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News / Northwest

Seattle-area Jews feel on edge amid sharp rise in antisemitism

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: November 13, 2023, 6:02am
2 Photos
A protester holds a &ldquo;Cease Fire Now&rdquo; sign during a Jewish Voice for Peace rally that shut down the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building while demanding that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in Seattle.
A protester holds a “Cease Fire Now” sign during a Jewish Voice for Peace rally that shut down the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building while demanding that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE —Two weeks into Israel’s war with Hamas, a Seattle synagogue received a message through its website that began with a wish for “disgusting Jews” to “burn to death.”

Meanwhile, threatening graffiti and flyers proliferated around Capitol Hill and other local neighborhoods — some taking aim at Israel but others targeting all Jews, with Stars of David crossed out or slogans like: “It’s Jews against you.”

In one Western Washington school, classmates called a Jewish 12-year-old a “terrorist.” Students at another school posted pictures of themselves on social media giving a Nazi salute with the caption “these Jewish kids better watch themselves on Halloween.”

Such antisemitism, reported to local Jewish organizations, reflects the alarming speed with which some have made sweeping generalizations about Jews — casting them on one “side” of a polarizing conflict, no matter how much or little they identify with Israel or how they feel about that country’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault.

In fact, views vary widely and vociferously, and many Jews are distressed by the scale of both the 1,400 Israeli lives lost in a single day and the over 10,000 Palestinians killed so far in Gaza, according to officials there.

“If I had to sum it up, what I want the public to understand is that you can be pro-Israel, and you can be pro-Palestinian, and you can be against Hamas all at the same time,” said Dee Simon, CEO of Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity.

A cacophony of emotions makes this a seismic moment for many Jews, not just because of what’s happening overseas but also because of how the local reaction relates to their identities and relationships with colleagues, classmates and neighbors.

Among the feelings: grief. Many have friends and family in Israel or at least know someone who knows someone. “I think most people don’t understand how close to home this hits,” said Maxima Patashnik, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s public affairs director.

Add to that anguish over widespread destruction and civilian deaths in Gaza. “Does that absolutely break my heart? Yes, it does,” Patashnik said.

Fear, too, is running high.

Antisemitism, already at its highest point in decades and largely driven by white nationalism, has risen markedly here and nationwide, according to law enforcement and the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL, swamped with bias reports, as of early last week verified 27 antisemitic incidents in Washington between Oct. 7 and Oct. 31, compared with two in all of October last year.

The ADL said it includes anti-Israel acts and sentiments in its count only if there are additional factors, such as explicitly supporting Hamas or targeting Jewish individuals and organizations. One incident, for example, concerns the stealing of an Israeli flag from an Eastside Jewish organization.

There’s also been an uptick in anti-Muslim incidents, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Washington office, which cites hate speech and alleged discrimination, including a report from a woman fired after she complained about a colleague asking whether she has connections to Hamas.

“The one universal theme that I’m hearing from my congregants is that they are feeling unsafe,” whether physically or emotionally, said Senior Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick of Seattle’s Temple Beth Am. Some have suddenly found themselves on alert, even hypervigilant. Should they consent to an interview, let their children wear Star of David necklaces, go to synagogue?

In turn, Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues have stepped up security, doubling or tripling the expense, according to Simon of the Holocaust Center.

“I’m not used to thinking of my identity as a Jew as something that makes me a target,” Seattle high school teacher Christina Dahms said.

A resolve not to be torn apart

Many Jews consider a homeland essential for self-determination and safety after centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust.

That near annihilation of the Jewish people haunts perceptions of the Hamas attack and the subsequent spike in antisemitism. “It’s especially heightened with children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who understand the consequences of not having a place for Jews to go,” Simon said.

Among those survivors is Henry Friedman, a 95-year-old Seattle-area resident who as a teenager hid for 18 months in a barn after Nazis occupied his town in Poland (now in Ukraine). He described the war as “another catastrophe for the Jewish people.”

Some Jews now see Hamas as an existential threat, strengthening their determination to stand with Israel, even if it means a prolonged and bloody war.

Others have called for a cease-fire and condemned Israel’s overpowering aggression in Gaza, including at demonstrations in Seattle and around the country organized by activist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.

Jewish criticism of Israel’s right-wing government and its treatment of Palestinians long precedes the war, even among those who feel deeply connected to the country. In a 2020 Pew Research Center poll of U.S. Jews, more than half said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done a fair or poor job, and just one-third said they believed the Israeli government was making a sincere effort toward peace with Palestinians.

The ratings were even more dismal among younger Jews, and the war has intensified the depth of feeling.

Zlotnick, noting the generational shift, resolved during a recent service to not let Hamas “tear apart this community.” She related that at a potluck afterward: “I had one parent say to me that they and their child have decided they can’t talk about it anymore because they’re on such different sides of the issue.”

Other Seattle-area Jews speak of bewilderment, hurt and anger at those who seem to have deserted them during a time of pain.

Senior Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, which has Seattle and Bellevue campuses, said Jews who have long worked with progressive groups have had a “bit of a rude awakening” due to allies’ silence or attempts to justify the Hamas attack.

Disturbing slogans and images

Soon after the Oct. 7 assault, University of Washington student Nadav Ganon saw an online invitation to a protest with a graphic dominated by a paraglider. A national self-described Palestine solidarity student group circulated the image, which alludes to Hamas’ aerial incursion into Israel and is one of several graphics and slogans appearing locally that seem to celebrate, not just justify, the massacre and simultaneous kidnapping of more than 240 people.

“That was very hard and frightening,” said Ganon, an Israeli who arrived on campus just a month ago to get a doctorate in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. His family back home was safe, but he had lost friends, including an undergraduate Arabic studies classmate.

Ganon, who in Israel belonged to a group bringing young Jews and Palestinians together, checked out the protest and heard the oft-used rallying call for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea.” Israel, along with the West Bank and Gaza, is situated between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

“What does that mean?” Ganon asked. It appears to mean different things to different people, with some saying it means equal rights and freedom of movement throughout the area. Others read it as calling for the eradication of Israel. To Ganon, it implies “the displacement of 7 million Jews.”

Ganon also heard calls for an “intifada,” the term used for previous Palestinian uprisings in Gaza and the West Bank. He uneasily considered what protesters had in mind. “Maybe it means physically hurting people, Jews, Israelis, here on campus,” he said.

While some Jews have participated in pro-Palestinian protests at UW and elsewhere, others also feel intimidated, including at private Whitman College in Walla Walla, according to a staff email sent by an associate dean and a handful of other faculty members. Jewish students have reported panic attacks and an inability to sleep or concentrate. Some are considering taking leaves of absence, and at least one student moved off campus.

In this supercharged environment, mirrored at large rallies in downtown Seattle, Jews throughout Western Washington nervously circulate stories of recently vandalized Jewish organizations and businesses, unsure what’s motivated by antisemitism and what isn’t.

Further rattling are events elsewhere: an Australian rally where people chanted “gas the Jews,” a mob storming a Russian airport tarmac looking for passengers from Tel Aviv and the arrest of a Cornell University student accused of threatening to kill Jews on campus.

While threats against Jews seem to stem mainly from others’ perceptions that they’re pro-Israel, sympathy for Palestinians can also provoke ire.

Smadar Ben-Natan, a UW faculty member and human rights lawyer who belongs to a group promoting equal rights in academia for Palestinians and others in her home country of Israel, said she recently received a menacing email calling her a “traitor.” The message didn’t explain why, other than referring to her as a “peace activist.”

Ben-Natan said that while processing reports from shocked family, friends and colleagues back home, both Jewish and Arab, she briefly addressed the war in her human rights law class. She brought out maps of the region and provided some historical perspective.

Israel was established through Jewish immigration to then-Palestine, many fleeing persecution, she told students. It was not an empty country; Palestinians lived there, she added. She also noted the U.N.’s half-realized 1947 resolution, on the heels of the Holocaust, calling for both Jewish and Palestinian states, as well as ongoing conflict that escalated after peace talks broke down in 2000.

In longer conversations during office hours, Ben-Natan has found students — some Jewish and some likely not; she doesn’t ask — confused and overwhelmed by inflammatory, graphic and sometimes unverified social media posts.

Because students are also having a difficult time talking to classmates amid the tension, she’s speaking with a campus organization about promoting dialogue among people from different affected communities.

Dahms, the high school teacher, has also grappled with how to help students understand the war without being triggered herself or having students heatedly confront each other. She advises a mock U.N. club that decided to turn its monthly deliberations to the conflict.

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Dahms modified the club’s format, having students discuss a given country’s position rather than adopt it as their own. She also asked the Holocaust Center’s education director, who works with teachers throughout the state, to attend the culminating event.

“I don’t feel like I can do this by myself,” she said.

To be sure, many mainstream leaders, including President Joe Biden and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, forcefully condemned the Hamas assault. But as casualties mount in Gaza, some local Jews are finding fewer people sympathetic to Israel.

“It feels very isolating,” said Debra Glazer, a North Seattle physical therapist who’s Jewish and years ago went to summer camp with the father of a 23-year-old kidnapped last month by Hamas.

Her son, Jacob, an 18-year-old high school senior who went to Israel last summer for a sports competition, said he feels no tension at school but is disheartened to hear people elsewhere say they hate Israel and despise the U.S. for supporting its ally.

His 11-year-old sister has also picked up on hate in the air. “Mommy,” the girl recently asked, according to her mother, “why do so many people hate me because I’m Jewish?”

Refusing to be cowed

As the Jewish sabbath began on a Friday night in late October, Weiner presided over a service at Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s Bellevue campus.

“We will not be cowed into changing how we approach our faith,” the rabbi said as he readied for the Sabbath, also known as Shabbat.

The Bellevue building has a woodsy, artistic feel — smaller and more modern than the temple’s landmark Capitol Hill structure. A wall of windows overlooks trees, framing glass panels with Hebrew lettering, a painted cabinet holding scrolls of Hebrew scripture called the Torah and a lantern representing an eternal light.

While the reform congregation is one of the biggest in the area, with 5,000 members, Bellevue service attendance is still recovering after sharply falling with the onset of COVID-19. A couple dozen people came on this night, including an older woman taking in a service for the first time since the war began; a UW staffer feeling anti-Jewish hostility on campus and the need for community; and a woman who feels safe volunteering at the Holocaust Center but also a pressing need to review evacuation procedures.

Congregants somberly talked about the war as they gathered in the lobby. They performed the Shabbat rituals of lighting candles and drinking little cups of “wine,” in this case nonalcoholic, then entered the sanctuary.

After singing folk-rock liturgical Hebrew songs with a guitar strapped around him, Weiner led prayers and addressed congregants, alluding continually to the troubled times of the moment.

He noted the next day would be the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. At a Temple De Hirsch Sinai vigil in Seattle, “we had about 2,000 in the synagogue and another 2,500 people on the streets surrounding the synagogue from all walks of life,” Weiner recalled. He said he wishes for such support now but believes it’s lacking because the current crisis involves Israel, not just American antisemitism.

He talked about facing fears through faith and told a story about a mythical creature created from clay to protect the Jewish people against those out to kill them. This “golem” succeeded in its protection, but it didn’t stop there. “The golem eventually spins out of control,” Weiner said, causing destruction and harm.

The story was meant as a kind of Rorschach test, open to interpretation, he said afterward. He didn’t lay out implications for the war.

But the rabbi offered one thought: “This is the first time in our lives as Jews that we’ve had the power to defend ourselves,” he said, and that power, while good, needs to be used “thoughtfully and judiciously.”