Local anti-Semitic incidents reach 20-year high

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Just days after the Milwaukee Jewish Federation reported a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents in southeast Wisconsin last year, a massive spree of vandalism in Madison included the spray-painting of property with anti-Semitic, Ku Klux Klan and Confederate imagery.

Thirty-nine acts of vandalism on Madison’s west side were reported to police during the Jewish Sabbath beginning after dark on Friday, Feb. 13, and continuing into Saturday, Feb. 14. Most of the incidents involved property damage such as smashed windshields and mailboxes, as well as spray-painted obscenities. But five were anti-Semitic or racist in nature, according to Dina Weinbach, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Madison.

A car belonging to federation president Jim Stein was vandalized during the rampage and an anti-Jewish slur was spray-painted on a garage door across the street from his home.

There also were swastikas painted on a garage door and a driveway in different neighborhoods. The letters KKK were spray-painted on the side of a house.

Attending the federation’s board meeting on Feb. 17, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval described a handful of the incidents as “hateful,” but said they do not necessarily qualify for hate-crime enhancements under Wisconsin law, according to Greg Steinberger, who attended the meeting. Steinberger is executive director of Hillel at the UW-Madison, which serves a community of 5,000 Jewish students. 

In May 2014, UW-Madison students rejected a resolution calling for the university to divest from Israeli companies. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a growing trend among far-left activists on campuses throughout the world, and it is becoming increasingly laced with anti-Semitism. Many proponents of the BDS movement perpetuate standard anti-Semitic myths, such as Jewish control of the media, banking and entertainment industries.

Steinberger was able to point to UW-Madison’s rejection of BDS to reassure concerned Jewish alumni and parents of Jewish students who called him after learning about the vandalism spree, he said. Many sought reassurance that Madison is a safe place for Jews. 

“I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ve always felt Wisconsin is a particularly welcoming and hospitable campus,” Steinberger said.

Weinbach said she also received calls following the vandalism from people who were fearful, but added that she “received a lot of calls from people outside the Jewish community to show their support and their disappointment that this could happen.

“If one group is targeted, everyone is affected, and we all have to stand together to condemn acts of hatred,” she said.

“The Madison and Milwaukee Jewish communities are working closely with law enforcement officials, as they investigate these crimes,” the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation said in a statement. “We are thankful for their diligence and professionalism.”

But, the statement continued, “Problems of bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism cannot, however, be solved solely by law enforcement. Solutions must take place at all levels of a community, including elected officials, media professionals, co-workers and neighbors. Hateful speech is often the precursor to vandalism, harassment and violence.”

The Jewish community in southeastern Wisconsin, like Jewish communities across the globe, has been on edge following the recent surge in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, especially in France. The Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s audit of anti-Semitic incidents in southeastern Wisconsin during 2014 shows that local fears are well-founded: There were twice as many verified incidents in 2014 than were reported in any single year in the last two decades. 

Experts say that such audits represent only the tip of the iceberg, as most incidents go unreported. The federation corroborates and reviews each incident before it’s officially recorded. The federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council works collaboratively with schools, law enforcement and national agencies to address the incidents as well as the underlying contributing conditions.

Among the most common expressions of anti-Semitism recorded in the report were a record number of swastikas on public and private property. One possible cause for the alarming increase is the exploitation of anger toward Israel over ongoing hostilities with Palestine.

“We must recognize that sometimes such criticism of the state of Israel — or activism against its legitimacy — is a cloak for age-old Jew hatred,” said JCRC director Elana Kahn-Oren in a statement.

In recent years, the JCRC has focused increasingly on anti-Semitic harassment and verbal expressions among middle and high school students, which often takes the form of jokes, pranks, teasing and bullying.

“Kids hear it form their parents and take it out on their classmates,” Kahn-Oren told WiG. “They don’t have the filter their parents do. We should educate Jewish teens to recognize anti-Semitism when they hear it, understand what it means, understand the role of speech in creating hateful environments and help (teens) develop a kind of a tool box of ways to respond to things in ways that don’t cost them all their social capital.”

After a recent anti-Semitic incident at a suburban Milwaukee school — an incident that wasn’t included in the audit — the JCRC brought in a young person from the Anti-Defense League to facilitate a program for teens. Kahn-Oren said her group sponsored a similar program last year.

“They talk about the pyramid of hate and that you start with speech and move up through vandalism and threats to discrimination,” she said. “It gets young people talking about what they hear and how they respond to it and how they could have responded to it. So much (anti-Semitism) comes in the form of jokes. So how can you sort of appropriately take things out of the conversation?”

Kahn-Oren says that peer pressure is often a very effective way of calling out a person who’s using hateful language. 

“Jews will always speak up about anti-Semitism, but what we really need is others to also denounce bigoted language — against anybody,” Kahn-Oren said. “To me that’s really the call to action from this audit. We need to create a culture where we have friends and allies who stand up for each other.”