ON THE SCENE: Antisemitism in the North Country
MAY 4, 2023 NAJ WIKOFF Columnist
Since 2013, the annual number of antisemitic incidents in the United States has tripled, with New York state leading the way with 580 reported last year.
Of those, 16% were assaults, roughly 44% were vandalism, and 40% were harassment. About half of the reported cases occurred in public spaces, 84 at Jewish institutions, 78 at private residents, 43 at businesses and the balance at non-Jewish K-12 educational institutions.
The bulk of these incidents occurred in the greater New York City region, with 9.5% spread across the balance of the state. Troubling is that incidents on colleges have doubled since the previous year, while in K-12, it increased by 30%.
While the North Country has largely been spared, members of the Lake Placid Synagogue have experienced antisemitic language, according to its president, Sue Semegram.
To address concerns, Rabbi David Joslin of Beth Israel in Plattsburgh is leading a series of in-person and online seminars on the history and roots of antisemitism and its rise nationally and worldwide.
Critical to remember is that the Lake Placid Club, which established Lake Placid as an international winter sports capital, a legacy that continues to be a significant driver of our economy, was an antisemitic institution for much of its existence. Doing so, the club inspired several other establishments to bar Jews, including Northwood School, which was founded under the club’s umbrella.
Today, of course, the club no longer exists. Even when it did, absent the Dewey family, it opened its doors to greater diversity, as did Northwood when it became an independent institution. Indeed, under the leadership of Headmaster John Howard, it immediately and intentionally welcomed greater diversity. Years later, under John Friedlander, it shifted from being an all-male to a coed institution that now welcomes students with a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences. Furthermore, the Adirondack North Country Association now hosts the Adirondack Diversity Initiative that’s focus is to help the region become more welcoming to all.
No question these positive steps and many others have and are improving how people treat each other in our region. But countering these trends are increasing levels of polarization in government that’s starting to be felt on the local level; increased use of gun violence, such as the 20-year-old woman shot and killed after driving up a wrong driveway in Hebron, New York; and a rise in hate speech, some against people of the Jewish faith.
“My husband Harris and I have never experienced antisemitism here in the North Country,” said Sue Semegram. “I have experienced it in other places. However, we know it happened to many Jewish people here. It’s gotten to the point that we’re so concerned by all the hate going on. We’ve instituted armed security at the synagogue. Unfortunately, this is the state of the world today, and we don’t want to be the target of anything.”
The synagogue’s concerns and actions are mirrored by the recent active shooter training that the Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and other North Country police departments have taken so they can know how to respond to an armed situation, be they in a school, a place of worship or other situations.
“I get material from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which spotlights hate groups in all states,” said Harris Semegram. “Sometimes I’m thinking it’s not the organized hate groups here, and there are some, but it’s the lone wolf that we have to be concerned about who might get ‘triggered’ like the fellow who shot up the synagogue in Pittsburgh.”
In light of such concerns and experiences, critical is learning how social disparities and certain forms of racial hate have evolved in the first place, as this column has been doing of late regarding the Native American experience.
The good news is that Rabbi Joslin has launched a lecture series on antisemitism, which began with a presentation from a Holocaust survivor. On April 19, he started his presentations with “Jews, Judaism, Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism,” followed by “Anti-Judaism in Antiquity and Early Christianity” on April 27.
“The term antisemitism is a bit of a misnomer,” said Joslin. “Semitism is a language, like Arabic, Hebrew, Phoenician and Sumerian are semitic languages of the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. Thus, antisemitism is a term that doesn’t accurately describe anti-Jewish rhetoric because there are other semitic languages. However, it has become the catch-all phrase for anti-Jewish sentiment and actions.”
Joslin said it would be incorrect to say it means being anti-Jewish people, as they have not been a people since prebiblical times. Jews are a broad mix of people with varying interpretations of their faith, just as Christians are not monolithic; they include a diversity of people who practice Christianity in a variety of ways. Joslin said that antisemitism is a form of racism. It’s not about merit; it’s about a state of dislike about a group of people who, in this case, have different ethics, holy days and ways they live. A significant difference between Jews and Christians is that the Christians believe in the Trinity — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and the Jews just in God.
Jesus, his disciples and most of his early followers until a hundred years after his death were Jewish as if following Jesus was initially a sect of Judaism. Joslin said there became a need for many to define Christianity by what it wasn’t. Many did so by blaming Jesus’s death on the Jews, even though it was carried out by the Romans, who had ultimate power. That blame ignores that Jesus had to die; his death and resurrection were critical and foundational to the birth of Christianity.
Seventy years after Jesus’s death, the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and the Jewish people were widely dispersed. The Romans also came down hard on the early Christians. At the time, polytheism was losing traction, which eventually lead to the Roman Emperor Constantine converting to Christianity in 312 A.D. He also created Constantinople, which in time became the most powerful city in the world and the seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Rome became the home of the Roman Catholic Church and the official religion of the Roman Empire. Even though the Empire was on its last legs, Christianity’s new status fostered widespread adoption of the Catholic faith and spread past grievances against the Jews, then a tenant of the church.
In 1879, Wilhelm Marr created the term antisemitism to assist his effort “to free Christianity from the yoke of Judaism.” Doing so, he both created a description and, he hoped, a justification for an ongoing and expanded hostility against the Jews that had its worst manifestation in the Holocaust. Today, antisemitism, and other forms of hate speech, are being again used to blame others for people’s perceived fears and life challenges, rather than embracing Jesus’s message of love, kindness, and his actions of embracing the other, as he did with the Samaritans.
Future sessions can be attended via Zoom through the Temple Beth Israel website: plattsburghtbi.org. They include “Antisemitism in the Modern Period” on May 10; “Antisemitism in the years surrounding the Shoah/Holocaust” on May 17; “Antisemitism in American History” on May 23; and “Israel, Anti-Zionism, and New vs. Old Antisemitism” on May 31. All begin at 7 p.m.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)