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Like COVID-19, anti-Semitism is adaptive, insidious, easily finds new hosts, and has no real ‘cure’

Aside from the medical and economic uncertainties we face in these hard times, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare for the Jewish community the looming threats we face from anti-Semitism and extremism. While anti-Semitism was serious before the COVID-19 crisis – See: Pittsburgh, Poway, Monsey, Jersey City – it has become clear in the past six weeks that the pandemic is threatening our community’s sense of safety and well-being in ways we never could have predicted. As a result, we need to rapidly adjust our footing in this new environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare for the Jewish community the looming threats we face from anti-Semitism and extremism.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt

Why anti-Semitism now? Like the coronavirus itself, the world’s oldest hatred is adaptive, insidious, easily finds new hosts, and has no real “cure.” It thrives at times of crisis or uncertainty. So, not surprisingly, the pandemic is providing the perfect petri dish for anti-Semitism to spawn and mutate, just as happened in the Middle Ages with the Black Plague.

While we shelter in place and worry about our health and the future, added to those worries are concerns about “Zoombombing” of online day school and virtual synagogue gatherings; harassment and intimidation on social media; street protests and mass demonstrations marred by anti-Semitic imagery; and conspiracy theories blaming Jews and other minorities for starting or spreading the coronavirus.

In short, the sense of certainty and security that came to characterize American Jewish life in the 20th century has been upended entirely by a resurgence of anti-Semitism in recent years and the emergence of a global pandemic almost overnight.

And we are not the only minority group facing threats. Asian Americans, and Chinese Americans in particular, have borne the brunt of physical assaults stemming from COVID-19. Immigrants, who have no access to health care and other social safety nets, are particularly hard hit. And African Americans, who struggle with systemic socio-economic challenges as well as underlying health conditions, are dying of the virus at a higher rate than most Americans.

For the Jewish community, which has been buoyed by optimism and prosperity for decades, the challenge will be to strike a balance between overcoming a reality of insecurity or surrendering to it. But there are far more questions than answers.

In a post-COVID19 world, will we see a strengthening of community, or will it exacerbate the worrying trend of polarization? As we have built physical walls to protect our homes and safeguard our houses of worship, can we create firewalls to withstand cyber threats from Zoombombing to the next form of attack? After months of hunkering down in our homes, will we witness a return to communal activism and civic engagement, or a long-term shift to individuality and self-centeredness?

In a world characterized by virtual gatherings and Zoom classes, will we invest in our Jewish faith and religious knowledge, or continue in the direction of diminished literacy and weakened identity? At a time when many of us have seen our retirement savings dwindle and jobs disappear, will we return to the traditions of membership and philanthropy that have allowed so many Jewish institutions to thrive or will they wither and vanish without adequate patronage and support?

As we struggle with our sense of place in the world, will we see ourselves pursue allies and partners outside our community or drive in a more inward-looking direction?

These are real questions with enormous consequences. The answers will reconfigure our community along with the rituals and organizations that anchor it. And we have the capability to respond to these choices in an affirmative positive manner. But it will require intention and innovation.

Intention speaks to the need of everyone in our society to step forward in a determined and deliberate manner. In a post-COVID19 world, all of us need to overcome our apathy and make the affirmative decision to engage in our community. These choices range from the life-changing to the seemingly trivial, but taken together, all of it will constitute the collective will of our community.

Innovation will be critical if we hope to thrive in our new reality. Fortunately, the Jewish people seemingly have a historical knack for adaption. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention and the relentless pressures of dispossession, exile and persecution have forced Jews throughout history to innovate in order to survive.

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Even today, the unparalleled success of Startup Nation exemplifies the kind of ingenuity that has animated Jewish life for millennia. This penchant for positive change could augur well if we can summon it, not for individual gain, but for communal good. It could be the critical component that will help us to ride out the storm and emerge even stronger and more resilient on the other side.

But while it’s easy to identify the essential elements, it will be difficult to put them in practice. Months of self-isolation and social distancing have taken a toll. Coming together might seem natural but it can be nerve-racking.

And yet, if we can commit to a combination of intention and innovation, we can explore thoughtful strategies that will repel the forces of extremism and intolerance that threaten us and revitalize the sense of peoplehood and purpose that binds us.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).

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