By Juliet Martinez
Once when Rabbi Elchonon Friedman of B'nai Emunah Chabad of Greenfield stopped at a gas station in the Laurel Highlands, an older white man approached him and asked him if he is Jewish.
“I said yes,” Rabbi Friedman said, and the man answered, “’You know, God condemns you.’”
Feeling unsafe, Rabbi Friedman glanced around and saw a police officer in line, which reassured him. The man continued.
“‘Yeah, not me. I don’t condemn you. God condemns you,’” Rabbi Friedman recalled when we spoke in February. The man said,“‘I like everybody, but God condemns you because God condemns Jews.’”
“He keeps on going,” Rabbi Friedman said, as though the man were trying to convince himself this did not come from him but from God. The rabbi asked if this is what the man’s religion taught him, and the man said yes.
“I said, ‘That's interesting because you know what my religion teaches me?’ He's like ‘What?’ I said, ‘My religion teaches that God condemns those that condemn others.’ And that's where the conversation ended.”
The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism reported last year that antisemitic incidents were higher in 2021 than any year since the center started tracking them in 1979, and more than a third higher than 2020. Antisemitic incidents targeting Jewish institutions like synagogues and schools rose 61% over 2020. This trend hit close to home in January, as worshipers at B’nai Emunah Chabad of Greenfield reported three incidents of antisemitic harassment near their synagogue.
Rabbi Friedman said two of the incidents involved statements that stem from an anti-Jewish narrative claiming that Black people are the true Jews. Based on the hurt they feel and the anger that social media amplifies in them, he explained, they see a Jew walking on the street and yell out, “You’re not a real Jew,” he said.
These views have spread on social media recently because rapper Kanye “Ye” West referred to them and made other antisemitic comments.
But most antisemitic activity stems from white-supremacist groups, according to ADL data. And antisemitic attitudes are increasingly widespread.
The ADL reported in January that 85% of Americans believe at least one antisemitic trope or stereotype, and 20% believe six or more. This is up from 61% and 11% in 2019. They surveyed whether people believe statements like, “Jews stick together more than other Americans,” “Jews have too much power in the business world” and “Jews have a lot of irritating faults.”
Rabbi Friedman said the internet plays a role in the spread of these antisemitic beliefs and incidents. As an example, he said the shooting at Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill could not have happened in the 1970s.
“First you have someone who is hurt and has given up on life,” he said. “And that person has to have access to a gun. But then they need a trigger to go ahead with it, and where does that come from? The internet.”
In the ‘70s, how would someone find out when worship services took place at a temple? They would have to physically go and find out, or call if they could find the phone number. Now, he said, they just look it up on the internet.
“The internet increases our anger,” he said, adding. “The internet makes each one of us much more intense in our beliefs and gives us also an ability to openly speak about them.”
But communicating in person is key to bridging divides. Even a two-minute conversation like the one he had with a stranger in a gas station can change a mind.
“The same value that God gave you, He gave to everybody,” Rabbi Friedman said. “Every person has God-given value, every human being, and they should be respected for that.”
But the act of judging or harassing someone devalues us, he said. When we measure a person’s worth based on their wealth, clothing, appearance or something else, we are measuring ourselves the same way. And there will always be someone richer, better dressed or more attractive.
“You will never be able to compete in a value that you're jealous for,” he said.
“If you really want to believe in your value, you should be able to walk on the street and see somebody totally different than you, and value them,” he said. “Because that's a sign of how much you value yourself, too.”
Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.