At home and abroad, rising tensions over Israel’s Gaza incursion spark acts of hate

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Palestinian sympathizers demonstrate in Sweden. — Photo: Getty Image

Last month Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke asked for the public’s help in monitoring suspicious activity around religious sites. He had good reason.

“With the heightened tensions and military activity occurring in and around Israel and the Gaza strip, there is the potential that local agitators will seize upon the current climate to opportunistically attack religious sites, including synagogues, temples and mosques, and deface or vandalize them under the guise of legitimate protest,” Clarke wrote in a press release.

In Europe, and less frequently in the United States,  numerous such instances have occurred. Meanwhile, Arab World Fest returns to Milwaukee’s Summerfest Grounds on the weekend of Aug. 8–10, and the Jewish High Holidays, which routinely present heightened security challenges, begin on Sept. 24. This confluence of events raises concerns.

Adding to those concerns in Milwaukee is an unfortunate anniversary: On Aug. 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page fatally shot six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek. In other American cities, such attacks have been undertaken by racists who’ve confused Sikhs with Muslims, although there’s no evidence that’s what motivated Page. 

As WiG headed to press, Milwaukee Police Department spokesman Mark Stanmeyer said there have not been any reported crimes in the city related to the conflict in Gaza. But he said law enforcement authorities throughout the area remain vigilant.

“The Milwaukee Police Department, through its Southeastern Wisconsin Threat Analysis Center, works with federal partners to assess potential threats to special events,” Stanmeyer said via email. “I’m not aware of any planned increase in Milwaukee Police resources as a result of recent events.”

Vicious verbal attacks on both Jews and Muslims have spiked recently on local social media pages. “It’s the usual heartbreaking, hateful drivel” about Jews “running the media, controlling people, using power for deleterious ends, etc.,” said Elana Kahn-Oren, director of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council. “Thank goodness we’ve not experienced vandalism or physical attacks like other communities, including Chicago.”

In Chicago, anti-Semitic leaflets were left on cars in a North Side Jewish neighborhood on July 20. In Miami, a synagogue was vandalized with anti-Semitic slurs and cars owned by Jews have been egged. Vandals in Philadelphia spray-painted hate symbols on a local synagogue. 

In recent weeks, many Madison and Milwaukee-area Jewish congregations have held services and rallies to show solidarity with Israel. On July 27, a rally at Milwaukee’s Congregation Shalom drew 800 pro-Israel demonstrators and a group of about 200 counter protesters, who hurled anti-Semitic epithets at ralliers, according to the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. Protesters called the supporters of Israel “animals,” according to Kahn-Oren and others. They chanted, “Hey, Yid go home,” and, “Jews and Nazis are the same, the only difference is the name!”

Pro-Palestinian sympathizers have staged protests across the state as well, including in Appleton, Racine, Madison and Milwaukee. Participants have called on Israel to end its military incursion into Gaza, which has killed more than 1,000, including many children. Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian op-eds have flooded Wisconsin newspapers.

Like the local Jewish community, Milwaukee’s Arab community also have received taunts and insults, particularly as worshippers entered and exited area mosques during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended on July 28, said Othman Atta, executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee.

“We’ve had a few eggs thrown at us and people calling (by phone) and shouting profanities and so forth, but that’s been the extent of it so far,” Atta said. “There hasn’t been any kind of direct attempt to attack the mosques.”

Atta said the local Arab-American community, composed largely of people of Palestinian descent, maintains tight security around mosques and other Muslim gathering places. “We’re very careful about who has access to the center, especially during times when we have a lot of attendees,” he added.

Milwaukee’s Muslims and Jews

Muslims began to establish roots in Milwaukee during the 1950s, and today the community is about 15,000 strong, according to the most recent estimates. Wisconsin is home to 23 mosques and Islamic centers.

Suspicions toward Muslims remain strong in Wisconsin, just as they have across the nation since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Late in 2007, Milwaukee’s first Arab-American police officer sued the city on charges he was taunted and discriminated against due to anger over 9/11. Public backlash against the opening of an Islamic center in Sheboygan County in 2010 exemplified anti-Muslim sentiment. 

The Jewish community has a much longer history in Wisconsin, and several high-profile Jews have lived in the state. Among them was Golda Meir, a Ukrainian refugee who immigrated to Milwaukee, where she taught school before going on to become Israel’s fourth prime minister.

The Jewish Community Study of Greater Milwaukee 2011 found that the Jewish population of the area is about 30,000 people, including a large Russian-Jewish community on the city’s North Side. But due to growth in interfaith marriages and the backlash toward religion in general among young people, Wisconsin’s Jewish community is struggling to maintain its size and identity. Many people believe the community is shrinking.

In general, Jews and Muslims in America have been cautiously supportive of one another. As minority religious groups in a politically Christian nation, they have worked together on shared interests involving religious freedom, civil rights and immigration policy.

Relations between the two communities, however, have become increasingly strained due to the global rise of Islamic terrorism and Israel’s political turn to the hard right, which resulted in territorial aggression toward Palestinian lands and the apartheid-style treatment of Palestinians living in Israel. Interfaith programs in Wisconsin and elsewhere have become strained, according to those involved.


Around the nation and the world, the military campaign underway in Gaza has provoked a much stronger backlash than it has here in Wisconsin. In the United States, that backlash has primarily targeted Arab-Americans, while in Europe it has focused on Jews.

“The big backlash is not happening here, it’s happening in Europe, which we see every time there is trouble between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Anti-Semitism has been firmly entrenched for centuries in European societies. While many progressive Europeans oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on the grounds of social injustice, many others use it as cover for anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League released a survey this year that found 34 percent of eastern Europeans and 24 of western Europeans hold anti-Semitic views. 

People in the U.S. view Israel more favorably. In the post-9/11 world, the Jewish nation is a strategic military ally in a region that’s otherwise hostile to American interests. In addition, evangelical Christians believe the second coming of Jesus is dependent on Jewish control of the Holy Land — and evangelism is far more widely embraced by Americans than Europeans.

A CNN/ORC poll conducted between July 18 and 20 found 57 percent support among Americans for Israel’s actions in Gaza. 

Europeans “don’t have the same tradition of supporting Israel that we do,” Andrew Kohut, founding director of the Pew Research Center, told The New York Times. “That area of the world is closer to them, and they get more exposure to Arabs and Muslims, and are more open to the Palestinian point of view.”

Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe have been rising precipitously for the past two decades. Since the Gaza conflict began, scores of European Jews have been attacked, synagogues have been firebombed, Jewish businesses, homes and neighborhoods have been vandalized and numerous demonstrations have called for “Death to the Jews,” despite the fact that a large proportion of Jews, even Israeli Jews, condemn what is occurring in Gaza. Israeli Jews have staged several large protests in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square condemning the attack on Gaza, and dozens of the protesters have been arrested.

The anti-Semitic backlash over Gaza has been the worst in France, which, in addition to its anti-Semitic tradition, also has Europe’s largest population of Muslim and Arab immigrants. But a July 29 Newsweek cover story titled “Exodus: Why Europe’s Jews Are Fleeing Once Again” reported that even Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, recorded 60 anti-Semitic incidents from 2010 to 2012, including the bombing of the local Jewish community center.

Although Malmö’s mayor blamed the acts on Zionism rather than anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, the former U.S. special envoy for combating anti-Semitism, told Newsweek that the city exemplifies the “new anti-Semitism,” which uses anti-Zionism (opposition to Israel’s existence) as a disguise for hatred of Jews. (Rosenthal is currently president and CEO of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, but she was unavailable for comment during the week that WiG prepared this story.)

For many Jews, the escalating anti-Semitic attacks in Europe are reminiscent of the 1930s, when most of the Jews who failed to flee wound up in Nazi gas chambers. “At what point do the Jews of America and the Jews of Israel tell the Jews of Europe that it might be time to get out?” American-Jewish journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asks in the Newsweek article. 

Demystifying Islam

In America, it’s the Arab community that faces the greatest threat of a widespread backlash over Gaza. So far, violence toward Arabs hasn’t resulted in serious injuries or deaths.  But Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, described incidents such as “an  old guy getting pelted with eggs coming out of a mosque in New York” as violent attacks.

There’s certainly a large enough reservoir of hatred to fuel violence toward Muslims. Hooper and his organization regularly receive emails that make Nazi propaganda read like Hallmark cards in comparison. Hooper forwarded WiG an email he received in which the writer called for the slaughter of Muslim babies in the most brutal terms possible.

Hooper said that CAIR, which many consider a radical organization, encourages open houses at mosques and cultural events to demystify Islam and “decrease suspicion (caused by) lack of knowledge.”

Atta said that’s exactly what Arab World Fest aims to accomplish. “People go to partake in the food, customs and music,” he said. “The people who go there are pretty open-minded, and they’re there because they’re willing to learn. It’s a social time. 

“There’s a good mix of people that come in. The people that go there, they go and enjoy themselves. It’s not political or anything of that sort. It’s more entertainment in nature. There are cultural and historic dimensions, but most people go for the food and the marketplace.”

Security at the Summerfest grounds is technologically advanced and reliable, Atta adds, so no one should hesitate about attending Arab World Fest, despite what’s happening elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, Clarke hopes to deter small acts of hate-motivated vandalism that could lead to escalated violence.

“Nationwide, the ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ campaign has proven to be a simple and effective program to raise public awareness in helping to deter and report suspicious activity to local law enforcement authorities,” Clarke said in his press release. “Nowhere is this concept more applicable than in safeguarding our fellow citizens’ houses of assembly and worship.

“Any citizens observing suspicious activity in relation to these sites, and particularly activities occurring during off-worship times or under cover of darkness that may presage acts of vandalism, are asked to contact their local municipality’s law enforcement immediately.”
To report suspicious activity, call 414-278-4788. 

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