 “was extremely challenging for Jewish students and supporters of Israel on campus, both in terms of the general atmosphere on campus and in terms of specific threats and actions taken against Hillel,” Weisberg said, agreeing with Bernstein that some people have used strife in Israel and the Middle East “as an excuse for engaging in all sorts of really reprehensible behavior.” This academic year has been “markedly different” with far fewer overt antisemitic acts, he noted, “although the anti-Israel content that appears on campus is at times just as vociferous as in the past.”
All this has happened in a community that historically has prided itself on its diversity and tolerance. “I think that while Berkeley has a reputation as being the home of liberalism and open thought and debate, the cradle of the Free Speech Movement… it also happens to be a place where certain views are not included in the bailiwick of what’s thought to be politically correct,” Weisberg said. In other words, he said, among those who do not believe in Israel’s right to exist, “free speech only goes so far.”
Across the bay at San Francisco State, “most of what we saw was kept to a level of verbal taunts and things in writing,” said San Francisco Hillel’s executive director, Seth Brysk. “Obviously that’s very serious, but… it didn’t result in attacks on the Hillel itself and Hillel students.”
Yet there was some spitting and shoving during the height of last spring’s protests, some shouting that “Hitler should’ve finished the job.” San Francisco State is where the blood-libel flier appeared. And Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, where the Molotov cocktails were found, is only a few blocks away.
Brysk said although things have cooled down this academic year, some students still tuck their Stars of David beneath their shirts; a few didn’t come back at last summer’s end, having chosen to transfer elsewhere. Being in a liberal community like San Francisco is no guarantee of protection, he said.
“Hate comes from extremes. You can find extremes on the left and you can find extremes on the right,” Brysk said. “There are plenty of leftist students on the campus of San Francisco State who are not antisemitic and there are those who are. But no community is immune.”
Rabbi Douglas Kahn, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said, “Clearly the jump in the numbers needs to be taken seriously. But by the same token, if one looks at actual incidents in an area of this size” — almost 7 million people in the greater Bay Area’s nine counties — “it’s gone from a teeny number to a small number.”
Kahn noted that he doesn’t mean to diminish the jump’s significance, but rather to put it in context: “It does not constitute a trend, but it does constitute a basis for even greater vigilance.
“The Jewish community here has always been vigilant, and we retain exceptionally good relations with local law enforcement,” Kahn said. “Last week we held another in a series of security conferences… which attracted something like 150-plus individuals representing 90 Jewish institutions to meet first-hand the key people from a variety of emergency preparedness organizations and law enforcement.”
The San Francisco JCRC last year hired a full-time, community-wide security consultant to work closely with the region’s institutions to ensure their safety measures are up to speed, he said, “while of course balancing the kind of open environment most Jewish institutions continue to want to have.”
Kahn is not unduly sanguine about the audit’s findings. “As somebody who grew up in San Francisco, a city that has had a history of being very open and committed to tolerance, I’ve been very troubled by the intolerance that has developed beneath the surface,” he said. “But I have worked hard with a number of organizations that address hate-crime issues… directed against a variety of communities — the gay and lesbian community, the African-American community, the Latino community, the Asian-American community.”
Kahn said he has seen police, public officials, leaders in other faith communities and others hold press conferences, issue statements and make public appearances to show those who would commit hate crimes that “there really is a wall of opposition to their hateful deeds. “Even while I’m worried there are more acts of intolerance documented, I’m heartened by the fact that leaders from various communities have always been willing to come together and speak out against hate, and I know that will continue.”
Bernstein said the ADL will continue and even step up its mission of logging hate crimes; organizing security conferences for Jewish institutions and hate-crime training for law enforcement, and providing diversity and anti-prejudice programming for local schools.
The ADL has logged 15 antisemitic incidents in Northern California so far in 2003 — already two more than in all of 2001. “It’s not going away,” Bernstein said of the problem.