Attacks hit close to home for local Jewish community

By: William Tyler Marchman | contributing writer

In Pittsburgh last October, a gunman motivated by anti-Semitism opened fire in a synagogue and killed 11 members. The attack at place of worship struck at the heart of Jewish communities across the nation, including here in Mobile, home to Alabama’s oldest Jewish community.  

For Rabbi Steven Silberman of Ahavas Chesed Synagogue in Mobile, the attack 1,000 miles away felt close to home.

“I’m the rabbi of a synagogue,” Silberman said. “People come to the synagogue every Sabbath morning for services, and it was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying.”

The attack was an extreme example of a disturbing trend. According to a report from the Anti-Defamation League, there has been a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents since 2017.  These have included bomb threats, assaults, vandalism and anti-Semitic posters.

Dr. David Meola, director of  Jewish and Holocaust Studies at the University of South Alabama, said the Pittsburgh attack had a clear motive and target.

“The perpetrator did not care whether we are Reformed or Orthodox, Sephardic or Ashkenazic, very religious or just culturally Jewish,” Meola said. “They attacked us because we are Jews and because Jews can be found at a synagogue.”

One reaction to anti-Semitic violence aimed at the Jewish community has been a call for precautions and security outside of synagogues, a provision already enacted in some countries.

In Germany, for example, the burning of synagogues and other anti-Semitic incidents prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel to institute 24-hour police security at the country’s synagogues.

In the last century, Germany was at the center of a long history of anti-Semitism and genocide against Jews, with U.S. soldiers liberating death camps at the close of World War II. But now, more than 70 years later, some see the lessons of history as forgotten. Anti-Semitism is being unleashed on U.S. soil,  with a rise in expressions of white supremacy.

Considering this trend, Meola said the U.S. may need to take the kind of anti-terrorism action being taken elsewhere in the world.

“It seems as though it’s going to be a necessity going forward because these people and this bankrupt ideology, they don’t care,” he said. “All they care is that they want to kill and harm Jews. And the one place they can be assured to find many Jews congregating is at a place like a synagogue or at the Temple.”

Here in Mobile, the community dates back two centuries, with a steady population of about 1,200 to 1,500 Jewish residents, including families who have owned longtime businesses up and down Dauphin Street.

The community settled in the city as early as the 1820s, establishing itself by creating a congregation and becoming part of the city, including serving in the military from the Civil War on.  

Where some argue that a show of force is needed to protect against anti-Semitic violence, others in believe in a simpler approach.

South student Zack Roman sees the basic problem as ignorance. If outsiders to the community would actually talk to Jewish people, he argues, their perspectives might change.

“If you hear something that’s ridiculous or outlandish about Jews– like on the internet– then seek one out,” he said. “Just find a Jewish person and don’t be afraid to talk to them cause they’re not evil people and they don’t deserve that fear, that hatred.”  

Most people, Roman said, form ideas about Jews from movies, which often portray stereotypes. Hate groups use modern internet means to spread old falsehoods about Jewish people, for example, that Jews control the media or the monetary systems.

Even though these claims are fake, people accept them without proof,  Roman said, and form irrational beliefs.

In this climate, putting an end to anti-Semitic violence could entail increased security. But security also comes from more contact and informed conversations, some argue, in the hope that understanding replaces the hate motivating hate crimes.

(Contributing editor Akievia McFarland assisted in this report.)