PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Antisemitic incidents are on the rise. That’s one thing the governor’s report on combatting antisemitism, released last week, makes clear. Here in the commonwealth and across the country, Jewish religious buildings have been vandalized, individuals have been attacked and, most recently- antisemitic flyers have been distributed in neighborhoods blaming a myriad of societal ills on a global Jewish conspiracy.
The Commission to Combat Antisemitism Report notes that almost 2 in 3 religiously-motivated hate crimes committed in the United States target Jewish people. It’s a remarkable statistic considering Jews make up less than three percent of the population.
That’s why every Jewish institution in town has armed guards, according to Art Sandler, co-chair of the governor’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism and former president of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater (UJFT).
“We get all kinds of hate mail, hate statements, things online, that kind of stuff,” he said. “To my knowledge nobody in town recently has been killed because they’re a Jew, but it’s certainly happened in places like Pittsburgh.”
“It’s a horrible feeling to walk into your place of worship and think about the closest exit, and think about what you would do,” UJFT executive vice president/CEO Betty Ann Levin added.
According to the report, antisemitic flyers distributed by an obscure group called the Goyim Defense League were found in cities and towns across the commonwealth this year – from Lynchburg, to Richmond, to Virginia Beach.
“That was actually in my neighborhood in Virginia Beach this summer,” Levin said. “And law enforcement responded very appropriately to that.”
Levin added that many Jewish individuals felt directly threatened and perceived it as a hate crime.
And just last week, residents in Newport News discovered a new round of flyers in their mailboxes.
Antisemitic incidents reached an all time high last year, according to the report, with 2,717 reported across the country. This year, Virginia alone has seen 350.
It’s clear that division and hate are on the rise. What can be less clear, however, is exactly how those forces are manifesting in society through deviant activity.
The 10 On Your Side Investigative Team dug into many how antisemitic incidents local law enforcement reported over the last year. Newport News, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Williamsburg Police Departments all reported no incidents. Virginia Beach Police told us they saw three bias-related crimes but didn’t categorize them as specifically antisemitic.
The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitic and white supremacist hate groups, on the other hand, lists three incidents in Hampton Roads for the same time span, two in Virginia Beach and one in Newport News.
For some places, zero incidents reported may be accurate. The discrepancy between what the Jewish community has experienced and what’s tracked by law enforcement may lie in how incidents are reported.
A major component of the report of the Commission to Combat Antisemitism is simply defining what antisemitism means. Without an agreed-upon state-wide definition, different departments and agencies are left to track these incidents on their own, with varying degrees of success and accuracy.
“When you read the report, you’ll notice that the first thing we deal with is definition,” Co-chair of the report and Hampton Roads resident, Art Sandler, said. “There is no accepted definition of antisemitism, so we’re recommending that the commonwealth adopt one. So, if you can’t define it, how do you know what it is? How do you measure it?”
“So that’s the first [issue], the second is- law enforcement is ill educated on what is antisemitism is, and how do you separate Jew hatred from things like free speech?” Sandler added.
The incidents listed under the ADL database may well have been legal, mostly limited to distributing hateful flyers. Because that activity is protected by the First Amendment, the Virginia Beach Police Department, for instance, might not have considered it a reportable antisemitic incident when such flyers were found in that city over the summer.
If the commission’s recommendations are accepted, activities like marches or flyering would be included in how law enforcement tracks these incidents.
The report also recommends the creation of a statewide database for hate crimes and antisemitic incidents overseen by state police, as well as adding language to the state hate crimes statute to include “ethnic identity” and attacks against Jews or those perceived to be Jewish (by the perpetrator).
The commission also recommends additional training for all law enforcement in order to better identify and investigate antisemitic offenses.
Educating students about the Holocaust has arguably never been more important than it is today. As the last survivors of the Nazis’ concentration camps die off, general knowledge about antisemitism and what happened to them wanes.
The report cites a 2020 survey that found almost two-thirds of millennial and gen Z adults were not aware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
“The further you get away from an event, the fewer people remember it. And, unfortunately, that happens in cultures over time,” ODU university professor of history Dr. Annette Finley-Crosswhite said. “Ask a young person how much they know about their great grandparent’s life. The further you move in time, the easier it is for things to be forgotten.”
Education is perhaps the most prominent aspect of the report. The commission’s recommendations range from adding more Holocaust information to the SOLs and recognizing Jewish holidays in schools to developing a center for the study of antisemitism at a law school in the state. It also supports increasing the link between educators and non-profit groups like the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.
The Holocaust Commission has been working with Hampton Roads teachers on Holocaust education for decades, holding events for students and conferences for teachers and offering an annual writing and arts competition, now in its 26th year.
The Holocaust Commission also published a book, “To Life: Stories of Courage and Survival,” that documented stories of Holocaust survivors, liberators and rescuers who lived in Hampton Roads, which teachers have been able to use in the classroom. The updated version of that book, first published in 2002, “To Life: Past is Present,” will be out next year and includes additional aids for educators like lesson plans and discussion questions as well as additional stories.
“It is our hope to try and expose all students to true history, even though it’s hard history,” said Elena Barr Baum, who worked as the Holocaust Commision’s director for 12 years and as volunteer for 10 years before that. “The theme of our last conference… was teaching difficult history and how important it is for educators to be able to have the tools to reach students in a way that is not biased or partisan, but is really showing the truth and helping students extract the lessons from reality and from what happened.”
Holocaust education advocates say that learning about antisemitism teaches universal lessons about human behavior, like understanding our propensity to divide people into groups and categorize them. It also holds important lessons for Americans in particular.
“Even in Holocaust history, we think about how the Americans stormed in on D-Day and saved Europe from fascism and everything was great,” Baum said. “But before that, America was a very antisemitic place, and the state department specifically was a very antisemitic place.”
“America was not really stepping up to help European Jews when they were under fire in the ‘30s, or even in the ‘40s when the war had started in Europe but before Pearl Harbor… Americans were not necessarily embodying the Statue of Liberty’s promise–’give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses learning to breathe free.’ There were millions of those people in Europe and they were held out because of politics and quotas on immigration.”
There’s also a direct link between historic American policies and the Nazi plan to conquer Europe and irradicate the Jewish people.
“The Nazi regime got their fortification for their ideas from the United States, where we killed off the indigenous people,” Sandler said. “And they got their Nuremburg Laws from the United States’ Jim Crow laws. So this hatred of others is deep.”
The Virginia SOLs have included information about the Holocaust since 2009, when then-Gov. Tim Kaine signed a mandate for Holocaust Education into law. What was left out of that, however, was the funding for educator resources to teach it. The commission aims to fix that by expanding the overall scope of K-12 curriculum to cover antisemitism as a historic movement, Jewish history in world history and significantly more of the Holocaust and what led to it.
The report notes that the revised history and social studies SOL standards proposed on August 4 “substantially met” their recommendations. The document that those improvements were part of has since been scrapped, however, and is being replaced by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration.
An updated version of the standards proposal is expected in January, though it’s unclear what Holocaust-related curriculum will be included. Critics blasted Youngkin’s most recent proposal as a reductionist version of history that leaves out the stories and contributions of minority groups.
Advocates point to the importance of educating the next generation of voters, politicians and law enforcers in the mistakes of the past, so people in those positions are cognizant of what not to do going forward.
“Teenagers are going to be running the show before you know it, and if they don’t understand history – like George Santayana said, If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” said Baum. “So, it’s very important that students understand the world we live in, and you can’t really understand the world we live in unless you understand where you came from.”
Baum and Finley-Crosswhite are involved in the Holocaust Commission’s Elie Wiesel essay and arts competition and see firsthand how young minds can grow by exposure to challenging material.
“You can tell how much they’ve changed simply by thinking about the lessons, and learning about the people, and learning about the survivors and learning about the liberators who went over there when they were not much older than these kids and saw the worst humanity can do, and how it changed their lives,” Baum said.
Finley-Crosswhite points to the moral lessons in action versus inaction that are especially prescient in Holocaust education.
“I read this from the essays from these high schoolers and sometimes middle schoolers—that they have to be confronted with the idea that they must be courageous,” she said.
“If you don’t know anything about antisemitism, then you may not question the racism around you, or the prejudice against other groups that aren’t Jewish—African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, immigrant groups. But if you’re confronted with Holocaust education, maybe that causes you to think more broadly when anybody is discriminated against, anybody is being bullied, abused in any kind of way.”
Finley-Crosswhite runs a study-abroad program to Europe that includes visiting sites like Auschwitz, as part of ODU’s minor in the Holocaust and Genocide studies program. She says reactions vary, but the lessons college students take away from that trip stick with them for the rest of their lives. She recounted how one student, now a teacher in Virginia Beach, experienced part of their trip.
“I remember we were walking across a former internment camp… and what most impressed her was what was done to the children,” she said. “I mean, when you study the Holocaust, what you have to understand is that you’re exploring human behavior. You’re talking about humans that were ready to shoot and kill young children. That’s a powerful message.”
“I’m a human, I think of myself as a good person. These Germans, these collaborators must have as well, and yet they engaged in these atrocious behaviors so that they could kill even little babies.”
She recalled the reaction of another student, now a military fighter pilot, visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“It made him angry. He was mad, and I thought to myself ‘I want my American jet navy pilot to be mad at this kind of atrocity. That’s what I want to see.’”
She says it’s important for people in positions of power to know how that power has been misused in the past, noting that militaries and police departments around the world also send recruits to sites like Nazi concentration camps to learn about the history, in an effort to not repeat it.