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Vermont Rabbi On Anti-Semitic Attacks And The Cultural Moment

An Orthodox Jewish man stands in front of a residence in Monsey, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, following a stabbing late Saturday during a Hanukkah celebration.
Allyse Pulliam
/
Associated Press
An Orthodox Jewish man stands in front of a residence in Monsey, N.Y., on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, following a stabbing late Saturday during a Hanukkah celebration.

A string of recent anti-Semitic hate crimes, mostly in or around New York City and mostly directed at Orthodox Jews, has shaken the Jewish community across the country. Recently, an attacker broke into the home of a Hasidic rabbi during a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, and stabbed five people. One of the victims was a 71-year-old man who fell into a coma after the attack.

Meanwhile, a preliminary report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino shows anti-Semitic hate crimes reaching an 18-year high in the nation's three largest cities: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Rabbi Michael Cohen spoke to VPR's Mitch Wertlieb about anti-Semitism and how to respond to it. He's rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester and a visiting faculty member at Bennington College's Center for the Advancement of Public Action, where he teaches classes on conflict resolution.

Cohen first pointed out that anti-Semitic incidents have been taking place in Vermont as well, specifically referencing anti-Semitic flyers that were posted in St. Albans recently.

"This is the new norm that we live in today," Cohen said. "And unfortunately the events are not just taking place outside of Vermont, but as I spoke with friends and colleagues in the other Jewish communities here in Vermont, there's events that have been happening here — as recently as last week in St. Albans, but in over, you know, the last year or two, in Brattleboro and Middlebury and Woodstock and Burlington.

"And it needs to be addressed, and I appreciate this opportunity for us to talk about it because one of the major forces of pushback when these events happen is people speak out."

"It needs to be addressed, and I appreciate this opportunity for us to talk about it because one of the major forces of pushback when these events happen is people speak out." — Rabbi Michael Cohen

Cohen said that anti-Semitism can be understood as a symptom of social and cultural upheaval.

"Jonathan Sarna, the professor at Brandeis, quoted the Israeli historian Shulamit Volkov recently that says that anti-Semitism can be understood as a 'cultural code' — that when things are going bad in society, it's often the Jews that bear the brunt of it, almost like the canary in the coal mine," Cohen said. "And Sarna goes on to say that America 'is experiencing a social and cultural crisis' now, and 'anti-Semitism is one of its symptoms.'"

That said, Cohen said that there is now a broad cultural opposition to anti-Semitism that didn't necessarily exist in past historical eras.

"Father Coughlin had followers on radio with his virulent anti-Semitic rants," Cohen said. "Here I am on a radio station talking out against it. There's a pushback that we didn't see in the 1930s when anti-Semitism was really reaching a very, very virulent stage in its existence."

Cohen also said that civil discourse between people holding very different opinions needs to be encouraged going forward in order to improve the tone of the public dialogue.

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