Confronting the recent rise (and long history) of antisemitism

Renowned Rabbi Abraham Cooper, global activist and historian, brought message of tolerance — and toughness — to Jersey City event

The question was directed to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the director of the Global Social Action Agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the keynote speaker at a recent New Jersey Jewish Business Alliance special event in Jersey City.

New Jersey itself, and Jersey City in particular, might be the most diverse area of the country — one with a storied history of accepting people of all races and religions. Does that mean the chances of having antisemitic attacks is lesser here? And, if not, how can there be hope anywhere else?

Cooper, who had just told a series of profoundly important stories to a crowd of approximately 100 on the campus of Saint Peter’s University, paused for thoughtful reflection, then offered a modern-day response to an age-old issue: Those who hate, he said, now have a means to recruit followers in a global — not local — community. That is the issue of the day.

“Social media delivers messages directly to the heads and hearts of young people — bypassing church and even the most well-grounded and well-meaning families,” he said.

Scenes from the event.

Cooper, a longtime activist for Jewish and human rights causes who has lectured on five continents, is a realist. But he’s still eager to fight the good the fight.

As long as the fight comes with thoughtful action — not attempts at reactionary justice.

Cooper said New Jersey’s diversity can come into play in the fight against antisemitism — as long as that diversity is able to do what it can do best: Teach.

“The fact that New Jersey has this great diversity has to be grabbed by the adults in the room,” he said. “They have to show the younger generation why it’s a positive thing. If you just say, ‘We got all sorts here, but we don’t mix with them,’ that doesn’t help.

“If a teenager says, ‘I have a synagogue three blocks away — but I’ve never been there’ or, ‘I know people who are Jewish, but I’ve never been in their homes,’ we are missing an opportunity.”

Worse, he said, we are allowing the internet to be the teacher.

“Kids will look up the word synagogue and find the ‘Synagogue of Satan,’” he said.

How do we change that outcome? Parents, community activists, faith leaders, business and civic leaders must do their part, Cooper said.

“And not by preaching it, but by living it,” he said.

By confronting it.

“Silence is not an option in confronting evil,” Cooper told the crowd.

Neither is assuming others have the intellectual or ethical compass to do the right thing.

Cooper retold the tale of how the Nazi group that approved and planned the “Final Solution” included eight Ph.D.s.

“In 90 minutes, every one of those academic high achievers had no problem voting enthusiastically for that outcome,” he said — in a particularly chilling moment of his talk.

“So, here’s one good lesson to teach: We should never confuse intellectual and academic excellence with ethics. Teach ethics to your family and to your friends and to your neighbors. Don’t expect that they’re going to pick that up for extra credit in elementary school, middle school, high school, junior college or university.”

Cooper was asked how the business community could help in the fight for tolerance. He had a good answer for that, too — but it might not be what you think.

Instead of teaching people simply to tolerate each other, Cooper said business leaders can promote activities that bring people together for a common good.

“I think the most important way to get rid of a stereotypes is when people meet each other and work together in order to achieve a goal,” he said.

“We need to work with our fellow citizens — which means there are poor people to be fed and clothed, there are cleanup campaigns, and a lot of basic things that will float the boat for everyone. That should be a shared responsibility.”

From sponsoring meetups to fundraisers for trips to museums and other key locations, the business community can help, Cooper said.

“Businesspeople can step up and work together to make those kinds of activities and shared experiences possible,” he said. “Maybe taking a group of teens down to Atlanta. What better place to learn about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. — an American martyr — then taking a bus trip with some kids from private and public schools?”

All of this leads to the ultimate question: Can such a genocidal movement happen again?

Cooper answered with the unfortunate and uncomfortable truth that came from his mentor: Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor and historian.

“One of the things that Simon Wiesenthal warned us about, from the beginning, was that antisemitism and hate did not die with Hitler in the bunker,” he said.

Wiesenthal, in fact, said: If society has a crisis, organized hate and technology, anything is possible.

He said those words in 1980. Four decades later, they still proved true. Cooper pointed to the world in the opening stages of the pandemic.

As soon as COVID hit, there was an explosion of conspiratorial theories that are usually just hoisted onto Jews — but this time, they took out that word and put in Asians or Chinese,” he said.

It led to attacks — even murders — of innocent people, even here in the U.S., Cooper said.

Antisemitism is again on the rise. The time to fight it is now, Cooper said.

“Let’s not wait until there’s a crisis,” he said. “The time for people to sit together and talk about how to improve life here in this community is when you don’t have the megacrisis, when you don’t have all the TV crews. Build out those alliances now, and it will pay amazing dividends in the long range.

“The worst time to find religion collectively is not during those crises — because, as soon as the crisis goes, so goes the commitment. Now’s the time to get involved.”

10 more insights on antisemitism from Rabbi Cooper

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the director of the Global Social Action Agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the keynote speaker at a recent New Jersey Jewish Business Alliance special event in Jersey City, had numerous great takes on antisemitism — and the challenges that come with facing it.

Here are 10 of them that didn’t make the main story, edited slightly for clarity:

  1. On free speech: “Today, everyone’s going around and saying words are free. But, words have consequences. And, when someone threatens you with genocide, take that person seriously. Those are lessons acquired through the innocent blood of millions of Jews and other victims of the Nazis — and some of the greatest young Americans, who fought in Europe and never came home in order to defeat that monstrous racist ideology.”
  2. On the responsibility to take action: “If you think you’ve been wronged, you have the opportunity and responsibility of responding to the attacks on you. That means, though, you have to get involved. … There are no shortcuts to freedom.”
  3. On leaders speaking up: “People who are stockholders, people who are involved in community and state and national gatherings, have to speak up and speak out, even if it means standing out.”
  4. On the challenge: “The bigots, the racists and the shysters who are well-positioned on social media are waiting for their chance to make a breakthrough into the mainstream. In many cases, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, including, unfortunately, Kanye West, whose rant against the Jewish people reached the minimum of 20 million households. The numbers are astounding. They’re troubling. And they’re very challenging.”
  5. On the challenges of stopping online hate speech: “From the beginning, the internet was a magnet for the evil-doers — and it still is. (Internet/social media) companies are hiding behind what was the old Ma Bell rule … of ‘We give to the public a service to help communicate a thought, an idea, a word from one point to another — but you can’t hold us legally accountable or culpable for what’s said in those conversations, because we have no idea what is being said or who it is who is saying it.’”
  6. On what social media/internet companies need to do: “(They) need to make a set of rules about where they consider the red line in terms of hate speech and other similar activity to be. Put some human capital into that and live up to those standards. If they will help us diminish and degrade the hate in our society, that would be the biggest mitzvah that social media can do.”
  7. On what the U.S. has to lose: “What makes the United States the greatest social experiment ever is the foundation of religious freedom, of personal freedom and of the rule of law. Once you go away from that, and there are other ways to look at the world, watch out, because, then, you can wake up one morning and you’ve lost your country.”
  8. On accepting all faiths: “I don’t believe so much in interfaith, I believe in multifaith, because I respect people of other faiths. I’m not out to change anyone’s path in terms of their religion.”
  9. On the role of faith leaders: “All of the heavy lifting in our communities are done by the faith leaders, by the pastors, by the rabbis — the people who you will never see on the evening news. They never get honored at a banquet outside of their own, but they’re the pillars of American life. And, by virtue of how they live their lives, they’re the truth-tellers that can defeat and overwhelm that tsunami of hate and conspiratorial theories that are poisoning the minds of many people, especially young people, around the world.”
  10. On coming together for a common cause: “If we can figure out how to create alliances, and break down the stereotypes and build friendships, we can pretty much defeat any problem that’s thrown our way.”